Is Durham Student Theatre worth your time?

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Confusion abounds during Freshers’ Week. There’s pressure to fit in and similarly, pressure to stand out. Yet if you have a yearning for drama and even for a little stardom, then Durham Student Theatre (DST) may be the perfect place to start looking. DST is a student-led umbrella organisation which encompasses a number of smaller groups. It allows its members to get involved in Durham’s diverse theatre scene, where tens of shows are being performed every term.

Whether you wish to be the next Hamlet or to sew the doublet that takes the audience back to the Elizabethan age, then DST is the sort of community you should set your eye on. In conversation with the new DST President, Isabelle Culkin, I discover what sort of changes are to come and how DST can make an impact on your student experience.

As her priority she sees improving the ‘communication and accountability’ in order that the executive committee can do what they are set out to, namely to ‘represent the best interests of its members.’ As a member you receive information of current productions and the like via a frequent email update; however what Culkin is more concerned with is making sure that members are aware of the core decisions that are being made and who they involve. Through increased publicity members can become more aware of who the committee are and what they do, becoming ‘a port of call’ if necessary.

Apart from that she is ‘hugely concerned with welfare’ and wants to continue placing an emphasis on it in the coming year, in order to keep DST’s members psychologically healthy. Theatre can be an activity of great involvement and Culkin is wary of it becoming all-consuming. Recently DST has made the move from being a part of the Durham Students’ Union to being a member of Experience Durham. What this means is that the University, and not the Students’ Union, is accountable for any issues that arise. This means less red tape that students will have to deal with, making sure that all of the members’ time is spent on creating high-calibre theatre and not stressing over any administrative issues.

These may be the cogs in the machine but what DST also aims to do this year is to increase the number of productions that opt-in for gender-blind and racial-blind casting. This means actively encouraging productions to specify this when conducting auditions. Culkin cites the International Women’s Week Showcase, commissioned by DST, which she claims ‘enfranchised women’ and ensured that women from any racial or cultural background felt they could apply and perform. She firmly believes that if theatre is to continue the practice of the ‘suspension of disbelief,’ then ability has to be the only thing under consideration when productions decide on whom to cast.

To drive that progress she envisions a ‘top-down effort’ and then it’s a matter of it being a self-perpetuating process where production teams actively decide to jump onto the bandwagon. In productions like Fourth Wall Theatre’s all-female Lord of the Flies, ‘people saw how fantastic girls were at playing parts traditionally reserved for guys’. Theatre companies will be ‘disadvantaging themselves’ if they don’t decide to make non-traditional decisions in casting. She believes the talent is definitely there, however it needs some encouragement to come forward.

The DST Freshers’ Play is another way in which fresh talent is often revealed, not only in terms of acting but also in backstage production. After that Culkin says that it’s a ‘matter of being keen’ about theatre, as there are always productions with roles to be filled. There is an existing Assistant Producer and Assistant Director scheme, which also allows members who have yet to try these roles to be under the guidance of students more experienced in those positions. Volunteering opportunities are ubiquitous, and you should be on the lookout for a potential one with internal hires.

One of the big advantages of joining DST is the ability to use the facilities that the group has access to. The Assembly Rooms Theatre is a more traditional venue for larger-scale performances. However Culkin reveals that there are is a long-term plan set in motion for the procurement of a permanent black box facility. She sees this as really beneficial development which will widen the array of plays, in terms of style, chosen by production teams and also obviously increase venue space that is available.

If you want to be involved in the theatre scene at Durham, there are many brilliant opportunities out there and DST definitely offers quite a few of them. There is ‘a certain novelty to good student theatre’, says Culkin, one that can attract students and locals alike. It is up to you whether you want to be a part of that.

If you prefer commenting on plays rather than taking part, then make sure to email the Editors for an opportunity to review a production at: stage@palatinate.org.uk

Image Credit (Clockwise):
Samuel Kirkman; Samuel Kirkman; Samuel Kirkman; and Nina Hudson; Grace Tseng; Anna Lermolaieva; Samuel Kirkman; Alexander Gottlieb; and

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