There was a Noises Off front cover from about three years ago that I can clearly recall. On it were listed all the universities who weren’t being presenting shows at that year’s festival. And right at the end it asked: “And dare I say it – where is Cambridge?” I understood that as a cutting indictment of how often Cambridge graduates appear in mainstream culture, as well a reflection on the fact that some universities are better represented at the festival than others.
It also didn’t seem to make complete sense. After all, I come from Cambridgeshire, albeit not via the university, and I had a show at the festival this year. So were a lot of my school friends, who grew up in Cambridge, like me.
And it’s not like the University of Cambridge needs any more representation than it already has. Just a few ex-Cambridge students who have played a part in NSDF's 65-year history come to mind – Ben Miller, Simon Russell Beale, Sir Richard Eyre, Sandi Toksvig, Hatti Morahan – even Stephen Fry, who this year is the festival’s 65th Anniversary Patron.
Traditionally, despite the fact that Oxbridge graduates dominate the creative industries, NSDF has never been dominated by shows from Oxford and Cambridge. In many recent years, there have been no shows from either institution at the festival at all. Maybe that's testament to the breadth and range of student and emerging work that gets entered to NSDF – or maybe it's just because the festival has failed to engage students at those universities.
This year's festival is an outlier, as it features a show from Pembroke College, Cambridge – Rebekah King’s In a Cave, a Voice. “When I arrived in Cambridge, no one seemed to have ever heard of NSDF,” explains Dixie McDevitt, one of the producers of the show, “There is such a hierarchical system in place already, that the majority of people are far too preoccupied with succeeding in this very competitive environment without thinking beyond our institution. This is a huge shame.”
The structure of amateur dramatics at the University of Cambridge is profoundly different to most other universities. “The theatre in Cambridge is like a living beast – tireless, aggressive, brutal. About 14 productions go on per week. The main theatre, the ADC, is a quasi-professional theatre run by full-time employees. The pace is something else – there are people doing shows every week, and it’s easy to feel that you’re becoming irrelevant if you can’t keep up.”
Given all the facilities, resources and opportunities at their disposal, it’s no surprise that Cambridge students already have significant advantages over their counterparts (more so if they’re also privately educated). “Cambridge has become an institutional myth. When I started, I remember adults in my life saying ‘oh, you’ll be hanging out with the next director of the BBC’; ‘oh, you’re going to make such useful friends’; ‘oh, drama schools will be desperate for you!’. It really demonstrates how there is a cultural, collective belief in the leadership abilities of people who attend Cambridge. This is a myth, but it’s a powerful one.”
However, this inequity is not just limited to the university: those who also live in the area can also be greatly privileged in reaping the benefits that the city has to offer. “I like Cambridge, I think it’s a lovely place in many ways,” reflects Flora Wilson Brown, the playwright behind to hunt violets, who grew up in Cambridge but went to the University of Birmingham, “It’s also the city with the worst economic disparity in the country, with the top 6% of earners taking home 19% of the total income generated, while the bottom 20% of the population make 2%. This is maybe not something you realise unless you live there, but it urgently needs addressing.”
So considering these uncomfortable realities, what can be done to readdress these disparities in opportunities? “Gosh - there is so much that needs to be done,” exclaims Dixie, “I mean, the theatre scene is really just a symptom of the wider issues with elitist institutions; these spaces can never really be radical, because they always draw a limit as to who is ‘includable’. The way that NSDF has made their festival free is an excellent example of how institutional change can make such an enormous difference — I’m sure so many people in the last two years have benefitted from the lessons this festival has to teach that would not normally be able to afford it.”
“I think all schools should have a drama department like my school had,” answers Flora, “it’s helped dozens of working professionals into the industry in the last ten years, which is better than some drama schools or university courses. I think it really goes to show that people in the arts don’t have to be from private schools, as they overwhelmingly are right now, they just have [to have] teachers or educators who believe in them and give them the tools to succeed.”