In a time where we regularly hear reports of theatres closing and arts bodies feeling the force of cuts, it may seem surprising to hear that the enclosed economy of Oxford University student drama is faring rather well. In fact, it has been doing extremely well. In the last year alone, three student shows at The Oxford Playhouse, A Streetcar Named Desire (MT10), The Seagull (HT11), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (MT11), have each made profits of over £10,000 and, in addition to this, the Oxford University Drama Society has doubled its wealth since 2009.
This leads us to question why recent shows have been so successful. Perhaps it is because the marketing campaigns have been particularly strong and far-reaching, perhaps there is a current ‘golden generation’ of actors, which has resulted in recent shows being especially impressive, perhaps it is merely because the shows referred to above are easy to sell and would have sold even better in more prosperous economic times. Or perhaps it is because those involved are now especially good at forcing their reluctant friends to come and see every show they are in even though said friends are bored out of their minds each time they go to the theatre (although I’m pretty sure this last reason alone cannot fill the 613 seats per night at the Oxford Playhouse).
It is true that Oxford students wishing to get involved in drama now find themselves in an incredibly fortunate position because there is money available for them to fulfill more ambitious visions; however, the system is self-supporting and vast sums of new money in grants are not pumped in each year. Instead, all profits made in Oxford student drama are reinvested in the system, and so these profits are used to cover the losses of other shows and to help fund future projects – no student should ever personally gain money by being involved in a play within the University. Moreover, even if a few shows lose a large sum of money, the whole system suffers, so we have to be realistic and ensure that every show has a chance of breaking even. We must also not forget that theatres are hired at subsidised rates compared to professional shows and the realms of student drama are very different to the ‘real world’. Nevertheless, taking the losses of other shows into account, Oxford student drama as a whole is at least £25,000 better off than this time one year ago, a figure which I find be striking.
The fact that recent shows have been so successful allows for some of the more adventurous ideas of students to now potentially be realised, especially with regard to set designs and technical plans. In my role as treasurer of the Oxford Drama Society last year, we would keep hearing exciting and innovative plans that regularly had to be revaluated because there was not enough money to support them, which was always frustrating. Although I believe that budgets for student shows have to be reasonable and that no student show in Oxford should ever set out knowing they are going to make a loss, hopefully the new money in the system will mean that we will be able to raise the standard of certain aspects of student shows in Oxford, especially at the Oxford Playhouse.
Students at Oxford are incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to stage shows at this venue, where visions can become a reality, and
it provides a fantastic preparation for anyone wishing to pursue a career in theatre. Most Playhouse student shows have a budget of £15,000-£18,000 so students can afford to be really ambitious compared to other venues, especially with regard to set and technical plans. Students receive the support of a professional technical and marketing team, and the opportunity to work in a professional environment. The Hothouse by Harold Pinter, which will be staged next term at the Oxford Playhouse, has probably the largest ever budget for a student show in Oxford, and this time a year ago such plans would not have been able to be put into practice. It will hopefully have one of the most spectacular sets and designs of recent student shows, but the budget is realistic and if sales are even close to those of the shows mentioned above, then more money will be reinvested back into the system to produce equally, if not more, inspiring shows in the future.