Nathan Dunn reflects on the economic accessibility of the festival
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The first time I attended NSDF, I didn’t pay a penny to be there – but it was an experience you couldn’t put a price on. And if you did, I wouldn’t be able to afford it.
This is my third consecutive year attending the festival and my first year being a regular contributor as part of the Noises Off team. My first visit was made possible by my university lecturer funding the experience and last year I could just about afford a day ticket. We subverted any other expenditure by commuting to Leicester from a friend’s house in Birmingham. This year, Guest Director James Phillips’ decision to reduce ticket prices and raise the number of bursaries to 100 has enabled my full attendance, for which I am extremely grateful.
My background is typical in many ways. As a working-class Yorkshire lad I spent most of my time growing up trying to shrug off the unimpressed discouragement that burdened being openly interested in the arts. Naturally, this made me reluctantly quiet on the subject, and understandably my parents were confused when I insisted I wanted to study drama at university. I had options, but again there were some restrictions. I couldn’t afford drama school, I couldn’t afford to study in the capital and I definitely needed to get a job too. Like many, those first two things are still out of reach for me, but that’s normal. There are loads of people who can’t afford those things – there are loads of people who come from similar backgrounds to me. So why then, when I first came to NSDF, could I not find anyone of said description anywhere?
Myself and my uni peers rolled into Hull for NSDF ‘17 with all the excitement of kids at Christmas. If you happened to attend that year, you may have noted an echoing cackle round the campus of Merseyside twang littered with patters of Mancunian, Sheffield and Northern Irish – that was us. You might have been slightly disturbed by this cacophony of accents, but that’s okay – likewise we were thrown off by everyone else’s regional inflections (or specifically, their lack of).
I’ve always known I belonged to a class, but NSDF was the first time I ever felt working-class, and it aroused a lot of unconscious insecurity about my status. It was never a case of judging other people or possessing some resentment towards their received pronunciation and presumed economic prosperity, but it quickly became a case of judging myself. People sounded more eloquent here, so they must be more intelligent than me – people referenced artists and shows they saw on the West End or in other places I couldn’t afford to go, so they must have a better grasp on theatre than me – people could afford to be here and they paid for it with their own money, so they have more right to be here than me. Fortunately, these doubts didn’t last too long, but all traces of working-class familiarity persistently evaded me. It didn’t make sense. So I did what anyone would do – I put out an advert.
I thought I’d take this opportunity in our first edition of Noff to shed some light on the importance of having a National Student Drama Festival that is economically accessible and inclusive for all young theatre-makers in the country. The key word is National. If ticket prices block access for those suffering from restrictive financial freedom, then we all miss out, the festival loses its integrity as a national platform due to its imbalanced representation and there will be discussions not had and work not seen. Bursaries are a step in the right direction. In fact, this year has been notably successful as the designated allocation of bursaries was exceeded: a grand total of 105 tickets were given out. That means on top of there being 105 extra people at the festival who likely wouldn’t be here otherwise, at the time of writing (10/04/19), no one who made themselves and their situation known to the NSDF was denied attendance on financial grounds.
That’s an amazing start – but it isn’t the final piece to the puzzle.
Kicking off the festival on a positive note in recognising there will be attendees present who under previous circumstances would not have been is great. It’s a successful pre-drinks, but when this festival’s greatest gatekeeper is the cost to get in we can’t pretend that just because there’s people on the dancefloor that there’s no one at home. Travel, accommodation and living costs all play a huge part in the total cost, and there’s also the selection fee young companies have to pay just to be considered. For most, getting a show off the ground is an economic strain in and of itself. All of this is concerning, but not damning. Concern is care, and in caring about these issues we are already on the right track to diminishing their negative impact. It also begs wider questions – should people even pay to attend the festival in the first place? If not, how could we then ensure the festival survives? Is it all really that important?
This festival promises to be rife with electric discussion. From discussing the talent on and off-stage to socio-political debates to chatting nonsense over a few bevs at the bar, every word will shape our experience. Here’s to hoping we all leave this festival enriched and enthused, and to hoping every single one of us with our collective presence at this festival will raise the bar for the next one.
So, with all that said, let’s get this party started – and let’s make it a good one.