31 March–7 April, 2004

In no small degree I owe my career to NSDF: winning the student critic’s award (which was not, at the time, named after Harold Hobson) opened the first doors to me as a cub reviewer.  And as the years have passed, I’ve come more and more to appreciate the sense that underlies all those prescriptions that Robert Hewison would dispense in his “how to...” talks at the Festival.  (Prescriptions that this piece will brazenly flout, as I refer casually to shows at the Festival on the assumption that you’ll already have read Robert’s description of them on the previous page.)

Robert’s own Sunday Times pieces each year not only provide object lessons in enacting those tips – find a thematic superstructure, allow value judgements to emerge organically from reportage, etc. – but also show a great skill in reconciling his position of double trust: however he and his more transient colleagues on the judging panel in a given year may evaluate individual shows, he remains (as a member of the board of trustees of the charitable company that is NSDF Ltd) an articulate and committed advocate of the Festival as a whole, to both his own paper and other actual or potential sponsors.


Robert concentrates, unsurprisingly, on the plays performed during the week-long Festival and on the awards announced at the end of that week.  NSDF, however, is so much more.  A wide-ranging programme of workshops and masterclasses, a series of daily discussions of productions seen at the Festival, an expanding social programme (including a pub-style quiz the like of which Dante couldn’t have imagined in his Hell), a daily Festival magazine produced through the night by a team of volunteers and casual recruits...  It’s theoretically possible to spend the entire week of the NSDF engaged 24/7 in Festival activities.  (And ah, I remember the days when I could damn near manage it, too...)

For instance, before 2004 I had never given much thought to the logistics of such a programme of events.  This year, though, it was hard to avoid such thoughts.  Time and again, the scheduling just kept refusing to go right.

More performances

Much of the problem arose with the best will in the world.  Rather than force shows to lose their intimacy by playing to too-large audiences so that every Festivalgoer could see every show at one performance or another, the alternative route was taken of scheduling more performances of each.  This, though, meant that for the first time most productions had to face three or more performances in a single day.  Such a policy took its toll particularly on the 90-minute production of The Laramie Project, which had to undertake three performances and a dress rehearsal within the space of twelve hours or so, whilst also sporadically struggling with an unexpectedly intrusive sound design leaking up from a production immediately beneath its venue.  The accolades given to the company from Queen’s University, Belfast, and their director Des Kennedy were all the more hard-won and well-deserved for maintaining the quiet power of their show in such conditions.
For the first time I can recall, too, that notion of complete coverage was also sacrificed.  A couple of the selected pieces, Leicester College’s Dinner and the home team’s Unlucky For Some, proved impossible to show to the entire Festivalgoing community, despite even a staggering 27 performances in the case of the latter show... or rather, in the cases: the packing-case-like booths in which one individual audient at a time could see one part of the thirteen-piece dramatic collage.


The presence or absence of difficulties like these is largely going to be a lottery from year to year, depending on the shows selected for performance, which in turn depends on those entered.  And yet there are a few wisps floating around here of the basic question: what is NSDF for?  What does it seek to do?

The Festival’s selectors (who, this year, included several new recruits, a number of whom had never been to the event and so were flying blind, so to speak) have hitherto always adhered to a single criterion when assessing shows: dramatic effectiveness.  It really has to be that vague; the only alternative is a kind of credit-and-debit, checklist-based approach.  The policy followed has always seemed to me to be absolutely right.  Under the previous artistic director, Nick Stimson, some additional heed was also paid to particular adventurousness... not at the expense of all else, but it made for the welcome return of a concept that many performing arts students today will not have heard of: the right to fail.  It’s hard to tell after a single year in harness, but it seems to me that Stimson’s successor Andrew Loretto is taking a similar tack.  Again, this is entirely laudable; and when, as this year, that approach results in a higher than usual crop of (relative) lemons, well, there’s always next year.  As the motto of the Round Table organisation has it, adopt, adapt, and improve.

No new writing

Just as noticeable, though perhaps more worrying, was the complete absence of new writing at this year’s Festival.  The selected productions consisted of five extant works and eight devised pieces.  Robert rather glosses over this when mentioning the Sunday Times playwriting award: yes, the East Durham double-act behind Shaking Cecelia deserved the accolade, but the point had to be stretched in order to accommodate a script which emerged from a devising process.  Conversely, the Personal Managers' Association award for new writing was withheld (as was the Cameron Mackintosh award for an outstanding contribution to music theatre, of which there was likewise none).  One fervently hopes that this phenomenon, too, is simply the way the cards fell in this particular year, rather than a more ingrained generational shift; if the latter, it may become necessary to try to set one of those otherwise undesirable conditions in selection policy.

The preponderance of devised work also led to a huge upswing in deployment of the "it means whatever you want it to mean" cop-out in discussion. Thankfully, the Festival community gave this defence the short shrift it deserves, not least in the energetic pages of Noises Off magazine and the most rigorous debating forum of all, the bar. It was noticeable that the most warmly received productions, both amongst the Festgoers in general and by the judges, were those with the clearest idea of what they had set out to achieve with their audience: the BRIT School for Performing Arts' meditation on love and death murmur [sic], Peterborough Regional College's impressionistic, apocalyptic two-hander As If A Rag, and the University of Hull's fantastical bathtime duet Tapped.

Remarkable achievement

A certain amount of frustration was in the air this year, as is no doubt evident from a report like this which talks about everything but the bloody shows.  But the Festival as a whole is a remarkable achievement: a crew of volunteer techies creating performance spaces almost overnight out of a bar and a school gym among other venues; another team of diehard volunteers turning a tea-room into a through-the-night magazine office and print works; several dozen local student organisers oiling the wheels with the sweat of their brows; several hundred Festivalgoers immersing themselves in the whole brew – hooking up and otherwise commingling, as the film of Yellow Submarine has it.  Festival discoveries ranging from Fiona Clift, the first school-age winner of the prestigious Buzz Goodbody directing award in living memory if not ever, to Yoram Mosenzon’s combination of energy and rigour in performance and inexhaustible enthusiasm for all aspects of the Festival offstage.  More than enough to bring a great big soppy grin to the face of even the bluest Meanie.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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