Surviving the Drama Scene

Do Oxford's student theatre productions have the longevity of professional shows?

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The student theatre scene in Oxford is remarkably vibrant. There are multiple venues, production companies, and student drama societies operating at once. In this context, the pace at which productions are put on, and the amount of productions that happen within a term, is intense, and it is difficult for even the most dedicated theatre fan to keep track of everything on.

Obviously, the merit of this is that a wide range of student theatre productions are able to share the limelight. Oxford student theatre ranges from comedy to serious drama, from musicals to horror. Productions can come from both original student writing, or be reinterpretations of classic works. They can take place in a selection of venues ranging from the Oxford playhouse to a college garden.

The production quality of student theatre is incredibly high, with students handling every part of the production. Made in Dagenham, a musical at the Oxford Playhouse in 5th week, has a company of fifty-five people. Student theatre’s impact is not limited to the student population, and because Oxford doesn’t offer a dedicated drama degree, the cross section of the student population that are involved in theatre is diverse and impressive, unrestricted to a certain ‘type’ of person, degree subject or college.

Yet in spite of this, student theatre does not fully emulate all aspects of professional theatre. The most obvious difficulty for student theatre, is through monetary considerations. Every production is limited by a strict budget however student theatre has to navigate this problem on a much smaller scale.

Paying for the rights to works not yet in the public domain, is an astronomical expense – a clear and immediate obstacle to the ambitions and creativity of those who may want to adapt a well-known play in their own style. Likewise, large scale productions that need more expensive sets and costumes may be daunting to approach from the point of view of a student production company that desperately needs a play to break even.

This is not to say that student productions have not done an excellent job at navigating these issues. The Oxford University Drama Society’s New Writing Festival, for example, is an annual competition that aims to get the best student-writing to the stage. Do a quick Facebook search of ‘OUDS New Writing Festival 2019’ reveals four productions currently or recently put on as part of the festival around Oxford – Leap of Faith, Cutting Room, and Plagued are all showing at the Burton Taylor Studio in 6th week.

However, student theatre’s pace and range does come with other issues. The aims of marketing in student theatre revolve solely around selling out a run of a show. There is little thought put into the longevity of a show, or what its future might be after that run. Selling out a theatre in Oxford alongside doing a full-time degree is no small achievement by any means, but it does mean shows that are very popular and garner a lot of hype at the time of showing may not be able to translate the popularity into long term success or, indeed, anything other than a good week on stage.

When asked about the difficulties of navigating student theatre, Jake Rich, who has worked on around twelve student productions in Oxford, said: “In general, with student theatre you are practising the professional production of a show. This means you get it all ready, and do about 3-5 performances, which in the professional world be considered preview performances and then, instead of doing weeks and weeks of shows like you would in the professional world, you stop.

“This is a shame because really good stuff doesn’t live very long at all.
Sometimes you can keep something alive, especially new writing, by
taking it to the fringe or perhaps a national or international tour. In rare cases, for example recent Oxford new writing projects Lights over Tesco car park and Nice Guy, a piece of new writing might really take off and become a published play.”

It is not necessarily the popularity or impact of a show during its first run that determines whether it will last beyond that run. Shows like Khameleon Productions’ Medea, which attracted plenty of attention and hype when put on last Trinity, can remain a memorable one-off. On the other hand, shows that attracted decent but not comparable hype during their initial run, like OUDS New Writing and Worcester Productions’ The C Bomb, which ran around this time last year, have managed to sustain that hype with a successful place at the Fringe and are now taking it to London.

The fast-paced environment of Oxford student theatre means that what survives and what fades out of memory is not determined by the money put into a run, or even necessarily the popularity of that first production. Rather, it is the initiative of those involved, combined with the quality of the writing and its potential for flexibility, that determines the longevity of a student theatre show.

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