Various venues, Scarborough
4-11 April, 2001

Nick Stimson was under no illusions as to the nature of his task as the new Artistic Director of the National Student Drama Festival: "They said: 'We want to keep things exactly the same, and change them completely.'" After three decades helmed by the indefatigable Clive Wolfe, Stimson's first NSDF in the hot-seat (held between 4th and 11th April in its customary Scarborough home) showed that he comes as near as mortal man can to squaring that particular circle.

A new, more explicitly detailed artistic policy for the Festival enshrines respect for adventurousness and innovation as well as fundamental dramatic effectiveness. The result was that, of the fifteen shows selected from 115 entries for this year's Festival, twelve were new pieces, with half of those being devised rather than written, and of the extant plays none dated from earlier than 1990.

Another consequence of the new policy was that "the right to fail" once again became a vital and dynamic part of the week-long theatrical discourse. Some of the pieces had developed considerably since the time of their selection, and not always in profitable directions. Sometimes, as ever with NSDF, the process of transferring a show into a new (often custom-built) space in a limited time proved a major obstacle.

What was noticeable this year, however, was that in both the Festival discussions and the daily magazine Noises Off (which I edit), the NSDF community showed an unparalleled readiness to understand and accept the risks and the fluidity of this process. To those of us bracing ourselves for a repeat of last year's mass hysteria about "destructive criticism" (more like a four-day practical impro workshop on The Crucible), this year's Fest atmosphere was a glorious relief. So that, for instance, Atlantica, a new save-the-whale play from Cambridge which blended B-movie and SF elements with an undertow of seriousness reminiscent of the TV series Edge Of Darkness, could play to three audiences giving radically different responses from silent seriousness to howls of campy laughter, and accept that each response was both legitimate and respectful on its own terms.

Some Festival faces consolidated and developed their existing reputations. Dominic Leclerc of Warwick University demonstrated once again his ceaseless questing for extreme wordless theatricality through physical devised pieces, albeit with less success this year than last. Peter Morris of Oxford continues to write fiercely intelligent, morally uncompromising plays, but modified his personal stance so that he now seemed merely to be playing the role of the Festival's prince of darkness rather than actually living it. In discussion and in her reviews, Jennifer Lindsay had previously shown her acuity at questioning the agendas behind dramatic stories; with The Grandmother Project (which challenged the word "National" in the Fest's title by being selected from California's Stanford University), she carried that interrogation over into the fibre of the piece itself.

This year the usual batch of end-of-week awards either in predefined categories or at the discretion of the judges (actor Susannah Doyle, critic Robert Hewison and director Mike Shepherd) were augmented by a clutch of bursaries and residencies: at the Stephen Joseph Theatre for a techie, at the RNT for a producer and at the Bush Theatre for a director. The last of these went to Jamie Lloyd of the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, whose production of the musical Falsettoland also netted Lloyd the RSC's Buzz Goodbody Student Director award, the Cameron Mackintosh award for contribution to musical theatre for the company as a whole and a judges' commendation for performance to Canadian actor Emily Dykes (who also appeared in The Grandmother Project).

Yet, surprisingly, Falsettoland was not quite the favourite show of the community as a whole. Another LIPA show, an adaptation of Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, got the kind of reception I last saw at the first NSDF performance of Richard Cameron's Can't Stand Up For Falling Down in 1990 not just delight at the performance and emotional solidarity with the tale, but an underlying sense that, in watching Liz White onstage, we were in at the start of an exciting and heartening talent. But in the first-ever Festgoers' Award, the 700-odd NSDF attendees honoured York University's Pull My Strings, a beguiling yet thoughtful tale of a reclusive puppeteer undergoing drama-therapy with his creations (which the company maintain owed nothing to Being John Malkovich!).

The usual comprehensive programme of workshops and masterclasses (this year from the likes of Michael Attenborough, Clare Venables and Boublil & Schönberg) ensured that at every single moment of the week there was something to do. The Festival pub quiz, retired last year, was revived by public demand, and yes, the prizes were stolen once again (another Fest tradition). The collective atmosphere was the warmest for several years. Perhaps most significantly, though, Nick Stimson's palpable desire to make an immediate and positive impact paid off impressively, with extra-curricular events such as a junk percussion workshop from Weapons Of Sound. He can relax now: all he has to do is repeat it every year from here on.

Written for The Stage.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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