In 2004 the then recent-graduate actor Khalid Abdalla – since seen in United 93, The Kite Runner and Paul Greengrass's forthcoming film Imperial Life in the Emerald City – wrote an eloquent piece in Noises Off on the sudden, systematic erosion of the festival's intellectual dimension during Andrew Loretto's artistic directorship, in favour of discos and karaoke. His comments are worth reproducing at some length:
“In the middle of last year's daily schedule came two 9 o'clock discussions - Mike Leigh in conversation with Mike Bradwell, and a Provocations event in which our own Robert Hewison interviewed fellow critics Michael Billington, Alex Sierz and Sam Marlowe on the point of theatre criticism, giving us the festgoers an opportunity to give some of the establishment's critics a difficult grilling. Meanwhile, each night there was a late-night discussion, chaired by Richard Hurst, which in its own words, took 'the form of the well known TV show Question Time', in which selectors, students, workshop leaders, and others, were invited to answer whatever questions the festival goers asked of them. So, unlike this year, the bar and Noises Off were not the only places keeping the festival going into night.
“What worries me is the forum the festival has lost in losing public discussions that are about important issues that face the theatre as a whole. At the moment our only public discussions have been about the shows we have seen. Great. But we need more. What I am arguing for is the return or re-inauguration of discussions that take us beyond the experiences we have had at the festival - surely something we all need. I say re-inauguration because there were faults with the system as it was. Importantly, the late-night discussions did not draw big enough crowds. But still, they drew the interested, and no doubt they could interest more. Indeed, for the good of the festival and those in it, the festival should do it damnedest to draw in as many people as it can.
“I can't help but feel that the chances I've had to come into contact with the opinions of others about the larger scale have been limited. I know that's where I make real contact. We need more places where we're supposed to talk and argue, challenge each other and learn.”
The situation in 2003 that he describes now seems impossibly remote. Between 2004 and 2006 a programme of night-time entertainments was instigated, which both put numerous possible venues for late-night discussions beyond use, but also, more damagingly, caused a significant drain on possible attendees for such events. As a result, several longstanding elements at the core of the festival's culture were severely damaged. It is, after all, very easy to replace something quite difficult that requires engagement and thought with something much easier to consume. It has happened in television, newspapers, literature and music. It is far harder to change back.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. Festival director Holly Kendrick has laudibly introduced a couple of debates on wider topics into the main show discussions – Mark Ravenhill's Increasing Access question on Sunday and yesterday's more abstract consideration of Why We Make Theatre. However, if the apparent mute incomprehension with which this topic was greeted in yesterday's discussion is anything to go by, things have already slid an awful long way. Perhaps it was the way in which it was introduced. Perhaps it was the way that the first few speakers all hailed from what – for want of a better term – we'll call the “grown-ups”; but it seemed suddenly, horribly significant that everyone who spoke in this second part of the discussion was not a student. Perhaps it was to do with the disconnectedness of the question from the general student theatre scene. Of course the direction taken by the Arts Council affects everyone who hopes to work in theatre. But it isn't half as immediate a concern to a lot of students as a Student Union making it difficult to put on plays, or a student newspaper flatly refusing to pay them any attention. Yes, the real world is important, but I got the impression that a lot of those attending the discussion were, at best, feeling like they were being told what's what, or suddenly being party to a public conversation between industry professionals to which they did not feel invited to contribute. Perhaps I'm guessing the reasons wrong, but I was disappointed not to hear a single student voice addressing the question. This is after all the National STUDENT Drama Festival. If students can't feel a sense of ownership and entitlement to share their opinions here, then we are lost.
In today's Noises Off, Kate Owens, writing on precisely this question, asks “Surely all opinions are valid?” It is crucial that we bring some nuance to bear on this question. Everybody has a right to their opinion, and to express that opinion. However, everyone else has a right to disagree with this putative thought. Opinion and comment should be part of a process of negotiation. Let me tell you a story – at NSDF2000 one of that year's festival judges, Mike Alfreds – the founder of Shared Experience and a director for decades – described the programme notes of a selected show called Counterbalance as “pretentious and confused” and wrote the show off as utter rubbish. This September Alan Lane's company Slung Low will present their Samuel Beckett Award-winning show at the Barbican's Pit theatre. The connection? Workshop leader Alan Lane was the director of Counterbalance. Was Mike Alfreds right? I'd have said not at the time, and the criticism, though unpleasant, doesn't seem to have permanently damaged Lane's desire to make work.
Owens is exactly right to identify the right - hell, the need - for everyone to take part in the discussions, but she is absolutely wrong to think that they should do so on the understanding that whatever they think or say is entirely beyond reproach. Conversation is a two-way process. Are all opinions valid? They are opinions. Agreement or otherwise is part of that negotiation. These are opinions, not facts. It is excellent that students are writing on their desire to have their opinions. It is deeply depressing if they want those opinions to go unchallenged. Let's be a bit braver, let's say what we think, and if someone else thinks something else, then let's listen to them and see why they think something else. We might never agree, but at least we'll both have been involved in a fruitful process.