Over the weekend I acted in one of a series of 24 Hour Plays written in response to the election and staged at the New Players Theatre under Charing Cross. Catching up with friends from the different casts, I was reminded how well a lot of the people I did plays with at Oxford are doing. Everyone who directed me at Oxford, for example, is directing professionally, apart from the ones who are still students and intend to go into the theatre when they finish here. A lot of the people who produced the plays I was in have gone into the theatre as well.
When it comes to actors, three recent graduates were involved in Election Night Theatre, three of the actors in the Finalists’ Showcase I was in are at Oxford School of Drama, and another is at Guildhall. As has been the case for many years, a lot of the theatrically minded people from my year group have carried on making plays in the professional theatre. It could be said that this is all the more impressive because Oxford students aren’t taught anything about drama here – but I think that’s one reason why so many of my year group are doing so well. I think it’s the best thing about Oxford drama, and I think it’s something that should be on people’s minds when they consider the kind of plays they want to do here.
Oxford drama works as a free market. At a lot of universities that offer drama courses, theatre is partly segregated. Students doing drama courses produce plays for which other students can’t even audition, so collaboration is capped and controlled by a course whose teachers will also tell you what’s good and wha’ts not. This means that often the standard is higher than some Oxford shows, but the conditions in which students make plays are never going to be as free as they are in Oxford, and the opportunities to learn from your mistakes aren’t as extensive.
Here, we can do whatever we want, with whomever we want. We are free to make any mistakes we like. I think it’s no surprise that a lot of the people given this opportunity go on to do well. Because while students don’t necessarily get any better technically at Oxford, or benefit from training or assistance after they leave, while they’re here they have three years to let their imaginations run wild in a theatre system that does everything it can to safeguard them from personal loss. They can try anything, free from great money worries or too much creative control.
What students can do here is pursue their passions and tastes to extremes. They can do risky things that commercial theatres wouldn’t produce, and prove that their ideas do, in fact, work. Or that they don’t. That’s good too. Better to find out now than on a London stage on press night. As bid deadlines approach for most of Oxford’s theatres, I’d encourage students to think about what they could do here that they might never be able to do again. It’s the risky, mad plays that make Oxford drama uniquely interesting.
Barney Norris is Oxford University Drama Officer