In my first year as an undergraduate, I attended a playwriting workshop where the speaker’s opening question was, quite simply: “What is theatre?”. We found ourselves burrowing into an increasingly existential debate about what is and isn’t theatre, what theatre must have and what it usually has, and how far one could run with an idea and still be able to call it ‘theatre’ at all. I am still particularly haunted by one person’s question, posed innocently enough at the time: “If you don’t have an audience, is it still theatre?”. Less than a year after that, of course, the world shut down and theatres found themselves audience-less.
The pandemic necessitated a complete overhaul of how contemporary theatre works, not just in how it is created but how it is received by audiences. It was impossible to be in a rehearsal room together, but suddenly there was more theatre to watch at home than ever before. Organisations like the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe began putting recordings of their most successful productions online for free; one of my fondest memories of the pandemic (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is of attending a weekly play-watching group started by some Durham University staff and students on Zoom. We had participants who lived and breathed for theatre, but also many who had no prior interest in drama until then, and everybody took something away from the experience.
‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage,’ wrote Peter Brook in his seminal theatrical text, The Empty Space (1968). When theatre was suddenly forced to occupy a less-than-empty space – the liminal, non-space that is the internet – our definition of ‘a bare stage’ became broader than ever before. The pandemic marked the first time I was able to attend NSDF, when it moved online in 2020; it wasn’t the experience I had necessarily hoped for, confined as I was to my childhood bedroom, but I was glad the festival was able to go ahead anyway.
This year, however, NSDF is using its most diverse set of stages ever: in a change from its usual week-long residency at the Curve Theatre, the festival is going ‘on tour’ to Leicester, Manchester, London and Derby, as well as continuing with online events. This ‘Big Reset’ was partly borne out of the cost-of-living crisis, and marks an attempt to ‘create the festival that our young artists need’.
Theatre’s accessibility is defined by the physical space that it occupies, both geographically and on a smaller, more immediate scale. I grew up in a sequence of rural areas – so surrounded by fields that you had to get in the car even to go to the supermarket – so trips to the theatre always came with a long drive or train journey. I have always been very grateful for live streamed theatre, which made seeing West End shows as simple as parking in my local cinema and buying a ten-pound ticket, but there is something so immediate and special about live performances that I don’t begrudge a long journey to get to them. Combined with attending university in the north-east of England, it has made me value the importance of a truly national theatrical landscape in this country. That includes digital and recorded theatre, but also high-quality touring productions, and regional organisations receiving the support and funding to produce work for (and even about) their own locality. London may be rich with culture, but it charges a high price that not everyone can afford, and the centrality of the capital as a venue also impacts the stories that are told there. If regional creatives and spaces are marginalised, then so are regional experiences and narratives.
The irony is that creating accessible theatre is a privilege: wealthy theatres and companies may have access to professional filming equipment and technical staff members in order to create live streamed or recorded performances, and even turning historic venues into accessible spaces that anyone can physically enter is an expensive business. Even during the pandemic, it was most famously the National Theatre that was able to continue with its upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet, transforming the show into an intimate film starring Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley. This was available for anyone with a device to watch, but came during a time when certain less prominent venues had to close forever, and emerging creatives were limited to the questionable quality of whatever recording equipment they had to hand.
There was a lot of talk a few years ago about a ‘cultural reset’: that performance art would wake up from its pandemic-induced sleep as something completely new. Digital theatre has been a very real and ongoing legacy of that time but, for the most part, energy has gone into rebuilding our creative landscape as it used to be. For this reason, whether it succeeds or not, NSDF’s ‘Big Reset’ marks a serious attempt to see if we can reshape the theatre industry in any way. Perhaps, then, as the National Student Drama Festival takes the first part of its name literally, we will see what happens when as many people as possible are given an empty space in which to create.