De Montfort University Show

Trailer made by final year students at De Montfort University.

We are down to the knuckle chewing last few days before Live From The National Theatre opens. This is our collaboration with final year students at De Montfort University in Leicester. There was a phase when we regularly made shows with university students but this is my first effort for a decade and with Craig, Lucy and Amy off to Dartington to help students at Plymouth University make their own shows it feels an apt moment to talk about making shows with students.

Whilst a student I saw Steve Shill’s stunning collaboration with DMU – Ode to St. Cecilia and shortly after that Forced Entertainment’s DMU collaboration – whose precise title eludes me but was something, something in the Koda Coloured Cities I think. These shows were an intriguing glimpse into what artists I admired chose to do with bigger casts than they could normally muster. It’s only when making these shows yourself that you grasp the full complexities of the challenge for everyone involved.

Making shows as part of a university course are a special sub-category of devising practice. Where normally the show is the be all and end all, here this drive is tempered by the educational setting. We are booked in order that students should learn from our aesthetic and working practices but at the same time we must give the students the best possible chance to contribute and present themselves well for their assessments.

We work with big companies – in this case 19 – which is fun, but they have not explicitly chosen to work with us and we have not auditioned them, so we have to especially generous towards each other. Different students have different interests and competencies; where possible we seek to accommodate these whilst giving everyone an equal chance to shine, which sounds like bland education speak but is actually an exciting artistic challenge.

Our basic solution tends to be coming up with a concept and creating a structure for these shows are robust enough to carry content created by a wide range of students. We mix ensemble sections that take advantage of our big numbers with solo or small group slots that allow freedom for students to generate and polish more of their own material.

Inevitably some students thrive in the ensemble environment but need to be supported to make more of their individual slots, others seem happy with their own aesthetic and struggle to relinquish this in committing to the common cause.

Some groups are very cohesive whilst others a riven with old grudges, rivalries or resentments; in all groups some students have the show as their primary life-focus for the duration of the process while others are ambivalent at best or are juggling pressing demands from other quarters of their lives. It doesn’t do to be too highly strung as a director in these circumstances.

It is easy to empathize with the excitement, frustrations and fears these students are going through. It was the feeling of collective work in a common cause making Figures Walking Into The Sea with my fellow second year students directed by Pete Brooks at Lancaster University back in the late 1980 that cemented my love of ensemble devising.

I always want these shows to be wildly ambitious, even if this means we bump up against the boundaries of what is possible in the time available, or the skills or experience or budget at our disposal. If we’re not ambitious we’re not giving students a true Stan’s Cafe experience and if we’re not ambitious then we’re not learning ourselves and this becomes just a job of work for us and if we wanted a job of work we’d get proper jobs.

On this occasion we have nothing to do with the assessment of students, perhaps now that the university / student relationship has become so much more contractual having us visitor types chip in our thoughts is ruled out, everything is very codified and spelt out. This is a relief as marking is never fun – though usually less impossible than it first appears to be.

What I miss about marking is the sense of closure it brings and the chance to reward those whose contribution has helped the show along and whose commitment to the ensemble has been invaluable. As it is the only thing we can offer those who excel is the faint possibility that at some time we will be able to offer them something that doesn’t really resemble a proper job – but who wants a proper job.

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