Theatre Critic and Journalist

Fulfilling Worldly Dreams: Holly Kendrick

Fulfilling Worldly Dreams: Holly Kendrick

Published in The Stage, 14.06.2012

Any theatre organisation working with the young is inevitably defined, at least in part, by its alumni. However, few can match the National Student Drama Festival on that front.

Within five years of its launch in 1956, neatly sandwiched between Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger, it had hosted first plays by Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill. Since then, it has kickstarted the careers of many actors and directors, including Simon Russell Beale, Marianne Elliott, Anthony Sher and Michael Boyd. Incidentally, it also has a nice line in theatre critics.

This year is arguably the most ambitious to date. For the first time, NSDF is going international. As part of the Cultural Olympiad, it will host student companies from all over the over nine days at the end of June. Amongst the countries represented are Australia, Zimbabwe, Japan and both Israel and Palestine.

Holly Kendrick, the festival’s Director and CEO, has worked up to the one-off event throughout her five-year tenure. The suggestion came in the wake of the Olympics and plans began in January 2008. “The Olympics are all about non-professional sportsmen and encouraging young people of any background into sport. We wanted an arts even that could match that.”

“It’s the most extraordinary opportunity for the students to hear different stories, experience different ways of working and talk about what theatre and the arts mean globally to young people,” Kendrick explains.

Getting there, however, has been no small task. Last year, over a hundred international companies from “absolutely everywhere” applied online and were whittled into a shortlist of 26 in a process Kendrick describes as being “slightly like Eurovision.” Ten of those have made the final line-up, alongside ten British companies. “It’s not an easy task for a UK-based company to put on a show and transfer it to the festival, so it’s a big thing for them.”

The festival has faced new challenges en route, many of them political. Shortlisted shows from Palestine and the Congo submitted DVDs to get around strict border controls, while the Egyptian entry had to be hosted in Holland. Since selection, the issues have been largely related to visas, funding and communication. “Some of these companies have so little, but they are so brilliant and so want to come. We think it’s so easy to email and phone people in the modern world, bit it isn’t like that everywhere.”

The particularities of this year’s festival have also involved a relocation to Sheffield. Initially, the festival moved each year, but remained in Scarborough since 1990, where it found huge local support from Alan Acykbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre among others. The move, she says, is “purely logistical. It’s like a year out.”

The ISDF is a first, but it’s also Kendrick’s last. When she arrived, it’s future was in the balance. In December 2007, it lost it’s regular funding during Arts Council England’s rush of blood to the head. Restoring it took a hard-fought appeal and a year spent in review.

“What we do hasn’t changed that much, but we’re much better at explaining it,” she says, “We weren’t beyond blame at all.” In particular, she flags the organisation’s lack of impact outside of the festival itself. Since then, however, the NSDF has increased its presence at the Edinburgh Fringe and partnered with the charity Ideas Tap, aiming directly at young people starting careers in the arts. It’s also increased accessibility, introducing flexible tickets for the first time this year that allow different levels of engagement. In May, it announced 200 free tickets for Yorkshire school students.

For Kendrick, that’s absolutely key: “The NSDF is about opening doors. It shows that theatre’s not a closed shop. Every year, someone comes up and says – not in a melodramatic way: ‘You’ve changed my life.’ That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve got an agent or drama school, but that it’s given someone the confidence to do something they never thought they could.”

In fact, that goes for Kendrick herself, who attended at 16 with her local youth theatre in Hull. She applied twice as a university student, getting selected the second time with a production of Look Back in Anger she’d directed, but cast members’ commitments meant pulling out. “That was heartbreaking. I only went once as a student, but it’s been a massive part of my life.”

That experience has governed her subsequent approach as its director, particularly her view that it’s driven by the students themselves. The festival places peer review at the centre, in formal and informal discussions and its daily news sheet Noises Off. “It’s about young people flexing their critical muscles about each other’s work and that’s both incredibly powerful and very important to a society that values and nurtures culture. We just respond to what they want and what they need.”

Photograph: Allan Titmuss

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