Drama at university is a strange beast. It lies in a place between amateur theatre and the professional world, with stakes a little higher than the former but without the resources of the latter. Student theatre is often given bad press for being “pretentious”, “try-hard”, “over-ambitious”, or just generally bad, but this is far from the truth. Like it or not, student theatre is at the heart of British theatre; the majority of practitioners working today cut their teeth on their university stages, and right now there are any number of future visionaries honing their craft as they simultaneously attempt to get a good degree.
There are no universal rules for student theatre, and how specific societies work changes from institution to institution. Some run their own studio theatres, taking care of everything from front-of-house to set construction, whilst others have access to professional venues. Ultimately, this means very little in practice; shows always have to be made to a high standard and must sell tickets in order to make money just like anyone else. All university drama societies are run by students for students, and will normally elect a committee who run the society’s day-to-day business so that everyone else can focus on creating great theatre. I like to think of a university drama society as a normal theatre company minus an overarching style or objective; the only thing which unites all the shows is their high standard and wealth of opportunities they present.
Without student drama societies, British theatre would in a wildly different shape. For while at its most basic, university theatre is there to allow directors, designers and actors to discover how they like working and try out new ideas, the infrastructure around them is just as important. It breeds accomplished producers, financiers, marketers and technicians, and wider than that it allows wannabe journalists who can talk to their peers about how their work is created and critics who can write reviews for university media.
Student theatre is also integral to the British theatrical infrastructure due to its relative lack of risk. Though shows have to break even and the society must balance accounts in order to stay alive, the lack of any financial backers and support of student unions gives freedom to take risks and try out new ideas. If you’re thinking about putting on a show whilst at university, make it something daring and exciting. Make it something you wouldn’t try at any other time in your life. Stretch yourself and stretch your audience.
Also of note is the fact that university drama societies work to extremely short time frames. Whereas mainstream theatre may take a couple of years to gestate before it’s seen on stage, at university you may be able to go from thinking about doing a play to having the after show party in the space of a few months. Time frames necessarily have to be shorter due to the fact that there are people coming and going every year. The output varies from university to university, depending on factors like venue availability and number of members, but as a general rule it’s easy to be involved with a show or two every term.
My advice is to get stuck in however you see fit and surprise yourself. Try out new things and push personal boundaries. Also (and don’t tell the universities or academic departments I said this), if you’re looking for a job in the arts, then a variety of theatrical credits on your CV is going to look far more impressive than a First. At the end of the day, the average student comes out of university with a 2:1, so if you can come out with a 2:1 and a bucket load of experience in theatre, you’ve made a good start. More importantly than that, however, student theatre gives those of us with a passion for theatre a chance to play around with the art form and create vibrant, exciting productions. So when you’re at your university’s Freshers’ Fair over the coming weeks, pop along to the drama stall and sign up. However you choose to get involved in your university drama society, you’ll find you learn a hell of a lot.
Photo from Warwick Unversity Drama Society’s production of Brokenville. For more information on WUDS, see their website here.