Lucy Thompson tries to settle the debate about whether NSDF is looking for old plays or new writing, once and for all
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This festival, of the 12 plays being staged at NSDF, seven are devised or original writing and five are published plays (or adaptations of published works, like Tanya). Last year this ratio was 10 to six, and in 2017, of NSDF’s 14 shows, 11 were new content and three were performances of published plays.
The online archives only go back to 2013 (when four pieces of new writing were selected, and seven existing works) but NSDF has been running since 1956. It would be interesting to know what kind of performances have been staged in the last sixty years. Without more information I can’t ask the question I really want to: is this move toward new writing a trend? And is it a trend that’s worth reading into?
The play selection each year raises (and suggests answers to) questions about what NSDF is supposed to look like – and by extension, what NSDF wants from itself. The mission statement is straightforward: “to empower and inspire young talent and ambition, to teach skills, to help launch careers and build the audience of tomorrow”. Why are we here? Individually, we’re here to learn, to network, to improve, and to challenge ourselves in our theatre practice. Collectively, we prove that student theatre should not be a stigma in the arts – we’re not just the audience but the professionals of tomorrow (bold claim, but we ought to back ourselves). The play selection reflects NSDF’s understanding of what constitutes young talent.
If I were to suggest a narrative for the changing choices, it would be this: when NSDF was first established way back when, the focus was on bringing new blood and new life into the British theatre scene. But ‘new’ is relative. What challenges, or what counts as ambitious theatre in the 1950s, is well-worn ground for us (Albee’s behemoth Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is now accepted as a solid classic but drew ire and scandal in 1962). And so, maintaining this ethos, NSDF changes with the times. At NDSF ‘70 anti-establishment feelings took hold, and students demanded that the following year there should be no prizes, and exclusively original plays. Although this idea was short-lived, it shows NSDF has a long history of keeping up with and pushing for new ideas. As far back as I can tell, this principle has remained. In 2001 then-Festival Director Nick Stimson noted, “We are seeing fewer and fewer classics…Students want to invent their own productions and that can be dangerous, but I want dangerous things to happen.”
Now, in 2019, it’s interesting to see the mixture of new or devised and published works, especially as one show this year (BARRY: a work in progress) is, would you believe, a work-in-progress rather than a fully-conceived production. The image of NSDF is evolving, but in doing so it remains faithful to one idea: we are trying to make exciting theatre.
Curiously, despite NSDF’s legacy of “dangerous” theatre (thank you, Nick Stimson) many critics and journalists seem compelled to legitimise the student drama festival by referring to famous or respected alumni. Harold Pinter broke out from NSDF, they say. Ruth Wilson, Stephen Fry, and Nick Clegg (although that’s a bit of a rogue one) did NSDF. Is this to prove that NSDF works, if it successfully springboards talent into mainstream theatre? I’m not saying this is bad, if it’s true. I’m not saying young theatre is only valid if it’s fringe, or that it’s less worthwhile to work on mainstream or canonical plays. What I am asking is: what does NSDF want?
It’s an answer that changes year on year, but doesn’t change at all. This year, it seems NSDF wants to see how we take plays (existing ones, adaptations, ones still in progress) and make them our own. In 2017, NSDF seemed to want to start a dialogue around original writing. Consistently, NSDF wants to maintain its heritage – the ethos of the new, of challenging ideas, of a creative community.
NSDF is supposed to look like what we want it to. What we think it’s important to be experimenting with, discussing, and celebrating.