Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling:
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
A lot of people take issue with the fact that NSDF has awards. It makes it into a competition. It makes people feel bad if they don't win. It suggests there is a "best" and in turn a lot who are lumped as "not quite good enough".
But the awards are important. For the winners, they offer contacts, space and new platforms for their work. They can also make a big difference on a CV or in a job interview, not to mention it's just nice to know your work is valued. There was a general consensus, from those I spoke to throughout the week, that the presentation of the ceremony should be different this year. It doesn't need the pomp and ceremony it's been given in the past. (Maybe we should just give the Festgoers’ Award at the ceremony, someone suggested, and give the rest out at the bar quietly afterwards. Maybe they should be posted out.)
The three judges at this year's festival have been generous with their time and support. Throughout the week they have been engaged and engaging, keen to discuss the shows, the festival and the wider industry. But their role should not exempt them from criticism.
The ceremony naturally feels like a culmination of the week’s hard work, but on Friday night, it felt like an opportunity had been missed. The presentation was rushed, names were said wrong multiple times and the shows were called up at such speed- I was live tweeting and could barely keep up- that they hardly had a sentence said about them. I want to suggest what the evening could have been.
I've written before about Steph Street's hosting of the awards ceremony two years ago when she presented with her child on her hip. She spoke eloquently and passionately about being a positive demonstration of working motherhood. In the same ceremony James Phillips spoke about violence across the seas that had been happening at the same time we’d all been performing at partying. It broke the bubble. The judges took care to mention and praise the work of young female directors, and of writers who were tackling difficult, political topics. That night, it wasn't so much about who won the awards, but rather who was discussed and celebrated, and the way in which that was done. There was a pervading sense of appreciation, support and encouragement. The whole ceremony was empowering, a political call to action.
That ceremony felt like it mattered. This time round, it did not.
This festival is not a collection of nice plays done well. It is a platform to challenge and build, for creativity and bold ideas. It is a space to lead and alter the conversation around what student theatre is and can be. Perhaps I am too ambitious in what I believe this festival can do, but that's how I see its power and potential, and I believe these awards should reflect this. There were several shows at this year's festival which challenged the audiences, and while the choice of awards is up to the judges, the way last night's awards were allocated, and the way some shows were largely or entirely avoided throughout the evening, it gave the impression that risk is not a desired trait of shows at NSDF.
I'm thinking of two shows in particular which dominated much of the conversation of the week.
Sam Ross' can't stop can't stop, exploring his experience of OCD, will unquestionably alter the way the festival approaches trigger warnings and open door policies from now on. His one-man show has single-handedly changed the way the festival operates.
Stevie Thomas’ 1001010, tackling the topic of gender binaries was another one-person performance that had a heavy impact. Thomas came up to Leicester by themself and put their very personal story on a stage. Their show opened up vital spaces to talk about gender and brought non-binary gender into the spotlight of the week.
These plays should not simply be lauded because they talk about difficult issues, and I understand why a judge may not have put them in the running for best playwriting award. But both Ross and Thomas took ambitious personal and artistic risks and it feels disingenuous not to have specifically unpicked and congratulated their work. The awards ceremony should be a celebration of the week as a whole, not just the few people who go away with a certificate.
It's also worth noting that the awards were presented the day before the trans day of visibility. Why not take a minute to talk about the boldness of Thomas’ performance, and the bravery of coming by themself? Why not talk about how important it has been for this festival? Why not talk about how much we need to be allies? If you have a platform and a receptive audience, why not make the most of it?
The recognition of artistic ability also felt incredibly safe. To pick one example, the fact that Nat Norland's overwhelmingly intelligent sound design for Speed Death of the Radiant Child didn't even get a mention in the evening is bewildering. Regardless of whether you loved or hated the show as a whole, Norland's design demonstrated a level of skill for sound design and mixing that is very, very, very rarely- basically never- seen at a student level. I wanted the judges to recognise the details like this and congratulate the technicians behind them, regardless of whether they gave them an award or not.
I'm sure the judges recognised the animosity towards the ceremony and intended to do something positive by making them more relaxed and less of a big deal. But in practice they ended up rushing through names without much explanation or celebration, slightly diminishing both recipients of the awards and those who weren't mentioned at all.
The way the awards are structured, challenging and innovative artists miss out. We need to think more creatively about how we recognise excellence. These ceremonies shouldn't mollycoddle any show by making up new awards, but regardless of who the winners are, it should be a standard that judges should work harder to recognise a broader scale of success.
I dislike the awards ceremony, but if you're going to do it - like with everything at this festival - it deserves to be done with care.
@noffmag // email@example.com