Features EssaysFestivals Published 12 April 2018

NSDF: Making Change

Naomi Obeng reports back from National Student Drama Festival's collective conversations on how to make spaces fairer, more accessible, and more representative.
Naomi Obeng

NSDF Opening Ceremony. Photo: Aenne Pallasca

Every year for a week in March or April, the National Student Drama Festival opens its extravagant and welcoming doors to some of the best student theatre in the UK (although really, only there’s generally only work from England there, which is another conversation in itself).

This year, NSDF set up home on the campus of De Montfort University, Leicester. Of the 74 university and school submissions, selectors picked the 16 best shows to come and perform at the festival – a mixture of solo shows, ensemble pieces, new writing, and devised work. As well as the performances, each of which the festival goers were scheduled to see, the packed week included two full days of workshops, daily discussions and very welcome evening fun. Awards were given out by the judges at the end of the festival, with the aim to support the young artists, critics and companies to take their work further out into the world. The festival serves for many as a step between the student and professional worlds of theatre. Cue a breath-taking week of constantly checking schedules, moving back and forth between De Montfort’s many performance spaces watching brilliant and challenging work, and stretching our legs to (barely) make it on time to events held at Curve theatre all the way down the road.

I was there as a writer for Noises Off, the magazine that reviews the shows and aims to provoke discussions around them, and around the festival in general. This year we were a busy team of 10, writing and putting together content for the magazine’s daily print issue and online content from our very open office in the main campus building. It was my first NSDF. I didn’t know much about the festival at all, so I was interested to hear that the first discussion group was to feature a 7-strong panel of theatre professionals talking about the changes they, and we, want to see in theatre. No institution is perfect, and one that has been running as long as NSDF (founded in 1956) is bound to have inherited structures that may need a little rethink. It seemed pertinent and important to be starting the week with this conversation. Ok, I thought, sure, good. But also, I’m so sick of talking.

Hearing from previous attendees of the festival, I learnt that NSDF has been questioning its own relationship with selecting and hosting representative work. Discussions around how white the festival is on and backstage, for instance, have been on the cards in previous years, which was good to hear. The NSDF stages were on the whole, more diverse than theatre was when I started university in 2014, when I didn’t see a single person of colour on stage (not saying much). On the other hand, still only a handful (I wish there were a more accurate way to quantify this) of attendees – myself included – were people of colour. So I started the week stuck between hope and cynicism, not quite sure what to applaud, and not quite sure what to challenge.

What I definitely wasn’t prepared for was the amount of sincere conversation that would take place throughout the week, facilitated by the structure of the festival. Conversation continued, between professional theatre-makers and students, technicians and journalists, students and non-students, willing and wanting to organise and make change. Among all the conversations surrounding the work itself, there was still space for the big challenging questions about the structures within which work is made. I think it’s incredibly valuable to disseminate the openness with which these young people filled NSDF’s already packed schedule with fruitful discussion and, to unashamedly sound like a click-bait headline, tell you what happened next.

NSDF’s Opening Ceremony. Photo: Aenne Pallasca

Breaking down the issues

Two questions about representation arose in my mind as I sat in one of Curve’s studio spaces with the majority of this year’s NSDF attendees for the panel discussion. Firstly, are the work being entered into and the people attending NSDF diverse (read, not white, middle class, male, straight, cis, able-bodied and neurotypical in the majority – ask, who isn’t here and why)? Secondly, is the work being made in the theatre industry, to which NSDF with its sponsored awards and potential attachments is a stepping stone, diverse? Largely no (despite some great work challenging this), and largely, no.

It was telling, if not unpredictable, that the panel essentially identified in the changes they’d like to see in theatre, several offshoots of the very same growing weed that is the lack of accessibility. Actor Lucy Ellinson opened the discussion by saying what was very much on my mind “I think theatre needs to stop saying change takes a long time, and realise that it can […] make change right now” (I’m sick of just talking too Lucy, thank you), she added “The work I want to see being made is work that invites everybody in, and participation in the making of that work in the communities that surround the buildings that we occupy”. Sean Linnen, artistic director and director, took up another angle and beautifully summed up how many institutions fail to engage with their communities and applicants: “It’s not good enough to write on an application form that organisations welcome applicants for jobs from backgrounds A, B and C if people from backgrounds A, B and C can’t imagine being welcomed or included in the industry in the first place. Have they even been in this building before? I’d love to see more work made by theatres with their communities for their communities and by their communities.”

This is the problem, rarely identified directly by institutions, with the people making decisions having no conception of the distance from their lived experience that someone from a different background will have. “That word minority”, Roy Alexander Weise reflected during the discussion, “in my world, I know far less white people than I know black people. So I was never a minority until I started working in theatre. Isn’t that really fucked up?” Various strands of the same issues came out of the discussion – how expensive theatre bars are for instance, and how many theatres are named with epithets of royalty, with the implied class associations being barriers to accessibility. Discussion is great, yeah it is, but let’s not just talk.

Discussion at NSDF. Photo: Aenne Pallasca

Fixing the problems we identify

In my experience, as a group walks away from a discussion on ‘issues’, the impetus rapidly dissipates. This occasion could have very easily been no different. Once we identify problems and nod about them in unison for a bit, we generally think we have no idea how to start fixing them. We think we can’t do anything ourselves and we don’t quite trust that those working in theatres, in publications or other companies will do anything either. Fixing the problem becomes someone else’s problem. It makes sense. It’s hard to conceive of ways to make change when there’s no education in dismantling oppressive structures, or even in identifying them from inside (unless you’re in a minority, then these things are a painfully clear daily experience). This isn’t, however, a reason not to try.

It was clear to me that if we want anything to actually change, our primary reflex needs to change: we need to take the indistinct macro of these ubiquitous discussions and parcel it out into micro before we all leave the room. So I decided to make use of my stuck place between hope and cynicism, my platform in Noises Off, and this festival filled with engaged and creative people to ask them what practical steps they could take that would make a difference. However small, what actions could they take back to their universities or forwards in their careers, that would help bring about the changes we wanted to see?

Out of this, a list came together. A list of useful actions to challenge norms in our universities and in the industry: giving feedback to actors after auditions, implementing BME/Ethnic minority officers, self-imposing quotas on the work we make and watch, organising space for dialogue between makers and their audiences/communities, and many more. By the end of the week we’d amassed an empowering collection of actions just as accessible to each of us, to open doors and break down barriers. Even more practical structures came out of the discussions during the NSDF week too – a set of guidelines for student audition practice, a queer manifesto, Lucy Ellinson’s beautiful list detailing how to care for each other in theatre, practical steps to make the festival itself more consistently representative and remove the burden of monitoring its representativeness from its attendees. (By the way, none of the solutions we identified to take back to universities cost any money.)

‘Noises Off’ magazine. Photo: Aenne Pallasca

A model for organising and taking action?

I’d like to be productive with the platform I have here in reminding any professional in the industry, in criticism, artistry or technical spheres, to consistently consider how complicit they are in exclusionary structures, and how easy it is for them to challenge them. It’s never correct, either, to think that no one is watching because an institution or practice is too small, or not in the right location, or not well funded enough to have to bother. The thing about visibility is that it counts anywhere and everywhere. Unless you’re an incorrigibly obstinate establishment figure, or an inexcusably self-serving grafter (which, if you are, let’s make sure you get called or caught out soon enough), it takes little more than encouragement to tilt your head and step back, to ask other people how things look to them, and work out together what needs to change. (If you’re looking for encouragement, this is it.) There were of course changes that we as students can’t directly implement – that’s why it’s important that these actions don’t stop with the small group who collaborated on them. Could companies counteract the prevalent lack of feedback to applicants by sending a simple email detailing what the candidate they picked had that the others didn’t have, for example?

It was heartening to be part of so much interrogation of structures and norms at NSDF. As a result of this attitude, the festival felt wonderfully coiled with potential, filled with energy, empowerment and ideas. Maybe we’ve found a model for making change then, a small shift in emphasis – we talk about what’s wrong, together, and we decide what steps we take to fix it, together.

It sounds simple, but it’s not the standard, by any means. It could be, though, couldn’t it?

‘Seeking Intimacy’, performed as part of NSDF. Photo: Aenne Pallasca

What words do we use to talk about this?

In putting together a list of concrete actionable steps to making the changes we’d identified, compiled from the outcome of conversation and anonymous written suggestions, it became clear to me that words are tricky. Words are tricky for people outside ‘target’ groups as well as for those within them. What words do we use to summon up the concepts and images that we refer to when we talk about accessibility, representation, race and diversity? (BAME is reductionist and frustrating, but useful, but still frustrating. Quotas can get through if they’re called ‘riders’, but they describe the same thing. Why?) A year ago Riz Ahmed argued that representation, and not diversity was the key to getting past tokenistic inclusion. It’s an important point, but one that only needed to be made because conversations about race in particular quickly become abstract and a word like ‘diversity’ starts to stand for some sloppy approximation of what it’s meant to mean. And that only happens when we stop talking about what it’s meant to mean. If anything this is an indication that we shouldn’t stop talking, nor should we limit our actions because we still don’t have the best words to label them. Y’know, actions speak louder than…

My experience of NSDF was overwhelmingly positive – not just down to the work performed at the festival by people who I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of in the future, but also thanks to its structural openness to questioning, which enabled concrete plans and actions to come out of it. At NSDF we collectively went beyond seeing issues just as conversations to be had and came out of that hectic packed week before Easter with solutions that we could implement to start making our spaces fairer, more accessible and more representative. Just so you know. You can do it too. If you’re willing.

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Naomi Obeng

Naomi Obeng is an East Midlands based writer and arts journalist.

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