Why do we do it? The purpose of student theatre

Any poor soul who has tried to coordinate their cast and crew’s timetables will, through the haze of google docs and doodle polls, almost definitely have screamed, ‘WHY?!’ Between this ‘non-negotiable’ class and that ‘compulsory’ lecture, we might start to think that putting on a play was nearly impossible at university. Yet, each term, tens of productions make their mark on the Oxford University drama scene. From exciting new writing projects at the Burton Taylor Studio to phenomenal musical spectacles at the Playhouse, there is a wealth of determination among the student body. We are ready to juggle degrees with funding meetings and forgo Bridge for late night rehearsals, but why?

Perhaps the obvious answer is ‘fun’. Certainly, few who have taken any role in an Oxford production would deny the incredible feeling of finally pulling it off, or of the brilliant friendships forged along the way. The exhilaration of performance is rarely matched and the cliché that it is ‘something we will always remember’ seems to ring entirely true. Or, maybe it is ‘practice’, an odd sort of CV building exercise for our future theatrical careers. Oxford has produced some of the top names in British theatre, television and film today and most would attribute their success to skills cultivated in their time at university. Indeed, to have grappled with budgets is an impressive skill to show a future employer, and the improvement of time old merits like organisation, teamwork and confidence all seem to give student theatre a solid foundation.
However, to merely consider the purpose of student theatre as ‘having fun’ and gaining experience is simplistic and, frankly, patronising. Beyond this basic level, student theatre can be an excellent tool for promoting causes, generating debate and offers a platform for investigating ideas outside of lecture theatres. New writing in particular can be a brilliant instrument for novel conversation, as can more controversial script choices or collaboration pieces.
The capacity student theatre has to inspire discussion of new ideas is unparalleled and what we choose to produce has the potential to break down taboos and stimulate dynamic discussion. Nonetheless, this potential is not always realised and there remains concern over the diversity of the scripts selected for production. Student theatre is less ticket sales driven than its professional counterpart but such factors still remain prominent throughout the production process and the danger of not breaking even can dominate decisions. On the other hand, the various venues available to accommodate productions facilitate experimentation and encourage development without too strong a threat of ‘failure’. Funding can be terrifying and confusing but it ultimately feels like monopoly money and the fall is never so hard as it would be ‘in the real world’.
The Burton Taylor Studio exhibits the vast wealth of variety in Oxford student theatre, its showcase of new writing and more experimental pieces is incredible.  It is a more manageable space and project size for those students just starting out, or planning to investigate more volatile ideas. The OUDS New Writing Festival recently realised this phenomenal ability student theatre has with its four original pieces. The NWF is a clear demonstration of the emphasis placed on creativity in Oxford student theatre with the four scripts introducing their audiences to a new generation of opinions, a fresh outlook on old debates and the introduction of new ones.
The Oxford Playhouse is far more financially demanding than other Oxford venues, though some might argue this means it has to ‘play safer’ in its production choices, and this means the potential it has to spread ideas across Oxford increases. OUDS National and International Tours are vivid illustrations of the enormous audience student theatre can have and the potential it has to influence such a variety of people. Ashmolean Live Fridays again exhibit student theatre exploring ideas in ways not offered by the core academic system; theatre, music, art and history entangle and their links both immediately identified but also built upon to reach new conclusions. They also prove that student drama can bring town and gown together to create richer discussion.
The possibility of joining student productions with other bodies, such as charities and even academic departments, further purports the capacity theatre has to educate through inducing conversation. Ophir’s recent production of Lucy Prebble’s ‘The Effect’ at the Keble O’Reilly is a clear demonstration of student theatre working to such a purpose as it joined with the ‘Mind Your Head’ Campaign and the Oxford Counselling Service. The input from external organisations has potential at all levels- from offering advice at the rehearsal stage on how to tactfully approach sensitive issues such as mental health, a core strand in ‘The Effect’, to a pre-matinee discussion with a professional from the counselling department. The opportunities for collaboration are being increasingly recognised in Oxford student theatre and from debates at the Union to talks in college auditoriums, the important role student theatre can play in social discussion is slowly being realised.
The purpose of student theatre should not be simplified as the capacity it has to generate debate across Oxford, and even further afield, is phenomenal and vitally important. As students, we have fewer restraints than our professional counterparts and it is possible to take greater risks, to experiment with new writing and controversial ideas, as well as develop skills vital to our careers ahead and ‘have fun’!
PHOTO/Oliver Robinson Photography