Since 1956, The National Student Drama Festival has invited a number of the best student productions to perform in theatres across sunny Scarborough. It has acted as a platform for many now-established artists, who often return to rainy Scarborough to run workshops and provide feedback for the students. This year, of the 13 plays selected, ten were productions of alread-established plays, with contemporary playwrights Simon Stephens and Dennis Kelly appearing on the bill twice each. Given the freedom and possibility of student theatre, I found it astonishing that so many students were intent on producing plays that had been written, premiered and even revived within their lifetime.
Andrew Haydon spoke positively of this trend on the Guardian blog before the festival began, saying that “It suggests that the last ten years have produced an already much-loved and deeply felt range of popular plays that students feel enough of an affinity with to want to put them on themselves”. After the festival, Robert Hewison’s report in The Sunday Times spoke in less enthusiastic terms: “It is as though young people are uncertain of their own voices and have turned to others to articulate a prevailing despair”.
And articulate despair they did. Dennis Kelly’s After The End (2005) deals with a particularly grim subject matter, and was executed stylishly and impressively by the team from Nottingham University. The same society’s production of the same author’s play, Orphans, (2009) was also impressively performed, and indeed two of the three cast members won awards for their efforts.
There was a remarkable design for Nottingham’s production of Simon Stephens’ Bluebird (1998), and a decent lead performance, but overall Stephens emerged as the most exciting asset. Conversely, Cambridge ADC offered striking choreography and one of the best performances of the festival (from James Bloor) in an innovative take on Stephens’ Pornography (2007).
Innovative direction was also to be found in Leeds University’s stylish Dealer’s Choice, and the two productions from Warwick University: Shelagh Stevenson’s Five Kinds of Silence and Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, both of which were bravely tackled and performed with stylistic confidence and trademark direction.
One of the few original pieces to be featured at the festival was Salford University’s What Do You Want From Me?. Although unfortunately marketed (describing itself in the festival program as “a breathtaking, hard-hitting physical theatre piece”), it was incredibly unpretentious and impressive – an unexpectedly original breath of fresh air and symbol of the innovative work that NSDF stands for.
There was no Lucy Prebble to emerge this year. There was no Belt Up to raise the bar of student innovation. Rather, NSDF11 offered a range of competent and impressive performers, directors and designers, tackling difficult issues and offering interesting takes on familiar plays.
In their original articles, both Haydon and Hewison refer to the lengthy process of selection that goes into creating the festival’s programme, and highlight that it is only the ‘best’ work that gets invited to perform in Scarborough – not the most representative. It’s interesting that this year the best work was so often judged to be contemporary published texts rather than original work. Perhaps this is just a coincidental blip rather than a national trend, and we’ll find ourselves with a glut of new writers at NSDF12, producing work that can be revived at NSDF20.
If you happen to be one of these future writers, then consider this a call to arms: take the risks while you can, put your ideas in a script and that script on a stage. Invite an NSDF selector to see it, and I’ll see you in Scarborough next year.