Something is rotten in the state of Oxford drama


An open letter to Oxford University Dramatic Society from Oxford’s theatre-going audience:
Get over yourselves. 
Earlier this term, Cherwell stage editor Rob Morgan, in what is undoubtedly his job, decided to run reviews of most, but not all, of the plays showing in Oxford that week. The following Friday, in what was undoubtedly not their job, members of the cast of Guardians and key OUDS officers criticized Morgan in a letter to the editor, accusing him of leaving their play out because of its venue. Their argument was that their OUDS funding was a “greater guarantee of quality than venue”.
It’s hard to know where to begin on this one – one column is hugely insufficient. Luckily, Thespionage has done half my job by mocking the ridiculous display of ego involved. Both student papers should be able to agree on one thing: OUDS does not get to dictate content. As long as there are more shows in Oxford than can be reviewed on a single page, there will be only one way to influence what’s in either paper – applying for a job.
But the Guardians’ letter raises another question: what, actually, is the point of student theatre?
Angels in America was said to be “the closest Oxford drama comes to professional quality”. Very well, but is getting close to professional quality really what Oxford drama should be striving for? Last year Naomi Hirst pointed out on Toast, “Oxford drama entirely mystifies the concept of supply and demand.” It’s true: we are oversupplied for our theatre needs. That’s fine. We’re also over-saturated in music, dance, debating, and (dare I say it?) newspapers.
We have so many plays not because we have massive audiences, but because we have so many actors. While watching most other student endeavours (like choirs) is free, I’ve spent £16 on theatre in the last couple of weeks. But just because I could have seen the RSC for less, does that mean Oxford drama should be striving for equal standards – and as a result, for an equally competitive and exclusive environment? I don’t think so. While showcase means some people do get professional quality training while they’re here, those fifteen people are not the point of student drama.
OUDS claims to have a purpose of cultivating relationships with drama societies and promoting a “cohesive dramatic body for its members”, It also claims to be dedicated to taking the odd risk and supporting a varied range of student drama. Which is great, when it works. Oscar Wood’s risky and original Big Breathe In was one of the few shows at Oxford worth the exorbitant ticket prices. But a brief glance over OUDS funding shows that most money ends up in not-exactly-daring plays involving “big names”. While Cuppers and New Writing are a good start, those who partake in them aren’t always supported after. In fact, it’s a challenge for a no-name show just to use the OUDS costume cupboard.
The mere fact that Thespionage exists is a nod to the fact that hackery has seeped from Frewin Court into the Madding Crowd. No-one is surprised to find that some lesser thesps who wrote asking for auditions for Angels in America never got responses, or that that there are unsavoury rumours about Macbeth’s casting. But while OUSU can fine you posters, and the Union ever-so-rarely remembers to call tribunals, OUDS hackery streams steadily on, unchecked, cultivating an air of exclusivity that keeps many aspiring actors distant and throws a long shadow over more “amateur” shows that struggle to get funds and audiences.    
What is OUDS? A mini-conservatory trying to produce polished, commercial shows while teaching our budding thesps to network just like professionals? Or a student society devoted to promoting wide involvement in varied, interesting theatre while giving students an outlet to try something new? It’s unclear what, if anything, their funding ‘guarantees’. Many hard-working casts have found their review cut, just as many aspirant producers have had their funding rejected and scads of talented actors have felt overlooked. As long as many of Oxford’s thesps feel excluded, OUDS darlings are bound to get upstaged by an outsider sometimes. You would hope they’d accept a chorus role with grace.


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