Friday 14 December 2007

NSDF funding cut

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.


Statler said...

Would I be wrong in suspecting this decision is likely down to internal finances/politics? Is there an unhappiness that the Arts Council *Yorkshire* budget is funding the *National* Student Drama Festival? So often it's petty disputes and game playing such as this that end up damaging those in the front line.

Good luck with the campaign.

Sal said...

This is madness - the NSDF can't cease to exist! Will blog about this myself, and sign the petition.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, The Bush has been threatened by the Arts Council with a 40% cut. WTF is going on? Could this be a wildly exagerated opening gambit to make us happy with a less violent set of retrenchments?

Anonymous said...

I fear this is only the first in a series of "restructurings" of government funding to the arts in the run up to the Olympics. Note that the majority of the increases in these proposals are to London and the South-East, and the largest increases go to the largest clients - the chattering classes are being kept sweet.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for the whole shooting match, and as the real cost of the Olympics spirals slowly upwards, I doubt the Treasury will be sympathetic to ever-increasing disbursements. Arts Council England is cutting the dead wood - and remember that the Arts Council itself was under heavy fire last year from an ex-Arts Minister (David Lammy - he didn't last long).

Cassandra says the landscape of English arts is going to look pretty barren come 2012. And do you think that funding will be restored in 2013?

Andrew Haydon said...

This is absolutely nothing to do with the Olympics. Expect a blog post tomorrow addressing this central misconception.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

"This is absolutely nothing to do with the Olympics" - it's simply impossible to say that. The Olympic budget is equivalent to several years' worth of entire arts/culture/media spending, and it's coming from somewhere; although the Arts Council may not have seen its own purse raided AS SUCH, it's left to try to fill in the vast gaps left by the depredations worked on other state-administered funds for the Olympics. It's also impossible to believe that these funding decisions will not have been taken with at least half an eye to the kind of cultural landscape that will be presented to the world as part of the Olympiad.

Andrew Haydon said...

That's probably fairer. My original knee-jerk nothing-to-do-with-Olympics stance was basically informed by Johann Hari's cack-handed bundling of the Grants for the Arts 35% cut up with this round of retrenching. It is important to keep the two separate, as they are different issues.

But, yes, obviously the Olympics have an impact. The most interesting analysis concerning the thinking behind the cuts, suggested there was a move toward emphasising street arts and circus skill-type outfits, *precisely because* of their ready applicability to the overall arts scene surrounding the Olympics - while the Bush, frinstance, really isn't.

Anonymous said...

It was not just Johann Andrew. I thought thet two were related until you pointed it out - as I am sure do many people.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

I still believe that they are. I can't credit that at the most central point there has not been at least some joined-up thinking in this regard. For there not to have been would be an act of monumental stupidity and ignorance even by the remarkable standards of the last 30 years of government.