Kate Barton is now back in Durham and reflecting on Durham Student Theatre’s recent trip to the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF).


The Saturday morning dawned bright – (and surprisingly frosty!) as I headed to Maiden Castle to collect the van to travel to Hull. We packed it full to the brim with props and headed off to take part in the NSDF 2017.

After unpacking, set up immediately began for Hidden directed by Alex Prescott and starring Harvey Comerford and Georgie Franklin who would be performing that evening. Meanwhile, the Swallow team began assembly the complex LED door for their production the next day. Hidden went off without a hitch and was greatly enjoyed by all. That evening the director of the Festival, Michael Brazier, welcomed us all to the festival and to Hull, the UK City of Culture 2017, and so the launch night began!

NSDF student theatre Range of  workshops

The next day saw the start of the workshops. The NSDF workshops are a fantastic opportunity to meet seasoned professionals and to take part in masterclasses led by industry experts in all fields of theatre including design, acting, directing, tech, writing, producing, stage combat, musical theatre and even pyrotechnics! That afternoon was Swallow’s opening night which performed in a transformed gym in Hull University sports centre. The show was a fantastic success – with even a few tears shed by audience members and judges! There were more shows that evening, including Sheffield University’s Blackbird and He She They from o Collective.

Busy days

By the Monday we all found ourselves settling into a routine of getting to workshops from 10am until 1pm and then shows and discussions. The discussions, led by Chris Thorpe where an opportunity to talk about some of the bigger issues facing the industry. Topics included gender casting and the persistent struggle of women in leadership roles. Monday also saw the infamous 80’s night where the thesps went all out on colourful attire and flares for the evenings revelling.

Tuesday meant it was Ordinary Days moment to begin their set up in Middleton Hall, NSDF largest venue. Given that the original production was in the small music concert hall, the change to a 450 seat theatre was a huge shift for the whole team. Tuesday’s discussion meant that it was Hidden and Swallow turn to be called on in front of the judges panel as well as the entire company of the festival who could ask questions about the directors creative decisions as well as asking the actors how they found the journey of their character and what they enjoyed and struggled with. The discussion brought up interesting questions of accents being too often the signal of class as well as transgender casting.

Lively nights!

Wednesday brought the opening of Ordinary Days, which after a week of theatre pieces about NSDF student theatreBi-Polar Disorder (Cognitions), the Refugee crisis (Say it Loud and No Human is Illegal) and the rise of technology against humans (The Pixels are Huge), watching a light-hearted musical about life in new York was a welcome change. Wednesday meant that evening brought the infamous quiz where all members of the festival gathered in groups with one selected per team to answer questions on a variety of questions varying from theatre to the city of Hull! I had the wonderful Alex Spencer-Jones who was the selector for both Swallow and Hidden on my team, ‘Hullow Days’ (that’s Hull, Swallow, Hidden and Ordinary Days in one!) We came a respectful 7th place we were pretty chuffed with our efforts.

Elsewhere, another Durham contingency won 2nd place with ‘A Hull New World’ (see, the names just get better…)

Thursday was the final day of shows, with Ordinary Days closing the festival and before we knew it, it was Friday NSDF 2017 was all over for another year. As shows began to wind down phone numbers and Facebook contacts were frantically swapped, with the assurance that we all would keep in contact and keep making and talking about theatre.

Awards evening

The Friday evening was enjoyed at the NSDF awards where we celebrated the winners of the prestigious NSDF awards. Durham scooped up a whopping 6 awards for its members including recent alumni, Ellie Gauge, Caitlyn McEwan and Lily James. Spotlight best Actor awards went to Annie Davison and Harvey Comerford for their roles and the Cameron Mackintosh award was granted to Alex Mackinder for Ordinary Days. Judges commendations were also given to George Rexstrew, Meriel Killien, Matt Dormer and Callum Kenny. The awards ended with the final party back at the students union.

As Chris Thorpe said to us all at the start of the week, “NSDF is a conversation made up of lots of little conversation in workshops, in the bar and after the shows”. I can say that I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the conversation and hope to take everything I have learnt this week into my later work and theatre practice.

Awards won

Spotlight award Most Promising Actor – Harvey Comerford (Hidden / Thick Skin)

Spotlight award Most Promising Actress – Annie Davison (Swallow)

Judges Commendation for Direction – George Rexstrew (Swallow)

Cameron Mackintosh Award for Musical Theatre – Alex Mackinder (Ordinary Days)

Buzz Goodbody Directors Award – Ellie Gauge (Thick Skin)

Samuel French New Play Award – Caitlin McEwan (Thick Skin)

Sunday Times Harold Hobson Drama Critic Award – Lily James