In yesterday's inaugural discussion session, Mark Ravenhill wearing his Member-of-the-NSDF-Board hat (presumably that's the huge furry one he's been sporting), asked us to consider the question: “Does everyone have the opportunity to make student theatre?” There are a number of simple, quick answers to the question; and a raft of longer, more culturally difficult ones. In the quick answers section: no, not everyone has the opportunity to make student theatre, because not everyone is a student. Even counting sixth-formers and those at FEs, the rigours of A-Level courses and lack of drama societies can mean that a whole bunch of students won't have any opportunity to make theatre.
And this is where the difficult bit starts. Assuming that 16-18-year-olds aren't so overworked that they have no time in which they can indulge in a hobby, we start to look at the issue of culture. This is where things start getting sensitive. If there are two areas where British society gets terribly tied up in knots those areas are “cultures” and “class”. Despite the best efforts of the Arts Council's extensive programmes concerning “diversity”, there often exists a perception – at least amongst the middle classes – that theatre (-going and -making) remains a largely white, middle class activity. Although, It sometimes feels tempting to give ourselves a pat on the back for the extensive numbers of women and homosexuals who are included.
So, there is a certain amount of concern amongst the middle classes that they are excluding those from different backgrounds. Judging by the pieces in this issue of Noises Off, this is a somewhat skewed perception. Two teachers of ethnically diverse, working class areas both report numbers of students with an obvious passion for the artform. Granted, they have their grumbles, which I hope are noted by the powers that be. But they also point up a certain attitude of noblesse oblige being affected by large numbers of those suffering from Liberal Guilt (henceforth “Lilt”).
Of course, those running the festival should absolutely be keen to attract the largest number of people to apply for selection to the festival and for the largest number of people possible to want to buy tickets. But, on the other hand, in spite of its spectacular track record regarding future theatre makers, the NSDF is not responsible for British culture. We can seek to win as many hearts and minds from as wide a range of people as possible. But what we are is a drama festival. And the simple fact of the matter is that theatre doesn't appeal at all to some people.
If you look through this magazine you will notice through the glowing and glowering reviews of the same shows that even people who are all “passionate about theatre” can't actually agree on what's good and what's not good. Great. All grist to the creative mill in the context of a festival, but surely also suggestive of a further set of people who won't like any of it for any number of complex reasons which might be informed by anything from personal taste to personal prejudice. In fact, “taste” is a strangely neglected area of study or discussion – save for disparaging mudslinging from various quarters in the class war, where We Will Rock You is written off as “for the masses” and Women of Troy is written off as “for affected middle class ponces”.
But all this good sense can distract us from the question of whether opportunity is simply a matter of choice. Of course it isn't. Furthermore, we all know that there is opportunity and opportunity. There are also questions of cultural aspiration. One of the most questionable things claimed in the discussion this morning was Steph Street's bold assertion that acting is a “noble profession”. Perhaps in Germany or Russia where glorious state-subsidised repertory companies provide jobs for life and allow for a modicum of dignity. But, come on, in Britain acting is a frightening, insecure, demoralising career choice that leaves precious little room for nobility. Small wonder that many without the luxury of significant private income streams from the bank of mum and dad eschew the profession in favour of law, banking and medicine. God bless those who don't, but let's not pretend that it's easy.