When you’re studying, finding the space, opportunity and support to produce your own performances isn’t always easy. Aware of the dilemma facing students everywhere, University of Kent student Sandy Wardrop decided to seek a solution. With the aim of creating an event that would house the hoards of students producing, devising and directing drama and comedy performances in and around the university, the Kent Summer Festival was born.

Rejecting the competitiveness that can sometimes be inherent in festival environments, Wardrop aims to provide each and every company of students support to market all the shows together. To enter the festival, all that companies need is space, a short blurb of the event and an image of the production. Together with fellow organiser Max Bittleston, Wardrop adopted this open-door policy to ensure anyone could be involved, they just needed to have the key ingredients in place.

Testament to the success of the concept is the fact that students have performed far and wide, from a campus bar to Eastbridge Hospital in Canterbury. As Bittleston observes, “These shows mark the end of this academic year, which has seen the arts at Kent flourish during this economic downturn. So prepare to laugh, cry, question and be amazed at the best contemporary performance art the University of Kent has to offer.” Included in the 18 performances for 2012 are: Three Half Pints stand-up comedy, Artyzan Productions’s Rock Bottom and the fourth year design student’s final exhibition. Shows take place until 16 June, meaning that if any UKC student finds themselves bored or in need of a revision break, the festival has an entertaining answer most evenings. Facebook is the port of call for details on the festival, with each show creating its own publicity with posters and YouTube clips.

Bittleston emphasises that “it offers the very best in contemporary performance art in Kent. All these shows are completely independent from the university and the drama department.” And others are in agreement. Former Director of Performing Arts at Arts Council England (and now UKC lecturer), Dermot O’Brien admires the flair that’s gone into this festival: “This is an amazing project, this belongs to the participants, it’s students and graduates doing it for themselves; I’m very proud of the spirit and entrepreneurial zeal shown.” Head of Drama Dr Olly Double agrees: “It is brilliant and the antithesis of modern popular culture, which pretends to be democratic, advertising that anyone can be a pop star. But it’s not democratic – who decides who becomes a pop star? Who decides who’s being voted on? The programme makers. It is the worst kind of culture. The festival is DIY.”

Artyzan Productions, as well as performing at the Whitstable Playhouse, was the first production company to begin independent work a year and a half ago. One of the company’s founders, Timothy Colegate, is delighted so many have jumped on the festival bandwagon. “Artyzan started making independent shows a while ago and we were the only people that were doing it, we got the ball rolling,” he says. Colegate has strong advice for hesitant students: “I’d always say, if you want to put on a show, do it yourself. Nobody knows how you want to put on your show like you do. If you have that vision under somebody else’s rules and unwritten regulations, it gets warped.”

The company’s development has involved two completed productions, and another two set to be produced this summer. From an initial two members (Louise Goodman and Will Rathbone) to four, the company is tackling two large productions: Rock Bottom (inspired by The Full Monty) and Reservoir Dogs (adapted from the film), both of which are part of the festival. As for the future, after graduation, “We will gain a lot of experience and contacts working in different jobs”. Colegate is of the opinion that this needs to take place before coming together again as a production company. “We want to produce theatre which is commercial, and it is a dirty word in the business. I’m proud of that word and I think people need to be entertained with it.” O’Brien notes that “in Artyzan we have a collection of talent that wants to create good, entertaining material. In this case they are not wanting to hog the stage but instead produce, write design and compose.”

Another addition to the festival is the aptly named Three Half Pints. One of the trio, Richard Franklin, explains. “We thought it could be an endearing connection to a wider audience. You can have a half pint of anything; it could be a half pint of milk, not beer.” Franklin, Robin Hatcher and Callum Donnelly are third year students at the University of Kent. “We aim to create accessible slapstick comedy with a large helping of visual and verbal gags to revitalise this fading art with a contemporary yet nostalgic feel.”  The trio’s idea was created in a module last year called Popular Performance, when they decided to specialise in slapstick comedy. Hatcher remembers: “We enjoyed it, we enjoyed working together and we produced some great work.”

The boyish charm of this infectiously funny duo filled the interview and their constant jokes were impossible to ignore, revealing their complete enthusiasm about what they do. They are ambitious to take their unique comedy further. “We are also going to the Laughing Horse at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Kingston festival. We know that we are wet behind the ears, so we want to gain as much experience as possible” explains Hatcher. Double recalls,“they had a really positive creative relationship, which is very important for a creative arts group. They really pushed themselves in terms of research and acquired historical material to perform, as well as having impressive skills. The Three Half Pints are brilliant at doing slapstick, so at the end of that module I encouraged them to stay together.”

O’Brien gives support and advice to students, including Artyzan Productions and the Three Half Pints. “I love great entertainment and all these have this, so any encouragement, mentoring or advice that helps get good work onto a stage in front of the public is well worth it.” Kent Summer Festival provides real working experience of the theatre outside of a drama seminar room. O’Brien says, “the experience makes it real. To see how people in the profession operate and deal with problems, to see how they quickly need to respond and adapt are essential to understanding theatre itself.” Double agrees: “Having some nuts and bolts hands-on experience, either as a performer or in the theatre industry gives you a different kind of knowledge. You can build castles in the air out of theories and concepts which are essentially untestable.” Furthermore, Liz Moran,  Director of the Gulbenkian Theatre, believes “it is vital they get the experience and opportunity to do this and if the Gulbenkian Theatre can support them in any way, we should. We are open to students coming to us for advice and support in all areas.”

Kent Summer Festival then is a diverse fusion of performing arts just waiting to be watched. Set to develop even further before next year’s summer term, this is an event creating new and interesting work and most importantly giving students the opportunity to get some sought-after work experience under their belt while showcasing their own work, innovation and talent. As O’Brien summarises, “Drama graduates who can demonstrate commitment, knowledge and willingness to work, together with energy, skills and a clear understanding will succeed. Remember, theatre is entrepreneurial so there is nothing to stop doing it for yourself.” So what are you waiting for? Get out there, get your work on, and get down to Kent before 16 June to see how it’s done.

Artyzan’s Reservoir Dogs is at TA Army Barracks, Canterbury, 6 – 9 June. Tickets and more info here.

The Three Half Pints will perform at the Gulbenkian Theatre on 1st June. Tickets are free and more details available here.

Image credit: Three Half Pints