In my two years at University, I have seen countless plays, musicals, student written pieces and theatre showcases. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been downright ugly. All have been driven completely and utterly by students. Students taking time out of their lives to create something out of a joy, interest, and love for theatre.
When first entering the realm of university theatre, I had pretty broad expectations. I mean it was student theatre: my brain immediately thought of people pretending to be trees for hours on end and sitting around debating whether Shakespeare was actually gay. I thought it would be an opportunity to test out things I liked, see whether directing was for me, what worked in a rehearsal space, what didn’t. Have a bit of fun. Because what we stood to lose was virtually miniscule.
But that is not where I found myself. Don’t get me wrong, it is a lot of fun. Student Theatre is single-handedly one of the best things I have done in my time at university, but what shocked me was how seriously it is taken. Not only seriously, but how conforming the productions are, aiming at replicating what is happening in professional theatres instead of creating something new. In my experience, students seem to be succumbing to cultural and societal expectations to produce a piece of theatre which is as close to industry standards as they can possibly get. Time and time again, I see a production which, although fabulous, is a complete replica of the original. They’ve seen a show thought ‘OOO that was amazing, I want to do that!’ and, well, done it. I fell into this trap myself with the first show I directed at university. And, although it was successful, once the performances were over I was left with a profound feeling of: What was the point? It might have been West End worthy but, well, it wasn’t on the West End, nor would it ever be. How seriously theatre is taken at university seems to breed this environment where students feel they have to replicate original shows. There is a pressure that the show must be brilliant, and the only way students seem to believe this is possible is by making a knock off of something which is proven to be successful.
You might ask well, what’s the problem? It’s fun, it’s a creative outlet, it gives people an opportunity to act, dance, sing and express themselves. Why does it need to be different? And this is true. However, if students already feel the need to produce something professional that adheres to the wider theatre industry they see in front of them, what does that say for the future of theatre? If when, in most cases, a space to perform, performance rights, actors, costume, set, tech and rehearsal space are all offered for free and the students still don’t feel able to try something random, weird, or challenging, when are they ever? When this generation try to break into the theatre industry, are we ever going to see anything new? Or are we going to see the same regurgitated theatre that thinks doing Hamlet in the round is revolutionary or that inclusivity is a box that can be checked by featuring a woman, a person of colour and a non-binary person in the cast?
But then perhaps this is where the problem stems from. How inaccessible the theatre industry feels to students. I know that every single one of my theatre friends has no idea how to get paid professional work in theatre industry. And if the world of professional theatre seems inaccessible, what are you to do but make your amateur theatre as professional as possible? In the hope of impressing some imaginary Theatre God who will open the golden door to the industry with his glittering key after seeing just how talented you are.
I recently saw a piece of theatre at university which a friend of mine seriously disliked. Afterwards, over a pint, they broke down several bizarre decisions that the show had made which utterly did not work. I agreed, they hadn’t worked, but the show still stood out for me in the myriad of theatre I had seen. Because the team behind it had made bold, risky decisions, they had done something different. I’d left the theatre feeling engaged, stimulated, and fuelled. I’d rather hate a piece of theatre than be bored by it. I’d rather a theatre maker made a loud, radical decision than none at all.
Student theatre is a space to make mistakes, to hang people from ceilings and have a devil run laps around the theatre, eat a whole block of feta on stage or slaughter an army of teddy bears. It is an opportunity to look at what the industry is doing and question it. To ask why that works. Why something is always done a certain way. Not to recreate it within an inch of its life. It is a chance to tear up the rule book. To make mistakes. To make bold, loud choices. Even if they’re bad ones. Most of the time they will be bad ones. But this is how things change and grow. How the industry becomes different and moves forward into a realm more representative of the eclectic progressive life the younger generation are trying to construct for themselves. By striving for change. By doing something new. A ‘student’ by its very definition is a person who is engaged in learning and so I believe we need to start creating theatre which is helping us to learn. Helping us to grow. True Student Theatre.