Robert Bristow has been in the thick of Oxford student drama for 20 years in his role as BT studio manager; I spoke to him about theatre under the pandemic, standout shows, and his advice for aspiring student thesps…

How did you come to work at the BT, and how long have you been there?

“I trained and worked as an actor during the 80s and 90s, mainly working with companies where we had to do all our own stage management and administration. Those jobs come and go, so I came back to Oxford to work in my dad’s second-hand furniture shop and heard about the BT job at the pub one night. I got the job in 2000, which means I’ve been here almost 20 years exactly and makes me one of the most longstanding members of staff at Oxford Playhouse!”

What have you enjoyed the most about managing the BT? 

“I’ve always enjoyed coordinating and supporting the student programme, with such a huge variety of ideas and projects that groups put forward for presentation, whether they are well-known or original works, and then seeing the companies work together to pull them off. The Cuppers competition is always a highlight, too. It’s often people’s first time performing in a proper theatre space so they can be very nervous at the start of the week, and it’s amazing to see their confidence grow so much by the end. I love being able to support that – the spirit of it all is great!  I’ve also really enjoyed building up the BT’s programme out of term time. We’ve managed to get local groups, touring fringe productions, children’s performances, Christmas shows – a real variety of things.”

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How has the BT navigated lockdown? What are its plans moving forward into the post-lockdown world?

“When the pandemic broke out at the end of Hilary ​this year, we had to cancel all our scheduled shows for Easter, Trinity and the summer. We’d been planning to open the BT for small student group rehearsals or workshops from a few weeks ago, but with the second lockdown that’s had to stop too.  ​Although one student group did manage to use the window of rehearsal time and film their play – I would really like to see the ​studio used more in this way. A 50-seater is very hard to socially-distance in, so streaming to live audiences might be a short-term alternative.”

What do you think characterises Oxford student drama?

“The energy and enthusiasm!  Students here are always looking for new ideas and ways of doing things – even ​new productions of old classics are always interesting and innovative. In terms of drama in the BT specifically, the shows tend to be very intimate and experimental since the actors are so close to the audience. There is an atmosphere in there that lends itself to quite intense stuff.”

Are there any student shows which stick in your mind?

“It’s hard to pick just a few! The one which sticks in my mind in terms of popularity was a very trendy and out-there radio show called Blue Jam in 2001/2 – it was so popular and sold out really quickly. There have been lots of good Shakespeare adaptations – one punky Midsummer Night’s Dream was based around a huge rubbish tip – and some brilliant issues-based self-written drama. I don’t always get to watch all the shows, sadly, but I always enjoy it when I do!” 

From the ups and downs of the shows that you’ve seen, what would your advice be for an aspiring student production?

“Keeping it simple is a good thing. It’s difficult to create a realistic set in the BT, and in this century when we have television and film, we don’t need all that. I think that a more representative style works better. But if you’re having a simple set, it’s important to go as far as possible with the imagination of your acting and your words, and really play around with them. Also, work as a team! That’s really crucial. There have been shows where the director, even though they have great intentions and artistic integrity, has tried to do everything and has taken on too much. It’s important to bring in other people and use their strengths – I imagine that it is hard as a student to take the step to get involved and put yourself out there, so sometimes people won’t come forward, but it ​can be so valuable for everyone to encourage these people to take part.”

What would you like to see more of from Oxford student productions?

“I think that in the age of Covid, things which are interactive and online are going to be very popular. Finding ways to interact with the audience and to stream things effectively is a challenge, but it can work really well and be genuinely inspiring. I know we all want to be in a live space again, but in the absence of that, I think there are some really exciting opportunities.”