Few directors can boast as much theatrical – and financial – success as Trevor Nunn. From running the RSC and The National to striking gold with his creation of blockbuster musicals Cats and Les Miserables, Nunn is now adding the title of Oxford Professor to his resumé. He is the next in a long litany of theatrical bigwigs to grace Oxford as the Cameron Macintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre – past incumbents have included Patrick Stewart, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller and Michael Frayn.
This all seems to bode well for students keen on hearing an internationally renowned director give an insight into theatre and a career in drama. However, the Cameron Macintosh Drama professorship has been known to leave a little wanting. As the University’s announcement of Nunn’s appointment points out, ‘it is very much up to the individual concerned as to how they approach their tenure as Cameron Mackintosh Professor. No teaching obligation is attached to the role.’ What obligation actually is attached to the role remains unclear; the only parameter outlined is to promote interest in the study and practice of contemporary theatre.
Last year, the holder of the post fulfilled this description by holding three lectures and judging the New Writing Festival. However, the lectures focused on such topics as ‘Translating Chekhov from the Russian’, (is this relevant to contemporary theatre?). Upon meeting the NWF student playwrights at a workshop (months after the NWF ended), the professor was hard pressed to recall any of the plays he had judged at all. His long-awaited written comments on the students’ plays works, written at the time of the judging, amounted to about half a sentence per play.
To be fair, perhaps Oxford students created a negative reputation for themselves with their reception of former professor Patrick Stewart’s lecture on Shakespeare: in taking questions, Stewart was peppered with inquiries about the subtext not of The Tempest but of various episodes of Star Trek: Next Generation.
But maybe the real problem with the Cameron Macintosh professorship is that there seems to be no way for students to actually communicate with the esteemed professors. Try contacting the University liaison for Mr. Nunn and you will be alternately referred to a professor at St. Catz, the St. Catz Master’s P.A. and the University Drama Officer, who will kindly refer you back to St. Catz.
All this goes to say that the Cameron Macintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre presents a yearly round of both excitement and disappoint for students interested in drama. Hopefully Nunn will outshine his predecessors and live up to his statement that ‘the prospect of working with University students is immensely stimulating…I expect to learn every bit as much as I teach’. He should perhaps note that the students of Oxford are hoping to learn a few things as well.