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Mark Shenton: Student theatre magazine offers a refreshing antidote to the online playground

A scene from the Nottingham New Theatre production of Pomona at this year's National Student Drama Festival
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As Trump continues to band the term “fake news” at every media outlet except Fox News, we are more in need of trusted journalistic outlets capable of defending their positions. Right now, the strongest outlets include the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, which are doing exactly that.

And as much as Trump refers regularly to the “failing New York Times”, it is actually succeeding in unprecedented ways: last month it celebrated “significant subscriber growth”, adding 157,000 net digital-only subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2017, pushing overall subscription revenues to more than $1 billion for the year. The digital fightback is finally starting to work.

It’s a healthy time to acknowledge the ongoing importance and vitality of journalism – and the fact that it can and does make money. The traditional print media has just needed to adapt to a new distribution model. And this week, I saw for myself – on an admittedly much smaller scale – just how directly and usefully journalism can impact inside a little theatre bubble.

I was attending the National Student Drama Festival, this year held in Leicester, where some 16 student companies from around the country were presenting work selected to be there. I was only there for three of the seven days, but saw for myself how critics and conversations are put at the centre of the audience and performer experience there.

The publication of a daily glossy 16-page magazine called Noises Off provides a permanent record of an event that will quickly pass into history. Less than 100 copies are actually printed (and immediately devoured by those who attend the daily post-lunchtime debate sessions), but the full issues are available online here. So it can be read and experienced, in absentia, by people far and wide.

I contributed my own piece to this conversation, in which I stated: “What is also refreshing is how critics are only part of the dialogue here: those who choose to write in these pages – and everyone is welcome – are a self-selecting group, but there isn’t a hierarchy of opinion.

“Audiences are invited to interact with the people who actually make the shows in the formal context of the daily discussions, and to give their own feedback and ask their own questions too. Critics are, in other words, not just the first (or even the last) word in how a production is received; but part of a wider conversation around it.”

The existence of Noises Off provides a formal channel to express that wider conversation. And as both a critic and audience member, it felt good to be part of that flow.

Too often, of course, these relationships are perceived to be – and sometimes actually are – purely adversarial and antagonistic. I’ve recently found this particularly true of Twitter, which used to provide a useful platform for the exchange of shared passions and pleasures, but now has descended frequently into a call-and-response of grievance and open hostilities.

I am sometimes tempted to simply leave the juvenile playground altogether and take myself somewhere more adult. But that would be to let the bullies win. Twitter is (still) a useful place for staying in touch with people and where readers can interact with me; though it’s less of a pleasure than it once was.

However, the NSDF showed another, healthier way for those interactions to take place in: one where mutual respect for differing opinions can be entertained. And that’s also the space in which most (but not all) critics operate: we don’t always agree with each other, but we allow each other the right to disagree.

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