I think it was the moment we were pulled up in a fairylight-draped chariot in the rain, sofas screwed on and a bear head at the helm, with the sound of X-factor entrance music blaring, that I realised just what a ridiculous and incredible thing the National Student Drama Festival is.
(“I was walking along and I suddenly thought to myself- is this happiness?” – Best speech of the closing ceremony, Pavel Drábek)
Most students have never heard of NSDF. For those of us lucky enough to have been, it feels a little like falling down the rabbit hole.
NSDF is a week where students from all around the country perform selected shows to a group of visiting artists, judges and audience members. It’s a week of theatre, conversation, drinking and exhaustion. It’s a week of the unexpected, except that you can expect to be knackered by the end of it. It is, I reckon, one of the best and most thought-provoking weeks of the year.
At this year’s festival, I was working as Deputy Editor for Noises Off, the magazine that publishes a print edition daily and more frequent content online, responding to the shows, events and discussions.
Having been in Scarborough for the past however many years, the new setting in Hull gave the week something fresh. It also gave us an office right next to the bar.
This festival mentally pushes you to question choices, both theatrical and moral, with tricky conversations generally prompted by Chris Thorpe’s expert chairing of discussions. It makes you ask things you’d never considered before, like: “Should we have to out transgender actors?” or “Is it our place to say this?” or in our case, “Can we publish the word ‘cunt’ or is it okay anyway because it’s written as an anagram?”
The technicians and management team throughout the week are astonishing. With little sleep, they build and organise multiple venues, hundreds of people and very heavy equipment. This year’s tech team even found time to indulge our childish humour with increasingly extravagant Technician Impossibles, from making us a Hullywood sign with built-in hammocks to a life-size version of Chris Thorpe made of flapjack, and from a pixelated painting projected on the side of a building to the glorious chariot that took us to the closing ceremony.
There’s a list longer than the amount of bacon rolls we ate (a lot) of people I didn’t get to talk to, or wish I’d spent more time with. But I also met a bunch of exciting new people, had conversations I’d never have anticipated, cried at very bizarre times and saw shows I hope I’ll never forget.
One of those was Celebration. I’ve known Ben Kulvichit, one of the two cast members of Emergency Chorus, for several years. We first met through Twitter, he’s been to visit me at University and I once encouraged him to buy an octopus. Because he knew me before the festival, I was asked to take part in a section of his and Clara Potter-Sweet’s show, Celebration. They asked me to prepare a three minute speech about myself, “right now”, to be honest, and to perform it while they did a costume change.
Half an hour before the show I was told that an elderly resident in a care home, who I work with on my University placement, and who I’ve come to really care for, had died. He was called Dennis.
I didn’t want to mess anything up for Ben and Clara and there wasn’t time to get a replacement so I went in to the show ready to do my bit. In the rush of finishing a deadline and heading to the show, the reality of his death hadn’t really caught up with me. When the cue came to get up onstage, I stood, script in hand. The audience couldn’t have been in a jollier mood, from this mental, joyous, buffooningly beautiful show.
And then I decided to talk about Dennis.
I explained about my placement. I said there was this song we did, that Dennis always enjoyed. He could never quite keep up with it, or sing it exactly in tune, but he always really went for it. So I wondered if, instead of doing the speech I’d prepared, we could maybe sing that song together.
I broke down crying about thirty seconds in but we did it, and not just that, we did it in a bloody round. And then everyone cheered. I can only imagine how thrilled he’d be if he knew so many people were cheering for him.
That evening, and throughout the rest of the festival, strangers kept coming up to me to give me a hug. I’m so grateful this show gave me a chance to celebrate him. And now, hopefully, a bunch of other people will remember him too, even if just when they hear that song again, sometime in the future.
All of the fourteen shows had moments/ideas/concepts worthy of note and discussion. The paper and the idea of a live writer in Feat.Theatre’s Say It Loud. The helium heartbreak and the three and the a half seconds in Sad Little Man. The awareness of self and laughter at the wrong places in Caitlin McEwan’s Thick Skin. David Callanan’s tech in Theatre 42’s Nothing Is Coming, The Pixels Are Huge. The ensemble’s raw honesty in Leyton Sixth Form College’s No Human Is Illegal. The growth of the music and the genius sexist-joke tap dance in O Collective’s he she they.
(I didn’t fall asleep in a single one.)
Noises Off was an amazing thing to be a part of this year. Editor Richard Tzanov’s sarcasm and awful taste in music were a joy to work with. Designer Nick Kay is a dream, photographers Aenne Pallasca and Giulia Delprato extremely talented, and our writers are fantastic. We wrote when lots of other people had gone to bed, didn’t get much sunlight in the NOFFice and went a little bit mad attempting to learn the dance to Doin’ it Right.
Some of my favourite pieces from the week were:
Lily James’ Celebration review and Tinder date.
Florence Bell’s reflection on the week.
Phoebe Graham’s beautiful piece on he she they.
Eve Allin proving an old boy wrong.
Nathan Dunn’s simple request.
And of course, the week wouldn’t quite have been the same without Miriam Schechter’s poetic response to bad reviews.
The week felt more political than previous festivals I’ve experienced. With two plays about the refugee crisis, and various others alluding to political events, much discussion centred around rights, responsibilities and care. When the topic of content warnings were raised for Sad Little Man, discussion was heated. A lot of people in the audience have had personal experiences here. It is easy to forget the reality of people’s lives when you’re talking about everything hypothetically, or theatrically.
But there was also something about the festival that made it feel distant from reality. When the refugee camp in Dunkirk caught fire it took a long time for the news to spread, and the bombing in Afghanistan seemed a million miles away. For a festival attempting to be so fiercely current and political, the busy schedule almost didn’t allow for the really real world to seep through. People talk about the Edinburgh bubble. I didn’t realise it was a thing here too.
Someone said it takes a year to really feel at home at NSDF. The same people tend to come back, so returning means you’ll certainly have a ready-built base of friends, and it gives you time to work up confidence to chat to VAs at lunch, to ask questions at discussions, or to write what you really think in the magazine.
I hope anyone who went for the first time this year wants to come back. It’s an incredibly special thing to be a part of. I’m very grateful to have fallen into this rabbit hole.