A fresher’s guide to Oxford Drama

Matt Roberts demystifies the daunting prospect that is the uni theatre scene

Illustration by Annabel Westerman

Oxford has an amazing history when it comes to the theatre, with countless stars of yesterday, today and tomorrow cutting teeth and treading boards in the theatres and rehearsal rooms of our university.

However, regardless of whether you fancy yourself as the next Richard Burton or Rowan Atkinson, or you’re just an exhibitionist with a penchant for silly voices, Oxford has an incredible array of opportunities for wannabe thesps of all varieties.

The first experience which most people have of theatre in Oxford tends to be the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) cuppers competition – teams of freshers from every college in the university put together half hour productions to be performed in the Burton Taylor studio in 5th week. Various prizes are awarded for the most promising, exciting and professional productions – with a variety of plaudits to be awarded by a variety of pundits.

If you’re feeling strident and industrious, I would advise attempting to pen a new piece of writing, if you’re feeling lazy choose a piece which is already 30 minutes long. For the love of God do not do what I did, which was try to condense a two hour play into 30 minutes and have to cut scenes during a dress rehearsal – that broadly explains why I’m writing for Cherwell this year rather than behind the scenes at OUDS.

Beyond Cuppers, your first port of call should be the OUDS mailing list, which sends out a weekly newsletter announcing the productions you can go and see, as well as calls for auditions and production teams. If you want to act, audition for as many things as you’re interested in – prepare to get turned down for things, but aim to have as much fun in the audition room as you can.

If you’re interested in production and technical work, the TAFF (Tabs Are For Flying) mailing list and training days are invaluable in understanding all of the hard work that goes into making productions happen (not least in understanding their name). Like everything at this university, productions are run by over-caffeinated, sleep deprived, passionate yet grumbling adolescents. Turn up with a smile on your face and willingness to learn, and there will be a place for you in the theatre.

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There are a few major theatre spaces in the university, which regularly play host to student productions. The Oxford Playhouse, the large professional theatre opposite the Ashmolean, is used for one or two student productions of a massive scale every term. These tend to be spectacular shows of a quasi-professional quality, with a lot of seats which marketeers desperately try to fill.

The Playhouse also has a small black box space, with a capacity of about 50 people, called the Burton Taylor Studio – look here for new writing, and confusing but charming turtle-necked productions. Balliol College runs the Michael Pilch Studio in their Jowett Walk graduate centre, with weekly productions from a variety of student groups. Similarly, Keble College’s O’Reilly theatre is a large versatile space, which runs productions every fortnight.

All of the productions in these theatres tend to be run by student production ‘companies’ – assortments of friends and thespy types who receive funding loans from OUDS and other funding organisations, then use these loans to produce the sets, marketing, costumery et al which populates the stages of our wonderful city. A lot of these production companies look scarily well organised, with active social media presences and an aura that they know what they’re doing.

Whilst I can neither confirm nor deny these rumours, I do know that it is astonishingly easy to make drama happen yourself as long as you’re enthusiastic and willing to put in the hours. If you want to direct or produce a show in one of the above theatres, you will need to produce a bid document a term in advance – outlining your artistic vision, marketing strategy, budgeting etc. Running a production from this perspective is not only enormous fun, but a great opportunity to learn lots of skills – not all of them explicitly creative.

Your first stop next should be the OUDS Freshers drama fair on the 10th October at the Oxford Playhouse. You should also have a peep at the stage section of Cherwell every now and again, and if you think your opinions on theatre are worth reading, email cherwellstage@gmail.com for free tickets and shows to review.