It may be a tiny organisation, but the National Student Drama Festival has a mighty impact, offering students and young people the chance to work with active theatremakers and launching many careers. This year’s guest director tells Fergus Morgan why it’s vital for the festival to remain as affordable and accessible as possible
The National Student Drama Festival is a modest affair, but it has an enormous reach. Its alumni networks run deep in the performing arts and, year after year, it continues to act as a conveyor belt into theatre for aspiring actors, writers, directors and designers.
“It’s the best bridge between being a student or a young person and working professionally in the industry that anyone has been able to invent,” says James Phillips, guest director for this year’s festival, which takes place in Leicester over a week in April.
“It offers a practical education, practical contacts and practical insights about how to get into the industry from people who have actually done it,” he continues. “At NSDF, you will meet people who make theatre every day for a living, and they can teach you how to do it every day for a living too, if that’s your ambition.”
A team of selectors tours the country to choose about 12 shows to perform at NSDF every year, often as a precursor to success at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and elsewhere.
“Year after year, companies come through NSDF and go on to be huge,” says Phillips. “And that will happen again this year. What’s exciting about being involved is that we don’t know who it is, but there will be someone, some company, that we are hearing about in Edinburgh, and that we will hear about across the country.”
But the shows, Phillips says, aren’t really the main attraction: “The major part of NSDF is the workshops and masterclasses. There are about 100 this year – between 15 and 20 a day – which are run by wonderful practitioners. This year we have Fuel, Slung Low, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Middle Child, Nottingham Playhouse, RashDash, a number of different agents, and all the major drama schools.”
‘At NSDF, you will meet people who make theatre every day for a living, and they can teach you how to do it every day for a living too, if that’s your ambition’ – James Phillips, guest director
On top of this are regular discussion forums and the festival magazine Noises Off, which offers opportunities for aspiring theatre critics and journalists. What makes NSDF particularly special, according to Phillips, is that participants and visiting practitioners are encouraged to interact and share ideas: there are no hierarchies at NSDF.
“It’s a festival with no VIP area,” says Phillips. “There’s no distinction between students and practitioners. You have a chance to network, to talk to someone whose work you admire, to meet the person that’s going to give you your first job. That’s why the bar is an incredibly important part of it.”
Phillips took over at NSDF in November, following the departure of previous director Michael Brazier, in charge since 2012. Having been involved as a selector for 11 years, Phillips will act as guest director for the 2019 festival. He inherited an organisation facing severe financial difficulties, which led to some belt- tightening in this year’s budget.
“We are facing some financial challenges this year, as many arts organisations are, but we are turning it all around,” he says. “It was a significant challenge when I took over, but we’re doing everything in our power to turn it all around, and we will do.”
The financial pressures have been alleviated thanks to the support of the wider theatre industry, and in particular to the networks of professional NSDF alumni. Phillips says: “Most of the big companies, the national portfolio organisations, have waived their fees. They’re coming because they believe in NSDF. I won’t be asking freelance artists to come for nothing, but many people have volunteered to, because they want to support the festival as the festival supported them.”
Remodelling the festival’s finances hasn’t been an entirely smooth process, however. In November, the co-editors of Noises Off, Kate Wyver and Lily James, resigned over a funding issue: members of the magazine team would have to pay to stay at the festival, after the expiry of a bursary that had provided accommodation for them in previous years.
“We didn’t feel comfortable making writers pay so much,” says Wyver. “With accommodation, food and travel, it becomes unfeasible. We need to be working towards more sustainable programmes of development for young writers, rather than increasing opportunities that feel exploitative and favour those who can shell out several hundred pounds.”
Phillips insists he is committed to making the festival as affordable and accessible as possible for students and young people.
“The decisions we have made have been entirely about preserving the finances that allow us to widen access,” he says. “I would like to give the festival to everyone free of charge, but that has literally never been the case, nor is it the case with any festival that exists. Everyone sorts out their own accommodation, and that, by and large, is how it’s always been.”
Ticket prices have changed this year – down from £100 to £60 for management and technical teams, and up from £100 to £120 for everyone else – but in an effort to increase accessibility, the festival is giving away 100 free tickets, courtesy of a grant from the Arts’ Patrons’ Trust that Phillips has specifically ringfenced.
“If you don’t think you can afford a ticket, you just have to apply and we will endeavour to give you one for nothing,” he says. “We will have students coming from elite universities as they always do, but we want people to come from everywhere else too. As far as possible, we want to widen access.”
“NSDF has been hugely successful, despite the fact that it’s a tiny organisation,” he continues. “It has thrived in the past and is thriving again. I think it’s going to go from strength to strength.”