“Always Have A Spare Castle” | What I learned at NSDF ’16

This post is about two weeks overdue, but I didn’t have a blog then, and I do now, so here we go. At the end of March I spent ten days working on the management team at the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough, now in its 60th year of celebrating student theatre. For those of you who haven’t been subjected to me nattering on about it non-stop since I got back, NSDF showcases the very best of student theatre selected from hundreds of entries throughout the year, as well as providing workshops led by theatre professionals and holding daily discussions about the social and political issues that affect the theatre industry. It was one of the most important experiences of my life (or, at least my life since I decided to pursue a career in theatre), and I would love to share with you some of the things I learned. This post is likely to be long and rambling, so get comfortable, make a cuppa, and settle in.

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[My beautiful artwork on the NSDF festgoers’ messageboard]

1. There is no career path.

In a workshop on ‘Being an Assistant Director’ led by Sean Linnen, I learned that the term ‘assistant director’ is a vague term that Sean later told us essentially means ‘being all things to all people’, sometimes synonymous with ‘dramaturg’, sometimes ‘mediator’, and sometimes ‘person who makes tea in order to solve arguments’ (a genuine tactic, apparently). Making yourself indispensable is the key, he said, to ensuring that you are kept in work, and to cultivating good relationships with directors who will want to work with you again. This advice extends far beyond assisting directors and actors in the rehearsal room, however, and it’s something that I found reflected in the people I met throughout the week. I met people who wrote and performed their own politically-driven solo plays, people who wrote collaboratively or who led drama workshops for children. I met Prasanna Puwanarajah, who studied medicine at Oxford and worked as a junior doctor for a number of years before switching careers entirely and moving into acting, directing, and writing. I met Alan Ayckbourn, the second most produced playwright in the UK (after Shakespeare). I met Luke Barnes, primarily a playwright who expressed increasing frustration at being recognised far more for his role in Game of Thrones, and who encouraged every festgoer to measure their success only by their own standards, and not by observing the steps that others are taking to secure a future in a notoriously not-at-all secure industry. Clearly, there is no career path. Recognition of that fact is oddly freeing.

2. Super specific techniques for directing:

– Resist the condition. It’s always more interesting to watch someone try not to cry, than actually cry. (Sean Linnen)
– The more you move, the less powerful you are. Plant yourself. (Henry Bell)
– On theatre in the round: corners are powerful, the middle is vulnerable. (Henry Bell)
– Engage with your audience in a way that makes them feel like it’s made for them. (Alan Ayckbourn)
– Distance gives tension. Stand up. (Sean Linnen)
– Put the actors in the shit. At the centre of comedy is cruelty. (Henry Bell)

3. ARTICULATE OR DIE.

In a women-only workshop on ‘Being A Director’ led by Tinuke Craig, I learned how to pitch a play. She had us do an exercise in pairs where we spent five minutes each discussing a play we would love to put on, why and how, etc. and then feeding back to the group. In discussing these hypothetical productions, Tinuke continually asked: ‘Why this play? Why you? Why now?’ 

Pitching, she said, is one of the most important things to know how to do, especially if we’re keen on having some say in the shows we direct (which I am). Her advice was to have an answer for what you want to do, why you’re the person to do it, and why now is the time. This is true for any kind of performance work, and it’s something that had been articulated in different ways by a number of the visiting artists throughout the week: there needs to be a reason you want to do a project other than ‘I really like this play’ or ‘I need more experience’. You need to be clear and confident about your ideas in order to convince someone else that it’s worth their time, effort, money and resources. In other words, as Tinuke Craig said: articulate or die.

4. Don’t be a P.A.M.

My friend Connie, a fellow management team volunteer, introduced me to a term in the theatre world that I had not heard previously, but instantly related to. She explains it a lot better than I could, so click here for a full explanation of the P.A.M.

5. Fifteen minutes can change your life.

The most powerful performance at the festival was the shortest. I Can’t Breathe, a one-woman show written, directed and performed by the outstandingly talented Modupe Salu, was fifteen minutes of my life I will never forget. It drove me to tears and left me shaking. I Can’t Breathe earned Modupe Salu the Buzz Goodbody Director Award and the Spotlight Most Promising Actress Award, only narrowly missing out on the Festgoers Award by a single vote. Eric Garner, killed by New York police in 2014 after being put in a chokehold and repeating the words ‘I can’t breathe’ until he died, inspired the title, and Modupe Salu uses his words almost as a metaphor for the historical oppression of black people. I will not attempt to describe the performance, as there is no way for me to do it justice, but it was an experience I will certainly never forget. Remember her name: Modupe Salu is going places.

6. Seeing and discussing bad theatre is often more valuable than seeing and discussing good theatre.

There was a specific performance I saw at NSDF which I had very strong feelings about, as did almost every single person I spoke to about it. There were many reasons why I hated this particular performance, but what was interesting is that it was probably the most talked-about play at the festival. It sparked conversations about ethics, about casting against race, and about making good theatre in general. We talked about this play for hours, and I learned a lot from it. This tends to be the case with bad theatre – we want to talk about it, we want someone to agree with us, and we want to be able to make our work better because of it. This is important.

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[NSDF open mic night event]

7. Talk to strangers.

My mother is a New Yorker, and as a result of this, I talk to everyone. This has worked in my favour, as people tend to remember me, even if it is as that annoying person who wouldn’t shut up. In his workshop on ‘Directors, Directing and Training’, Andrew McKinnon phrased this as ‘collecting a directory of useful people’, but at NSDF it was simply a case of talking to strangers. The best thing about attending NSDF isn’t just the great shows, the workshops, the discussions – it’s the fact that every evening, there is a bar full of established and emerging theatre professionals to chat to and network with. Not only was this useful in terms of making contacts for my career, but it gave me an incredible amount of confidence. The people I met in the bar in the evenings, in the workshops, and at shows, were either students in the same boat as me, who dream to create and perform, or visiting artists currently working professionally in the industry. What was incredible about the atmosphere at NSDF was the level of respect – everyone was treated as an equal, and this gave me confidence. I felt valued, I felt respected, and I felt like an artist. I felt like I deserved to call myself a director, and people treated me like one. People asked me about myself, about my ideas and my work, and listened with interest when I spoke. NSDF gave me so much, and inspired me in many ways, but above all, it gave me an immense amount of confidence to chase after a dream, and a collection of people who prove that it’s worth it.

8. Take yourself seriously.

During the workshop on directing with Andrew McKinnon, I had the chance to have a one-to-one session with Charlotte Bence, the student coordinator for Equity. The day before I arrived at NSDF, I had just found out that I have been accepted onto Mountview’s MA in Theatre Directing. I was excited and mildly terrified, stunned at my acceptance. Charlotte sternly said to me that I must take myself seriously, especially as a woman, because I will have a much harder time in this industry (or any, for that matter) than a man. If I take myself seriously, she told me, other people will too. The only artist in a family of scientists and the youngest child, I have always tended to use humour as a way to shield my insecurities and pretend that I am okay with being ‘the screw-up’. Being told by a professional that I can and should take myself seriously was something of a wake-up call. I am serious about being a director, and so I shouldn’t settle for less than being taken seriously as one.

 9. “Always have a spare castle.” – Chris Thorpe

I had never been to Scarborough – or, as we more lovingly called it, Scarbados – before NSDF. The Spa, the main hub of the festival, sat right on the seafront, and in the distance: a castle. I did not notice the castle. I was too preoccupied with the sea. I don’t often find myself by the sea, having spent most of my life in North London, so the sea amazed me. There were waves. And lots of muddy dogs. And the tide- it came in and out, as tides do. If you live by the sea, this isn’t anything new. If you’ve only ever lived in big cities, this is exciting, in a very childlike way. Or maybe, it’s just me. But I didn’t notice the castle. I knew it was there but I didn’t think “Oh look, a castle!” in the way that I thought “OH LOOK! THE SEA!” Chris Thorpe, writer and actor and possibly the most kind and likeable man I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, mentioned this castle one day. I asked, “Which castle?” He looked at me with bemusement. “The one on the hill?” I continued. After a pause, he said “No, the other one – the spare one.” It took me a minute to get the sarcasm, because I’m bad at sarcasm, but he went on to say: “That’s my advice. Always have a spare castle.” We had been drinking, and I doubt this was of any consequence of him, but for some reason, it was one of the most memorable comments of the week.

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[Fellow management team babes, by the sea. THE SEA!]

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