Sunrise outside the Noises Off Office at the NSDF
The Arts Council Yorkshire yesterday announced its intention to completely withdraw funding from the National Student Drama Festival. This is a catastrophically short-sighted, wrong-headed blunder.
Its reason for cutting the annual grant is the decision to “refocus [their] investment”. The organisation now wishes to support: “the strongest, highest quality building-based producing theatres... the most dynamic and innovative touring companies [and] venues that support the changing nature of theatre.” It claims it is seeking to fund “a portfolio of strong, effective organisations that help to deliver increased attendance and participation in high quality arts.”
The immediately obvious flaw with their reasoning is that the NSDF, in just one week a year, inspires more passion, enthusiasm and engagement with theatre (and thus “increased attendance and participation”), than any building or company ever could, and for a fraction of the cost.
At this point I should declare an interest: the NSDF introduced me to theatre and made me fall in love with it in a way that I wouldn’t have believed possible. I now edit the Festival’s daily reviews magazine. However, there is something utterly unique about the Festival’s atmosphere that has been changing lives for the fifty-three years of its history. Editing the fiftieth anniversary history of the festival, I was repeatedly struck by the vividness and warmth with which the festival is remembered by those who attended, often several decades earlier.
The sheer number of actors, directors, playwrights, lighting designers, sound designers, stage managers, front of house staff, administrators and producers that the festival has shaped is also quite remarkable. Hell, it was at the NSDF that the Sunday Times drama critic and festival co-founder, Harold Hobson, first discovered Harold Pinter in 1958.
Even just the past few years have seen work from: Gate Theatre co-artistic director Carrie Cracknell, (NSDF‘02), the actress Ruth Wilson (NSDF‘02), writer Lucy Prebble (NSDF‘02), director Jamie Lloyd (NSDF ‘01), and, interviewed in G2 only this week ahead of his starring role in the forthcoming film The Kite Runner, Khalid Abdalla (NSDF‘03).
The Guardian's Michael Billington has said of the Festival: “It was hearing [Harold Hobson] at the NSDF‘60 in Oxford that convinced me that criticism was an occupation that required its own sense of drama as well of natural justice. Once I became a critic myself in 1965, Harold proved a staunch ally, mentor and friend. But I wish now that I had told him how radically he changed my life in 1960.”
Tim Piggott-Smith summed it up best: “The NSDF is a seedbed. People keen on theatre meet up and wallow in drama for days. It is competitive. It is exciting. And it creates relationships that run like threads through the very fabric of our profession.”
If Arts Council Yorkshire really wants to fund “a portfolio of strong, effective organisations that help to deliver increased attendance and participation in high quality arts” then it couldn’t ask for a more perfect candidate than the NSDF.
On this basis, the Festival is appealing the decision. It has until the 15th January 2008 to make its case. There is an online petition to sign - anyone with any interest in the future of theatre should do so. This small, often-overlooked gem of an event has been changing lives for its entire history. It continues to do so every year. It is a passionate engine at the very core of British theatre. The Arts Council should be demanding to be a part of this phenomenal ongoing success.