Isabelle Culkin talks to the team behind this year’s DST Freshers’ Play ‘The Physicists’
The course of a freshers’ play never did run smooth though. Having done the freshers’ play last year I can safely say that it is one of my most formative (if not slightly traumatic) experiences, and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. The people you meet and the things you learn certainly set you up perfectly for the next year on the Durham student theatre scene.
This year’s team certainly seems to agree. Teeming with enthusiasm, they seem glad they’re making their first tracks on the theatre scene through the freshers’ play. Fergus Neville, its director, was extremely glad to have got the post. “I’ve always really wanted to direct. It’s something I’ve always really enjoyed, I love theatre so much. I really want to get into writing as well, and I thought this is probably the best opportunity for it.” The play’s technical director, Alice Clarke, quotes a desire to learn more as a factor in her application. “I wanted to learn more about the actual tech. I’ve directed lighting, but I’ve never learnt how to do it. It’s just been a really good learning experience.”
As expected, the process hasn’t just been plain sailing. Neville in particular is feeling the disadvantage of not knowing the ins and outs of the space in advance. Any seasoned DST participant will surely know The Assembly Rooms Theatre like the back of their hand, but for a fresher it’s unknown territory. “What I find so difficult is at school you have the space right from the beginning. The transition I’m worried about is going from various-sized classrooms and seminar rooms in Elvet to this stage. The cast haven’t seen it, they don’t know it.”
The lack of familiarity is only a learning-curve, however. For Charlie Whitehead, the play’s producer, her experience has certainly been so. “‘Producer’ wasn’t really a thing at my school so I didn’t really know what it involved. Having done it I think I would give it another go, just because you get the opportunity to look at everything, every single aspect of it, rather than just what it looks like on stage.” And being thrown in the deep end so far in advance has been a welcomed challenge. “You learn stuff so quickly.”
One of Whitehead’s biggest challenges is certainly having her co-producer drop out – the producer curse is becoming a very real and continuing thing for the DST freshers’ play year on year it seems. They also had some dropouts early on with the cast. Neville said the quality of the acting at auditions didn’t necessarily work in their favour. “The thing is we had a really good turnout to auditions; when it came to callbacks I would have cast anyone, it came to the point where I was giving really solid actors small parts.”
The play itself is very much an ensemble piece. This year’s choice, The Physicists, is a satiric drama set in a sanatorium run by psychiatrist Mathilde von Zahnd. At the beginning of the play ‘Einstein’ has just killed one of the nurses (which happens to also be Whitehead’s second role) and the police have arrived to examine the scene, but it is uncovered that this is not the first nurse to have been murdered.
Neville, Whitehead and Clarke seem very positive about the way the rehearsal process is going, and much of Neville’s anxieties have been laid to rest since entering the space. The chatter and energy of the cast bubble around us as I look on at the space. There’s a weird sense of nostalgia as I leave. I can only wait to see whether this freshers’ play will live up to its team’s passion, and perhaps more importantly, whether these will be the team to get further involved with the theatre scene this year. If they do, they’ve got an exciting year ahead.
‘The Physicists’ will be performed from Thu 26 Nov until Sat 28 Nov in The Assembly Rooms Theatre, Durham. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Isabelle Culkin