Amy Scott talks to York students involved in the National Student Drama Festival
The annual National Student Drama Festival will this year be joining us in the sunny world of North Eastern Yorkshire or, more specifically, Scarborough. Seven venues in the town will host the crème de la crème of British student theatrical talent, between 29 March and 4 April. Talented youngsters ranging from GCSE students to recent graduates are competing to be selected for one of the ten performance slots available at the Festival. These places are highly prized and competition is high; on average 150-160 shows apply each year.
The main draw of the Festival for the students involved is the attention of theatre professionals, who give feedback on the productions and run workshops on their own area of expertise. The playwright Mark Ravenhill, who will be conducting one of the workshops this year, believes the festival to be highly important in helping the careers of those who pass through, noting that “the NSDF was a vital step in my development” and remarking on “how many thousands [it must] have affected in the past 50 years”.
Productions originating here at York have been successful at the NSDF in the past, and this year regular Drama Barn director Will Bowry is hoping to return to the festival and capitalise on the success of his previous entry Gagarin’s Way. This year his production will be Adam Rapp’s Stone Cold Dead Serious, a play which centres around a teenage boy called Wynne, who after becoming a champion video gamer, wins the chance to combat a samurai fighter in New York, ‘what working class America’s all about’.
Bowry is using two cast members from his previous production, Edward Watson, who’ll be playing Wynne, and John Hoyle, who also spoke to me about their previous experiences of the NSDF. All agree with Ravenhill that the event is a fantastic opportunity for aspiring thespians and directors alike, Watson simply because he so rarely hears a positive outlook on the life of an actor. “All you ever hear is ‘Don’t go into acting’, so it’s great to be somewhere where you can hear success stories from people who’ve already made it and get away from the usual negativity”. Bowry found the advice from professionals following the performances particularly helpful; “It really raised the standards of the production to another level. The level of detail these people would go into was above and beyond the sort of consideration you have the time and resources to deliberate in your average student production”.
However, although the positives of participating in the festival are apparent, the downsides of the organisational process can be very limiting; especially for those on a student budget. A large proportion of the work selected by the NSDF originates in high schools and sixth form colleges, bodies which tend to have funding for such artistic ventures. There is a £95 application fee, attendance fees for all involved in selected productions, and the living costs of staying in the designated location for the duration of the festival. Combined, these costs mean that funding issues can be very restricting for university applications, and, as Hoyle points out, this raises a number of class issues about who ends up as a successful applicant.
In comparison to other theatre festivals, such as the Edinburgh Fringe, Bowry believes the potential for success for student productions is higher at an event like the NSDF. At the Fringe, punters and newspaper critics are frequently more inclined, and encouraged, to visit and review bigger scale productions. However, at the NSDF the small number of productions and competitive selection techniques mean that student drama receives the attention and consideration it can never quite receive at a full scale theatre festival.
If you’d like to see Stone Cold Dead Serious before its hopeful progression to the stage at Scarborough, it is running for four nights in the Drama Barn at the end of Week 6.