White middle class guilt is a powerful force. It’s a good thing that the sense of enjoying such luxuries as political stability, clean drinking water and student theatre while some other poor bastard is stuck around the u-bend of life through no fault of their own but the location of their birth and the world’s prejudices causes people to want to make the world a better place.
I don’t know if this was the feeling that Mark Ravenhill was trying to evoke when he opened up discussion on what NSDF should be doing to increase the diversity of shows at the Festival but I imagine that was the initial gut reaction of the largely white middle-class audience. As noble as the sentiment is, using an emotive response to fully answer a question like this should be dismissed from the off.
Thankfully the people I’ve spoken to about the issue have agreed that NSDF should always be about showcasing the very spanking best of student theatre. Positive discrimination of any kind when it comes to selection would be disastrous. If it happened the Festival Director might as well get up on stage with the ‘tick-a-box’ show, pat them all on the head and distribute ‘Didn’t they do well?’ badges. It’s offensive to all involved and benefits no one.
But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a huge proportion of people who are not represented in student theatre. The point David Betz-Heinemann made about not being able to find a black female student to cast in a play is definitely something that’s true in Bedlam Theatre at Edinburgh University. I think we’ve wanted to put Othello on there for about the last 15 years now.
This is down to a problem with higher education in general though and these theatre companies are the wrong places to look if you want to increase diversity. However, as long as they remain the dominant forces in terms of repeated return years at NSDF it’s difficult to see how this will change.
The areas where attention needs to be focused is the drama companies that are just starting up, the ones that maybe don’t have financial means of others or come from places where putting on theatre is not the norm. These are the places where the quality of theatre may not be up to NSDF standards, caused by a lack of experience as opposed to talent. If these groups are given the support they need to sustain themselves over a period of years then no doubt down the line we’ll see a better slice of British culture at NSDF.
Expecting NSDF to fill this role though is expecting too much. The barriers to entry in theatre are just too high. With football anyone can pick up a ball and show off their skills (although they’d probably be better if they kicked it) at close to no cost. Before you even begin contemplating putting on a piece of theatre you have to pawn off at least one treasured item. And once you’ve done that you have to mortgage your grandmother in order to get to NSDF, because they’ve got spiralling costs and a foetus like reliance on the Arts Council’s financial placenta goodness.
And it’s not for the joy of putting on a show at NSDF either. Of course there’s a huge sense of pride at being selected and a great chance for everyone to learn and experience new things; but the real use of NSDF is as a stepping stone. A chance to be noticed and meet professionals in the field. Those who get the most out of NSDF are those who are looking to pursue their career professionally and these are the opportunities that NSDF should focus on by selecting the most talented. Talk of elitism can ruffle feathers but if the Festival isn’t concentrated on representing the most talented then the opportunities it provides are severely reduced.
The buck can only be passed so far though. I was appalled at how many people had only heard about NSDF by chance. If we want to make sure that the best student theatre in the country is put on then every single potential piece of student theatre should be aware that NSDF exists. If a student group do manage to put on a stunning piece of theatre against the odds and neither they nor NSDF are aware of each other’s existence then there’s a criminal waste of potential, and one that NSDF is more than capable of preventing.
The question is one that’s a nightmare to answer and I can’t see the situation changing drastically anytime soon. There’s no excuse for complacency as it’s arrogant to assume that the largely homogenous student group here in Scarborough represents the very finest theatrical talent in the UK. It’s a problem that stretches beyond the means and purpose of NSDF and will require the kind of joint social effort that’s always harder than it sounds. The problems and possible solutions I’ve outlined here are brief ideas so please take issue with them and write responses as it’s an issue that should be discussed.