With multiple theatre companies, over 15 productions on every term, and opportunities in acting, producing, directing, tech and design on offer, the scale and success of Durham Student Theatre is an equally exciting and daunting aspect of student life here.
Ahead of their opening night this Thursday 7th November, I went to chat with Poppy James, Tom Pyle, Ellie Thornton and Mims Schluter – the cast and crew of DST’s Freshers’ Play, Enron – about their first experience in DST.
There was undoubtedly a buzz in the air as everyone gathered in costume for their first full run through on the Assembly Rooms’ stage. Today was the culmination of weeks of tough work, but the opportunity to produce an entire show from scratch has definitely been worth it, Director Ellie assures me. “It’s been very liberating”, she says, “to not have teachers monitoring and to direct at this level with this amount freedom”.
A similar excitement to today has apparently been characteristic of all rehearsals, and all affirm that the Freshers’ Play has been a fantastic means of meeting new people early on in the term. Ellie even fondly describes rehearsals as just “hanging out with friends”. United and reassured in the knowledge that everyone is in the same boat, the pressure was relieved in rehearsals and they quickly felt comfortable to make mistakes.
Getting to this stage, though, has not been completely plain-sailing. Poppy, for example, highlights the stressful process of auditioning, and the flawed presumption across DST that first years will know how the audition process will work. In reality, after only one week at Durham, the first round of auditions is sprung on fairly clueless first years, who must then navigate Facebook Events, Elvet Riverside corridors and the inevitable rejection emails that can appear fairly “savage”, she says.
The Freshers’ Play, however, does do something to counteract this difficulty, since it is exclusively open to first years, and thus ups their chances of success. Indeed, so keen was Poppy to grab this opportunity, she sold her tickets home for the dates of the performance to ensure she could take part. It certainly seems to have paid off, as both Poppy and Tom are already involved in future DST productions this term, in part, Tom says, because his success in Enron auditions encouraged him to keep going for more.
Enron’s Producer, Mims, likewise tells me that the Freshers’ Play has rewarded her with a crucial confidence boost. “When applying for Enron”, she says, “I always played myself down a role”, not really knowing what the job would entail, or how time-consuming it would be. Now, however, her experience in Enron, has given her the chance to test the waters, engage with the role and know she is capable for future applications.
There was certainly no doubt that everyone I spoke to came to Durham intent on being involved in drama here, with some revealing that it was one of the reasons they chose the university in the first place. The Freshers’ Play is instrumental in carving an entry path for newcomers in DST, who otherwise may struggle either with the sheer number of students auditioning, or with their own uncertainty and self-doubt about the process and roles. What my conversations showed, however, is that there are always improvements to be made, and that DST must continue to focus on not only including but integrating first years into Durham’s amazing drama scene.
By Elvira Parr