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NSDF at 60: still a vital breeding ground for theatre

The National Student Drama Festival opening ceremony. Photo: Aenne Pallasca The National Student Drama Festival opening ceremony. Photo: Aenne Pallasca
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Scarborough in March is an unlikely place to find the Caryl Churchills, the Jamie Lloyds and the Antony Shers of tomorrow. But the grey, spray-licked seafront, the boarded-up arcades, the whiff of chip oil provide the setting for an annual burst of incipient talent and profound passion for the performing arts.

Since the National Student Drama Festival was founded 60 years ago by theatre critic Harold Hobson, arts columnist Kenneth Pearson and National Union of Students president Frank Copplestone, the week-long event has been a champion of young practitioners of every sort – onstage, backstage, technical, critical – and a showcase for their work. Anyone between the ages of 18 and 25 can watch the programmed shows, take part in a wide range of workshops, and write for the daily magazine, Noises Off. Originally the festival popped up at a different university each year, before settling in Scarborough and taking root in the city’s seafront Spa complex.

And, during that week, the Spa is a genuinely inspirational place to be. For theatre critic Andrew Haydon, editor of Noises Off from 2002-14, when he went to the festival for the first time in 1997 he “came out the other end wired with sleep deprivation, and with an unshakeable sense that theatre was the most exciting possible artform in the world: a sense that’s never really gone away since”. Amid a community of people who’ve actively chosen to spend their week watching and discussing student theatre, enthusiasm spreads like a virus, almost visibly infectious.

This is because, more than just being a festival in which there are performances, each of the 12 programmed productions is subject to discussions. NSDF promotes the idea that a production is only ever the beginning of the debate. The show’s creators are questioned both by peers and by industry professionals in a way that fosters thoughtful, critical engagement with one’s work. As much as being about demonstrating and showcasing talent, it’s also about learning. It’s a vital part of the festival that marks the difference between theatre as entertainment and theatre as an art form.

On top of that, more general, issue-focused debates tackle topics such as quotas, colour-blind and gender-blind casting, the provision of drama teaching in schools, access to theatre. There’s a deeply gratifying absence of anything close to patronisation when the contributions of students are taken seriously, are engaged with, by the likes of Christopher Haydon, Chris Thorpe, Lucy Ellinson and Tamara Harvey. As critic Catherine Love says, “NSDF is a place where students’ work is taken seriously, both by their peers and by professionals they look up to.” NSDF is in no small part about eliding the perceived gap between ‘student’ and ‘professional’ work.

There are a few routes for ending up at the festival. The simplest is just to buy a ticket – £130 for a week’s worth of shows, workshops and – ugh, that hideous term – ‘networking’ isn’t a bad investment and it’s open to anyone between 18 and 25, whether in full time education or not. Or just put on a brilliant show, invite the NSDF selectors (a team made up of writers, actors and directors) and become one of the 12 shows picked for the festival programme.

At the end of the week is an awards ceremony. Andrew Haydon, who wrote a book about the history of the festival, tells me that not only is the Sunday Times Student Drama Trophy the longest-running arts sponsorship in the world, but the first winner was a production of Our Town directed by Timothy West. The trophy itself was lost sometime in the 70s, apparently, but its prestige lives on.

So, too, does the prestige of NSDF’s many alumni. The festival has had 60 years’ worth of visitors, but even so the list of notable NSDF alumni is astonishing. Among those whose first plays were at NSDF are Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter, Michael Billington went into the festival as a director and came out as a critic, while among recent alumni are Alan Lane, Lucy Prebble, Carrie Cracknell and Hattie Morahan. Even in the last couple of years some seriously stunning talent has been filtered through Scarborough, dominated in particular by Warwick and Sheffield Universities. Productions such as FYSA’s moving verbatim piece The 56, Breach Theatre’s The Beanfield and Barrel Organ’s Nothing, starting life as student pieces, quickly gained acclaim on a national level.

As it celebrates its 60th birthday, and prepares for its move to Hull in 2017 where it will be part of the City of Culture celebrations, NSDF matters as much as ever. The spirit of collaboration and generosity to be found in the daily debates or in the bar’s late-night buzz, where renowned practitioners share a drink with those taking their first steps in the industry, is a valuable counterpoint to the commercialisation of universities, where learning is becoming transactional rather than dialectic. Those who come through the festival learn the value and the joy of creating and having work discussed; they learn that theory is inextricable from practice. On a battered seafront in North Yorkshire for one week a year the grey, drizzling air comes alive as the present comes face to face with the future.

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