Student drama: three pointers for beginners

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A couple of weeks ago, the university-wide Drama Cuppers Festival once again catapulted fifty teams of freshers interested in theatre onto the stage at Oxford’s BT Studio, with three weeks’ preparation and fifty pounds to put on their shows. All that theatre fervour reminded me of my first experience with student drama, as our team took Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s Coalition fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe to the Oxford stage in November 2012. The experience threw together the teammates who would eventually start the Commensal and Hexagon theatre companies, and go on to produce Endgame, ’Tis Pity, Othello, Jerusalem, Plenty and Citric Acid. Graduating university and leaving behind such a close drama community, I thought it was a good time to look at some of the advice which most benefited us as student thesps, and what has gone on to benefit us after graduation.

Get involved in every project that comes along

Depending on your subject, it can sometimes be a struggle simply to deal with your course-load. Nonetheless, university is one of the only periods in your career where it is acceptable to juggle as many projects as you can handle, and not face trouble if you drop one. With that in mind, seize every offer of collaboration that comes your way. Most university cities will be filled with theatres taking productions of varying size and ambit, perfect for giving you experience in leading roles for some projects, and helping at the fringes of others. Networking and variety are key to a successful theatre career: be nice to everyone (it really isn’t difficult) from the directors and producers to the casts and the technical crews, and you will find a steady stream of gigs being sent your way.

The group who put together Coalition went on to produce six more projects through close friendships and mutual respect – show that you’re keen to work hard in a variety of roles, and people will want to work with you on their next idea. The other benefit to taking small positions on a range of shows is that you’ll soon be in a position to bring like-minded people together for new projects, putting you into more serious roles on new-writing plays (like Citric Acid) or invitations to join tours (Issues) and innovative plays in new spaces (like Othello). You also get the benefit not only of front-row seats to every show in town, but to see leading actors develop their own careers on your productions over time, and that is a great reason to be in theatre.

Start an independent brand

As Barry Saltzman pointed out in a recent article for Fast Company, “personal branding is essential to career success”. He argues that maintaining a personal brand encourages you to defend your now-public reputation through continued success, and motivates you to chase increasingly high standards as you watch your brand stand up against others. During the development phase for Endgame, it was director Will Felton who established his Commensal Theatre brand, an umbrella which covered myself as producer, and our technical director Sean Ford. The group evolved as new projects retained the same teams, consistently seeing production manager Eshan Shah and technicians Mina Odile and Alex Grew come aboard from ’Tis Pity through to Jerusalem. Bringing these core skill areas in-house led to an atmosphere of commitment to the team, and to the shows we were delivering. We found ourselves pushing the fold creatively and technically, both with regard to the type of material we decided to tackle, the sets we were creating, the effects we were applying and, ultimately, the audiences we were receiving.

It is well worth setting up a new production company, even with the smallest project you manage. Josh Dolphin, director of Citric Acid, channelled the profits from the show into a portfolio for his new brand Koma Kino, and is now looking to deliver a series of comedies and dramas at the BT Studio in Oxford throughout the next year. The importance of setting up a company is often overlooked in student drama, most often because it is seen simply as a source of funding, or is considered irrelevant because that funding comes from elsewhere. Yet as experience and research makes clear, a company is about branding as much as business, and a lot of progress can be made with the motivation that a brand gives you.

Work with directors who demand the impossible

The most important thing I realised during my work in student theatre was something pointed out one day by our technical director, Sean Ford: you need to find a director who demands the impossible. Within the environment of a well-motivated theatre company, everyone should be encouraged to aim for professional standard – you will be surprised at the extent to which money (of which you will have surprisingly little) can be replaced by effort and willpower. Particularly in student theatre, where there are no unions and everyone is balancing the production with their degree work, long and unusual hours are the norm, but a can-do attitude is all that is necessary for success. Our production manager on ’Tis Pity worked a couple of sixteen hour days immediately before the show opened, and his work made a huge impact on the success of the show – naturally, everyone involved wanted to collaborate again.

The director is, at the end of the day, often the person with the most to lose on a production. However, appeasing their desire for the impossible is nothing to do with massaging their ego. Wherever you stand within a production team, make your own association with the project the source of your motivation to see it succeed. Whether you end up turfing stages, building trees, serving lemonade, hanging portholes from ceilings or transporting a caravan across the country, realising that your director’s demands are good ideas and putting everything behind them will bring you some very successful years in student theatre.

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