Every year for the last few years, the Drama Officer has spent some of the Easter vacation at the NSDF in the hope that they might take on ideas and bring them back to Oxford. Events like the NSDF refresh our thinking; in amongst the workshops and shows, you find prejudices you had forgotten you had about theatre, and have the chance to interrogate them. So I headed off looking forward to a week of provocative and interesting plays.
This year the NSDF happened in Scarborough. The excellent workshop programme, organised by Artistic Director Holly Kendrick (ex-Oxford, and the first ever Drama Officer) and managed by recent Oxford graduate Chris Wootton, featured Richard Beecham, Richard Hurst, Blanche Macintyre, James Kell and James Phillips, all directors, writers or actors who came through Oxford, and the venue managers included Sam Sampson, ex-Oxford and the last Drama Officer but one.
But this strong showing from Oxford graduate theatre professionals didn’t translate into the shows being staged at the festival. Although company members from The Magic Toyshop have been invited to join an Ensemble that will perform at Latitude later this year, no shows from Oxford actually got into the NSDF. And this isn’t unusual. Oxford hasn’t sent anything to the NSDF for a long time, despite the close relationship the festival has with the city – the NSDF even organises the North Wall’s summer Arts Festival.
This is a shame. The exposure to theatrical invention and professional expertise offered by the festival is inspiring, and a company that made it up there could only benefit from what they saw and who they talked to. So one question I had when I went to Scarborough was why there wasn’t an Oxford production in the festival.
The answer I came up with was time: the shows I saw were assessment pieces by drama students, the equivalent of a Finals paper. The participants didn’t seem to be more talented than Oxford actors, or to have better ideas, but they had been able to fully develop their productions as their top priority. That’s not possible here. One of the extraordinary things about Oxford theatre is that everyone involved does something else as their day job, and still, I think, regularly achieves genuinely exciting results in spite of this.
But even if we can’t match the time conditions in which all the work that went to this year’s NSDF was made, the festival still offers a salutary lesson to Oxford theatre: that the best work comes when you commit to it for as long as is needed, and that theatre is always worth taking time over, even if it means you only do one instead of two or three shows every term.
I’d like to see more shows applying for the NSDF next year. If you’re planning something you’d like to apply with, come and talk to me in the BT: I’ll tell you what this year’s festival was like, and how to make an application.