Most of what I do professionally on a day to day basis, I learnt how to do at university. My lecturers and productions I created for my degree may have fuelled me with a desire to know absolutely everything about theatre but it was working with the separate drama society that set me up for The Real World.
Reading University Drama Society wasn’t the most glamourous or hit maker of other uni drama socs. None of us had even heard of NSDF. Most were students studying anything but theatre. In my class of 40, only two of us were signed up members.
After one year with the society, I thought we could do better and I launched myself at the society, changing its structure, programming and establishing constitutional practise. It wasformalising our activity that helped set me up for the industry.
There will be lots of new Freshers starting uni this autumn in a year when, more than ever, it is important to get experience outside of the classroom. Making a bee line for the drama society at Freshers fayre could be the best thing you do.
Lessons learnt in drama society
The process is sometimes more important than the production
Not everyone is excited by the same things you are. Not everyone is doing this because they want to do it professionally some day. The society belongs to everyone in the university, it’s not for one clique to hijack for three years. This means sharing the limelight, rewarding menial jobs and being as open as possible. In ensuring that the widest possible group has the most possible fun, this means the quality of the work can take a dip. But the rewards and shared payoffs made it feel worth it.
Your work affects the community
Turns out the union weren’t to hot on us doing Shopping & Fucking. A couple of alarmist emails went round before we were called for a meeting with the union. It didn’t seem to matter that the play was one of the core texts in the second year Theatre programme. But we had to promise that everything would be done to protect our delicate audience of boozy, horny 18-22 year olds.
But like subsided theatres, we were using funds drawn from the wider student community and it was important that we acted in a way that took responsibility.
This episode didn’t change anything in what we were doing – it was one of the better productions mounted during my time in the society – but it did make me think about audiences, funders and responsibility.
When we first decided we wanted to go to the Fringe, I wanted to do Orton. 3 characters, a fourty minute running order, in and out. Once it became clear there was a larger interest in the project, pressure to provide plays that would allow for more bums on stage was demanded. I ended up with a cast of seven, doing half a play and not really what I wanted to do at all.
Reviews were good, I was particular pleased that a publication called The Erotic Review came to the show. The cast were fab and it was a lovely group of people to hang out with but it wasn’t the show I wanted to make.
But this was okay. It was the best decision for the society. It wasn’t for me to dictate what we did for my own gain. It meant that twice as many people spent two weeks seeing far more theatre than we were able to persuade them to do in two years living two minutes away from London.
With assessed productions in class, it was all down to you. You had to craft the entire world of your production and in return you’d get a nice shiny report card to take back to mum. You were responsibility for every aspect of your production.
With the drama soc, it was all about a shared experience. It took me a while to learn to trust that when I asked for something to happen it would get done. But after pushing myself too much, blacking out for the third time I learnt to hand over responsibility. And things happened, often even better than I could have done.
Finances and admin
The productions I mounted as part if my degree had a budget of £50 allocated by the department. I never claimed any of this money back as I saw it as part of the costs of my degree. I didn’t have rights or venue fees to pay either. It was all very simple.
With the drama soc, £10 membership with 100 members isn’t going to allow you to do much. Especially when the union charges you £400 a night. Sponsorship must be raised, raffles must be held and those who get the most from our adventures – the members – must be prepared to pay their way.
When dealing with external companies, the chances of running into trouble it higher. I’m glad the panicked phone calls I received from angry rights holders were threatening to sue the students’ union and not me.
Lesson learned. Won’t be repeated.
Minute taking, agenda writing, expenses claiming, programme printing, group mailing was never part of my university education but something that was learnt through practise with the drama society.
Behave yourself at parties
University campuses and the theatre industry both exist in a world that floats slightly above the real world in a soft cloud moulded from late nights and a belief that anything is possible. Small communities where rumour spreads fast. Keep your nose clean, or at the very least alternate your drinks with water.
Be nice to techies
Techies are the most valuable commodity in theatre but are all to often miss out on the fun of rehearsals. Take them for granted and your production will grind to a halt. Your show will be nothing without good tech support and these guys were the most theatre savvy and time generous of anyone in the society. Hug a techie. Buy them beer. They’re tops.
I started a society account when I started seeing little tweety birds appearing on the marketing material I was recieving from theatres. My intention with the society had been to make it as professional operation as possible i.e. copying what other companies did.
Twitter was something different to the niche forums, link rings and fan pages I’d been part of ever since the Internet first whispered its sweet woo-whoosh-brip-brip through the Bondai blue speakers of the iMac my basement. Communicating with other companies on Twitter, professional and amateur, helped me to establish myself in position in relation to them. I could see how I could contribute to the industry, what events I should be going to, how the landscape was changing.
Once I started tweeting personally, I was able to land a position doing exactly what I said I wanted to do in my uni year book three months after leaving the university.
The drama society gave me headaches, late nights, tears and put my degree in jeopardy. But it also gave me a risk free taste of what running a theatre company is like. It helped me to establish my own beliefs in how theatre should be deployed and organised. It made my more desperate to do better, to achieve success and discover more than any other activity I did at uni. For that, I’m thankful.