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I’ve just got back from my fifth National Student Drama Festival. In the past, I’ve been as a sixth-former, a student and a writer for daily magazine Noises Off, but in 2014 I finally managed to worm my way in as a performer. Our show, Nothing, presented by Barrel Organ Theatre, written by Lulu Raczka and directed by Ali Pidsley with Jack Perkins, was lucky enough to be selected to run at the annual festival in Scarborough. I’m exhausted, excited and emotional, but I challenge anyone to go to NSDF and not feel changed in some way by the whole mad experience.
Some background: NSDF has been running for fifty-eight years and takes over various locations in Scarborough on a yearly basis in order to present a selection of the best work created by students up and down the country. Every day, visiting artists present a plethora of workshops on every aspect of theatre craft, whilst lunchtime discussions allow participants to question and interrogate one another’s work. During these hour-long sessions, a number of shows are placed on stage to have their work dissected, which sometimes descends into near-madness but oftentimes leads to searing, necessary debate about the nature of theatre and – if you’re lucky – the world at large. Then, on an average evening, you’re likely to see at least two productions, and anyone is welcome to write about them for Noises Off.
Arguably the most important place in the festival, however, is the bar. I’d never really clocked this before attending as a participant this year; on previous occasions, I’ve either been locked up writing copy for the magazine or getting an early night before the morning workshops, and the few times I did go for a drink I’d be too shy to strike up conversations with performers and directors. This year, of course, it was easier to chat to students and artists alike, asking questions about their experience and gaining invaluable advice.
More importantly, the extraordinary thing about being in a show is that audiences want to debate with you about what you’ve put on stage, allowing an immediate two-way conversation to strike up. With our show, this process was particularly satisfying and useful, as the complexity of Lulu’s language in the monologues and our chosen form of an improvised cut meant arguments about Nothing could last for hours. Similarly, the bar allows you to find others whose work you’ve seen and challenge or praise them accordingly. You don’t get this in Edinburgh. Granted, there may be the odd time when you bump into a performer and get a fleeting moment to congratulate them, but there isn’t any centralised congregation point, making it far more difficult to ask questions of your audience and enter into that vital conversation. To this end, NSDF is better than the Fringe.
Of course, being in a show also means you see less of other artists’ work than you’d like (especially when, like us, you have to squeeze in eight shows in six days), but it was difficult to disagree with judge Chris Haydon’s remark at the closing ceremony that this year’s NSDF felt like an exceptionally strong year. The passion in the Hungry Bitches’ production of Americana, for example, was complemented beautifully by the joy in withWings’ The Duck Pond, and the excellent performances in Warwick University Drama Society’s production of Jim Cartwright’s Road (also directed by Ali) found an interesting counterpoint in the sexy thrill of Sheffield University Theatre Company’s take on Lucy Prebble’s ENRON. Though I didn’t see Spring Awakening or Punk Rock, I’ve heard tell that their presentation of adolescent angst was second to none, with their respective interpretations of the text challenging any preconceptions audiences had of the two shows.
Another comment made by Chris Haydon was impossible to ignore. In his summary of the festival, he contemplated the violent and visceral anger which ran through many of the work presented this year, presenting arguments against and challenges to authority and power of all kinds. After a number of years of relative apathy and apolitical thought, then, it seems NSDF may once again become a hub of political dissent, of defiant rage and radical art. As Noises Off editor Andrew Haydon (no relation to Chris) said in his final editorial, we can only hope that this will offer a challenge for students making theatre in the run up to the 2015 election to be even more radical and angry, to take urgent, contemporary questions and blow them up on stage. To be a part of a company which attempted to raise a few of these ideas was an honour, but a small cohort like that represented over the last week is not enough. Things can only get angrier.