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Student theatre - all just a bunch of amateurs?

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Extra-curricular. It’s a word students hear a lot. We’re told it’s not just about the degree, that we need to get involved with activities, societies, gain CV points. Join a sports team. Bake for charity. Represent our student’s union. Some students, however, take extra-curricular to the next level - for example by setting up a respectable theatre company whilst doing their degree.

Frantic Theatre Company (now the renowned Frantic Assembly), were born from a student theatre group in Swansea, and stand as testament to what can be achieved, or rather begun, by committed artists whilst at university.

Co-Artistic Directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett say: “As students, we had recognised that no one would come to watch Swansea University Drama Society perform at the Edinburgh Fringe and that a brand name like 'Frantic' might hide the fact that we were all amateurs.

"This time, choosing a highly acclaimed text like Look Back in Anger by John Osborne might deflect from the fact that we were a feisty little physical theatre company. It was a risk. It led to us performing in very conservative theatres, presenting a completely unauthorised and radical reworking of a very well known play. We ran the risk of alienating our audience and the theatres, but the exposure was crucial. It was the foot in the door.”

A foot in the door is not something that’s easy to get in the world of theatre, and one may ask: if you’re so dedicated to working in theatre, why bother with university at all? Why not sack in your (increasingly useless; we’re told that too) degree and get yourself down to London and try and find work?

But university provides invaluable resources for students interested in theatre – an entirely free cast, for starters. It acts as a springboard to try out performance ideas with a willing and interested community of people. CV points? How about graduating with a portfolio of seven profitable shows under your belt, sell out audiences made up not just of students but also of local people, stellar reviews from regional publications and the experience of working with hundreds of talented performers? All with an initial budget of zero. A year of groveling in our capital couldn’t guarantee you that. And so we have the phenomenon of university being, for certain dedicated individuals, not about a degree, but about exploiting unique resources to begin a career from amateur to professional.

Dave Spencer, currently in his final year as an English Literature student at Durham University, established Another Soup Productions in 2010. How and why was this company born?

Dave says: "Durham University seemed like the correct option for me, theatre-wise. At the end of my first year, I set up Another Soup Productions, with the idea that we would create immersive, thought-provoking, theatre, using the creativity of the ensemble.

"I began in a youth theatre group and whilst at school, performing in any and every show I could. This, coupled with a huge enjoyment for my time spent performing, meant that I selected my university largely based on the strength of its drama scene. After I had set up Another Soup Productions, we endeavored to produce a show as often as possible.

"I mainly adapt pre-existing works into interesting pieces of theatre. Due to allowing the entire ensemble to participate in the creative process, we hope to connect deeply with a greater percentage of the audience than if the work was merely the brainchild of one director or playwright. We have also taken a great interest in site-specific and site-sensitive theatre. I think we took our ideas regarding these differing styles of theatre to their logical extensions with our latest show, Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls."

How much time does Dave spend on his theatre company in comparison to his degree?

"Tricky question," he says. "As I’m sure you can imagine, when presented with the run-up to a show, time management becomes difficult. I would say that, because we are taking Another Soup Productions far beyond the boundaries of Durham University, I spend more time on it than I do on my degree. It probably works out as somewhere between 50-60% in favour of the theatre company. So far though, I have received good marks, so I think it is wise to split my attentions almost equally. It seems to be working!"

How has his university helped his development in the world of theatre?

"Durham University is incredibly supportive of the arts," Dave says. "Funding and loans for shows are easy to apply for, whether from the central body, Durham University Arts Management Group, or from Durham Student Theatre’s corporate sponsor, PwC, which offers small bursaries every term.

"It really is wonderful to be in a university that has such a fair policy when it comes to funding the large number of theatre companies operating under the umbrella of DST. The way it works is largely: if you have a great idea for a show, you will be granted some funding or financial help."

Dave's latest show was a sell-out success - is it true the company is doing it all over again due to high demand?

"Our most recent project has been a new musical version of Sweeney Todd & the String of Pearls," he says, "adapted from the original penny dreadful by me, with music put to my lyrics by the incredible composer Jo Turner.

"It was received incredibly well. Taking place in Durham’s indoor market, Sweeney Todd was a site-specific promenade new musical, a wonderful and difficult combination to get right.

"However, with perseverance, we managed to pull it off and sell out completely for ten performances. It was attended by various prominent members of the university, as well as the Mayor and Mayoress of Durham, both of whom thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Due to its success, we have scheduled another run in the Market from 5th-8th June - more details of which can be found on our website.

"Following this year's Edinburgh Fringe offering (a new play, A Hundred Minus One Day, by Idgie Beau), we are also planning to take Sweeney Todd and another original musical up for the 2014 festival.

"Other plans for Sweeney Todd include the final stages of the development of a stage version, recording the music and songs, clearing the performance rights for it to be sold, and on top of that, we are planning a UK market tour. It’s going to be an exciting year!"

Find out more about Another Soup Productions at their website.




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