Various venues, Scarborough

1–7 April, 2006

As one grows older, generational observations begin to occur – the “policemen are getting younger” syndrome.  One of the most frequently voiced remarks along these lines at Scarborough this year was “Aren’t young people incredibly media-trained these days?”  To explain: after a show at NSDF has completed its batch of scheduled performances, the company then take part in a discussion session about it.  In some previous years, groups had been quite unprepared for the amount and intensity of criticism voiced in such discussions, so a system was introduced whereby the debate would be structured around three questions asked by the company.

This year, however, what became apparent was the extent to which this structure may now be used by companies to delimit what they are prepared to hear.  There has always been an occasional example of a company – or, more usually, a director and/or writer – who behaved in discussion as if almost all criticism had been pre-empted in his or her own thoughts, and the rest simply wasn’t worth wasting time on.  On a number of occasions in 2006, companies used their questions (whether consciously or not) in a way which made it all but impossible to address any aspect of the production other than those they were interested in.  Like politicians in interview, they do all they can to define the agenda on terms comfortable to them.


This became most glaringly apparent in the case of John Dwyer’s Making Ugly.  In his questions to the discussion, Dwyer seemed concerned entirely with the conceptual impact of his writing – the “why” of the piece – and displayed a near-total unwillingness or inability to consider the “how”, in the shape of its grossly inept execution (under Dwyer’s direction).  In fact the play was the most shoddily executed work I have seen in 19 NSDFs, and one of the handful of worst shows in the 3000+ of my reviewing career.  Nor were its champions on the Festival’s board of selectors (both of them, no doubt coincidentally, based in and around Huddersfield) prepared to defend it to any significant extent in the discussion.

Making Ugly was scheduled towards the end of the Festival week, and so any general debate about modes and manners of criticism was prevented.  This may have been no bad thing: usually when the subject arises at NSDF, it takes the form of much tutting about “negative criticism” (with the implicit definition of “constructive criticism” as “feedback I’m prepared to hear”), occasionally escalating to a kind of communal hysteria.  At such times, though, much is made of the Festival’s aspect as a learning environment.  Well, quite apart from the fact that people are also learning how to watch and write about plays, and that this should be nurtured every bit as much as dramatic practices, surely an essential part of learning is being confronted with unexpected information and processing it.  How can someone learn how to be better if they will not acknowledge the possibility of grave error in the first place?


I think that, in striving to prevent blood-letting in discussion, the pendulum has now swung too far in the other direction, and that companies need to be exposed to a little more uncertainty in the assessment of their work by the Festival community.  Perhaps not quite, though, to the extent once practised by playwright Tim Fountain in his years at NSDF: one notorious exchange in discussion ran, “Well, I thought it were shite” – “No, don’t hold back, Tim, tell us what you really thought” – “All right, I thought it were fookin’ shite!”

A  pity, too, that no discussion session was scheduled this year for the Festival as a whole.  This was, I am sure, due to Festival director Andrew Loretto’s imminent departure and the sense that feedback was not therefore usefully directed at him this year, rather than due to the amount of candid “negative criticism” voiced (not least by me) in 2005’s Festival discussion.  Nevertheless, incoming director Holly Kendrick (late of the Caird Company and co-founder of Sound Theatre just off Leicester Square) was present for the whole week and could have taken any such remarks on board, besides which such sessions are also of value to the Festival community, making them feel part of the whole enterprise and able to influence its direction.


These are little more than cavils, however.  My report on NSDF in this magazine last year was unrestrained in its criticism of various areas of policy and operation.  I am both happy and relieved to report that the Festival of 2006 was an altogether better year in terms both of social atmosphere and quality of work.  Making Ugly was the only real stinker among eleven selected productions.  (It would be nice, though, to see the number of selected domestic shows return to pre-2005 levels of 14 or 15 during the week.)

As Robert Hewison notes in his Sunday Times report, after a couple of years in which new writing had proven thin on the ground, this year featured seven pieces of new writing, three devised pieces and only one extant work, Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way… which, although less than five years old, seemed in some ways to come from another world with its pre-September 11 views on political violence.  The presence of existing texts within a couple of new pieces – Emily Westwood’s The Romeo And Juliet Syndrome and The Solvents’ Leviathan (a devised adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick) – reminded us that classics can always be reshaped, but did little to suggest how a young company today might approach such a play on its own terms rather than on theirs.

Audience participation

The other notable trait during the week was audience involvement. Sometimes, as in (the otherwise) Defunct Red Cloth’s meditations on bereavement, it was simply a matter of addressing us as people rather than theatrical spectators; sometimes, as in Leviathan, utilising us as a collective (in this case, the crew of the Pequod); sometimes, as in The Romeo And Juliet Syndrome and The Solvents’ other presentation The *Cosmic Family* Workshop-Seminar, enrolling individuals for specific purposes.  I found myself becoming more and more interested in what happens when such operations don’t work.  I happened not to be in the mood for a bit of mock-speed-dating in The R&J Syndrome, but with all credit to the actress in question, she persisted and began to swing me around; those who dared to question the *Cosmic Family*’s wackily cultish merchandising were dealt with by a company response that was funny precisely because it was so unbending, consisting as it did of simple repetitions of scripted remarks.

But most audience participation still seems to rely on our essential passivity, the only difference being that we docilely do as is required of us rather than equally docilely sitting back; and it seems to me that any show which involves such a sequence, without giving the audience member the option to decline to be involved, needs to have formulated a back-up strategy in case the punter behaves awkwardly.  I remember an NSDF show several years ago in which the audience was almost violently dragooned into the theatre by the cast; the imposing Mike Bradwell of the Bush Theatre gently but firmly refused to do as ordered until the actors had broken out of their foul-mouthed, heavy-mannered characters and said “please”; it was an object lesson in the necessity of leaving yourself a get-out from audience involvement.


Part of the delight of NSDF is that it continues to give rise to such thoughts and musings about whole areas of theatre which may never have come into focus for one before.  Theory, as much as practice, is repeatedly remade by each succeeding generation, and the opportunity to see young theatrical talent constantly refreshing the medium is one to be cherished and preserved.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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