Question: what do Harold Pinter, Ruth Wilson, Sandi Toksvig and Michael Billington have in common? Answer: they all, at one point or another, participated in the National Student Drama Festival.
The festival, which marks its 61st anniversary by temporarily relocating to Hull this April, is long established as a fertile breeding ground for emerging artists. Showcasing student productions from across the country, facilitating workshops and discussions on hot topics in the industry, and providing invaluable networking opportunities for nascent companies, all during one hectic week in spring, NSDF works hard to sustain this reputation.
It pays off. Previous attendees speak with gushing praise or warm nostalgia about their experiences. Many that have consequently found their feet in the industry pay homage to the festival as a leg-up on their journey from budding young director to full-time theatremaker, from university drama group to professional theatre company.
Michael Brazier, director and chief executive of NSDF, recognises the value of his festival as such an opportunity.
“It’s a hell of a chance to learn new stuff and meet people that can slightly open a door,” he says. “It is, to a degree, a launchpad. We don’t shoot them to the stars, but their work being seen by a national audience, not just friends and family, can be a huge confidence builder. Suddenly the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, London’s Gate Theatre are all sitting in the audience watching.”
And a festival at which you don’t have to go to drama school to be taken seriously will only become more important, particularly in an educational culture that champions sciences at the expense of performing arts.
“It drives me spare that people see drama as less valuable than other subjects,” complains Brazier. “It’s a genuine tragedy, and the more you talk about it, the more it’s derided. It’s a self-perpetuating problem.
“That said, numbers of people studying drama may well go down, but the number of people interested in it won’t. So we have to support students, some of whom might be studying biology or astrophysics, that want to go into the industry as much as possible.”
NSDF success stories are easy to find. Hailing from the University of Warwick, Barrel Organ Theatre, which toured Some People Talk About Violence last autumn, performed its first show Nothing at NSDF 2014. It won four festival awards and also went on to impress in Edinburgh that year. Founding member Bryony Davies attributes much of the company’s success to its first outing.
“The festival was such a positive learning curve,” she remembers. “We had a lot of support from everyone running it and taking Nothing to Edinburgh came straight off the back of that. NSDF was such a great platform for us.”
Breach Theatre, also from Warwick, is a fellow NSDF alumnus. Although it arrived at NSDF slightly later in its development, having already taken its acclaimed first show The Beanfield to Edinburgh in 2015, the 2016 festival still offered the company a chance to establish connections that would prove fruitful.
“We went to NSDF before we took The Beanfield on tour, so we saw it as more of an opportunity to meet other emerging companies and theatremakers than a chance to platform the show,” says founding member Billy Barrett. “Sharing our work with people at the same career stage and meeting potential collaborators and contacts was really useful.
“That’s the best thing about the festival, making relationships and sharing experience with other people on the cusp of bridging university and the industry. There are companies we work alongside now that we met at NSDF in years gone by.”
1. The festival was founded in 1956 by critic Harold Hobson, columnist Kenneth Pearson and National Union of Students president Frank Copplestone.
2. Its impressive alumni list boasts names as diverse as director Carrie Cracknell, actor Antony Sher and comedian Ben Elton.
3. This year’s festival occupies Hull University, and will run alongside the UK City of Culture 2017 celebrations.
4. The festival, and its magazine Noises Off, also boasts theatre critics Michael Billington, Dominic Cavendish and Nicholas de Jongh among its previous contributors.
5. Ten of the 14 selected shows this year are new, student-written works.
Taking a show to NSDF is not as simple as firing off a form and scraping enough cash together to get to Hull, though. A team of selectors sees more than 100 student productions across the UK, then whittles the list down to just a few. This year, 14 shows were selected from 125 applications.
There’s an attendance fee, too: £120 for selected company members, £130 for any other students that want to attend. For some, this price, added to the cost of transferring a show, can prove a difficult obstacle to overcome.
Pub Corner Poets, a spoken-word company from Hull, took its controversial first show Angry to NSDF 2015, but it was a struggle.
“One of the major problems was that we couldn’t afford anything at the festival,” explains artistic director Tyler Mortimer. “We bought a load of cheap pasta with our last tenner, which we couldn’t actually cook. We wound up poor and hungry and borrowing money, but we still got a lot out of the experience. People know who we are because of NSDF.”
Brazier is acutely conscious of difficulties such as this, and is taking steps to alleviate them: a donation from the Arts Patrons’ Trust has allowed the festival to offer bursaries covering ticket price, accommodation and travel costs.
“I’ve tried hard to keep ticket pricing as low as possible,” Brazier confirms. “In reality, though, we have to raise something in the region of £100,000 every year to survive.
“We have some great long-term partners – the Sunday Times, the Peter De Haan Charitable Trust and others – and their support is essential, because if we started charging more, people wouldn’t be able to come. They’ve got enough debt on their shoulders as it is.”
But it’s not just how shows make it from university to festival that concerns Brazier, it’s who is involved in doing so as well. Opening students’ eyes to the discussions around race and gender that preoccupy the wider industry is, for him, essential.
“I think it has got to the stage in this country where the arts have to prioritise these debates,” he asserts. “We need to keep talking about it, and it behoves us as an organisation to do so in front of young directors and young writers.”
“We want to encourage them to take a deep breath when they’re planning a production and consider not just what they want to say, but who they get involved as well. It’s massively important to widen that thought process.
“This year, for instance, we’ve scheduled a discussion on the need for much more integrated and gender-blind casting, and another on women in positions of leadership. Having these conversations with emerging artists is vital.”
This approach, allowing student productions a platform and providing them with the opportunity to make connections, but simultaneously pushing them to question themselves, has already borne fruit.
“There’s a feeling at NSDF that you have to justify your decisions as a company,” says Davies, “for us, that was really helpful because it allowed us to focus on what we wanted to do. Going in, we didn’t know we were barely a company. NSDF helped us understand who we are and where we stand.”
And where is that? Well, as NSDF alumni, it’s among very good company indeed.
Chief executive/director: Michael Brazier
Number of performances: 14 shows, performing two, four or eight times each
Audience figures: 400-500 student subscription tickets, which provide access to all of the festival
Number of employees: Two full-time, one temporary
Turnover: Approximately £245,000, including ticket sales, sponsorship, fundraising, and Arts Council England grant
Funding levels: £56,543 ACE national portfolio organisation grant for 2017/18, plus sponsorship and donations from other sources
Key contacts: Michael Brazier (chief executive/director), Joseph Schofield (administrator), Matilda Reith (coordinator)
The National Student Drama Festival 2017 runs from April 8-14