Features Guest Column Published 23 November 2012

Swimming Against the Stream

In the first of a series of guest columns about student theatre, Dan Hutton considers where student work sits in relation to the mainstream.
Dan Hutton

One question I constantly ask myself about the work that I create as a student and aspiring theatremaker/writer is how it relates to and works against the larger trends occurring in British theatre. Am I trying to do something different? Or am I adding to a style that has been used before? And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

As both a writer on theatre and a maker of it, I’m always considering how I and my friends at university fit into the bigger picture. Some like to consider student theatre as being at the forefront of the avant-garde, while others see it as a rubric for the future mainstream (by which I mean the larger producing houses). In reality, however, neither of these things is true; work created at universities both pulls away from and aspires to the work of the popular theatrical mainstream.

I’m by no means an expert on student theatre. My experience is limited to three NSDFs and two and a half years in the throng of the Warwick Drama scene. There are scores of people with far more experience than I, but as an individual currently planning my days around my involvement with student theatre, I feel qualified enough to consider the ways in which this all-important component of British theatre is reacting to, digesting and, in some ways, embracing the mainstream discourse.

Within the past six months at Warwick Drama, we’ve produced an al fresco As You Like It, a Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch-inspired Twelfth Night, a Pornography with a radical new edit, a Statements After an Arrest in a small found room, an actor-centric Pillowman, and a Look Back in Anger in an intimate studio space. I list these in full to demonstrate the sheer variety of shows that student theatre comes up with. Key to each show’s success, however, was the way in which it acted in opposition to something, whether that be the general mainstream or the Warwick Drama mainstream.

Let me explain.

Within the first few terms of last year, there was some fairly “high-concept” stuff being created – a Faustus set during the banking crisis and a Clockwork Orange in a contemporary London – which, within itself, created a certain discourse. In reaction to these, we had the As You Like It in the woods and the Statements in a plush seminar room, each of which pulled in an opposite direction, the former going for a fairly traditional style in order to foreground the comedy and the latter considering the details and minutiae of human experience. Then, this term, we had three more shows which, to differing extents, were working against what came before them.

But running in tangent with the way in which shows place themselves in a student theatre context is the way in which they place themselves in a wider theatrical vision.

My personal feeling (or maybe it’s more of a blindly optimistic sense of hope – it’s difficult to tell) is that British theatre will, in the next decade or so, move away from a text-based approach to a style which foregrounds other aspects of production, placing all elements of the theatrical experience in equal esteem. I think we need to view the text as less sacred and discover new ways of delighting, questioning and probing an audience.

If I wanted to, I could easily see examples of this within Warwick Drama. Our recent Twelfth Night, for example, attempted to explore different ways of working which weren’t purely textual, while an upcoming Monologues Project by Codpiece (the devised and adapted theatre society) seeks to put a more rounded sensory-based experience at the heart of its pieces.

The truth is, however, that’s it’s wrong to try and pinpoint overarching themes and ways of working in a short period of time (or even over long periods of time), for to do so is to negate all the other things that are happening which don’t fit into that description. By honing down to basics, we fail to understand the vast complexities and variety which the arts embody, and run the risk of carefully working arguments to fit our own agendas.

In conducting a kind of mini-survey for this piece, I chatted to a few of my fellow theatre lovers at Warwick. Some suggested Warwick Drama has moved away from a devised-centric approach around 2009-10 to a more naturalistic, intimate style. Others speculate that we’re moving towards some more continental ideas. A final group decided a strand of rigorous, text-based work was taking hold.

It seems obvious to say so, but all these things are both wrong and right. There has been at least one show in the last year which has adhered to each of these principles. But likewise, each has been completely unique. With around twenty shows a year, it’s impossible to discover any kind of trends which will be long lasting. Though there will naturally be people who work together, who share the same ideas and who create a number of shows during their three/four year stint at university, to say trends go any further than that is wishful thinking.

Offering a wealth of variety and as many different approaches to theatre as there are people; this is the way university theatre reflects the mainstream. If it’s true that we are a little misguided to look for narratives in our discourse about popular theatre because of the plethora of different styles, then it’s even truer of student theatre. It’s easy to see similar styles of performance as mirroring trends, but in actual fact it’s likely that it’s little more than a group of friends with similar ideas getting together to create a selection of shows during their time at university.

One thing is clear about the discussions I’ve had, however: everyone has a definite hope that the style of theatre they admire and have enjoyed exploring at university will enter the theatrical mainstream at some point in the near future. Everyone wants to continue what they’ve learnt, and to nudge it in the direction of more people. They want to share these ideas with as wide an audience as possible. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how student theatre interacts with the mainstream in the present, but looking forward the implications are plain to see.

Image: Warwick Drama’s Twelfth Night, Peter Marsh.

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Dan Hutton

Dan is a freelance critic and theatre-maker. He won the Howard Hobson Award for Theatre Criticism at NSDF in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and in 2013 was the runner-up for the Edinburgh Fringe Allen Wright Award for Arts Journalism. Dan is also a director and co-runs Barrel Organ Theatre.

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