The Festival is having a weird effect on my perception. I keep getting the feeling that I’m seeing double. Faces, names, places, they all keep repeating themselves in front of my eyes. I hallucinate shows that my deluded brain tells me I’ve seen before. Am I going insane? Has the crushing, exhausting pressure of sleep deprivation and misguided alcohol consumption finally cracked my tiny little head? Or are eight out of the twelve shows really from the same four universities? The pink elephant that keeps following me around assures me that it’s the latter.
Even out of those with a feeble single entry, Dartington are Festival staples and University of Hull’s Never Enough is basically the new and improved Strict Machine of last year. Meanwhile, despite a year’s absence, Edinburgh’s Last Yak is a fully-automated Haozkla redux fitted with surface-to-air missiles.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed either; last year there was a Judges’ Commendations award for Promoting Student Theatre that went to York, Warwick, Nottingham and Sheffield. An award that was a bizarrely unnecessary ‘Thanks for turning up. Again.’ gesture, and also a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the Festival is fed by a thin drip of student bodies.
This isn’t meant to undermine the quality of the shows that are on this week, nor am I trying to second-guess the selection process. Choosing what you think are the best student shows and what would best represent the Festival is undoubtedly a nightmare, and if the best shows happen to come from the same universities then so be it. But why are we being treated to the same companies doing plays that are conceptually identical to the shows they’ve done in previous years? Either there are no better examples of puppetry and physical theatre in existence out there or they’re just not being seen.
Under the pressure of Arts Council shenanigans at NSDF08 the question was asked about what NSDF could do to reach out to a wider range of students. Now a year on and that appears to have been forgotten. When the cast of Herons tell you that they only discovered NSDF by accident and that they wish they could have submitted shows the previous three years it can’t help but confirm the nagging thought that there’s a whole wealth of inspiring student theatre that we’re not privy to.
I hesitate to say that we’re owed some kind of explanation as to why there’s such a thin selection of shows because there isn’t necessarily anyone to blame. But the distorted representation and the still widespread ignorance of the existence of NSDF among the wider student body have to be openly addressed by someone higher up, one of those official types who organise these things, even if it is to say, ‘The quality student theatre is limited to a small range of places and that’s just the way it is.’ Then at least we can look at what those places are doing well and how other student bodies could learn from that.
In the meantime I’ve decided to cut cheese out of my diet and see if that clears stuff up.