With a vibrant performing arts culture, the University of St Andrews is home to a host of theatrical societies and groups. Recreating timeless classics such as Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, adapting fan favourites like ‘High School Musical’, and crafting new tales such as the upcoming ‘Our Saviour’, St Andrews’ talented students entertain their peers all year round. The Saint was fortunate enough to sit down with esteemed members of these theatrical circles to discuss their unique experiences as part of the performing arts scene in the bubble. From their accounts, we can see the incredibly creative and collaborative processes that involve constant self-expression and are reflective of a wider community.
Theatre is a platform to address and experiment with social issues and contemporary discussions underpinning society. What makes the St Andrews theatre scene particularly exciting is the students’ diverse backgrounds and how their range of experiences interact and coalesce in the process of crafting a theatrical production. Theatre in St Andrews has expressed various relevant ideas and themes such as moving abroad and living thousands of miles from home, adjusting to a new stage in your life, and the process of finding your place and friends in a new environment. It has also brought together the legacies of various theatrical traditions from around the world and created a distinct culture that is unique to St Andrews.
Furthermore, from the testimonies of students involved in the theatrical scene, the wee town of St Andrews is immensely supportive of its budding thespians. There is are a significant number of venues that host theatrical performances, especially when considering the comparative size of St Andrews. From The Barron and The Byre theatres, to Aikman’s and the The Stage, the wide range of performance venues available give producers flexibility and freedom to be creative, as well as reducing the number of limitations placed on them when trying to bring their vision to life. The sheer number of productions hosted in St Andrews is also inspiring, with around 14 shows entertaining students and other residents throughout each semester. This demonstrates the bustling nature of the theatrical scene in St Andrews. Moreover, aspiring performers are grateful for the freedoms offered to them regarding theatrical performances, with one noting how, while the Mermaids Committee requires detailed proposals of ideas and decides what receives the greenlight to enter production, generally you “can perform anything without restrictions” and students have free reign to “write, direct, act, get involved backstage and experiment with tech”.
In addition, the University and its affiliated theatrical societies have a long-standing and close relationship with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with many performers and troupes performing at the world’s largest arts festival every year. This is an incredible opportunity for people interested in all aspects of theatre, whether that is acting, singing, performing music, directing, designing costume, creating props or working with the tech department. Through their links with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the University offers its talented performers valuable experience in the industry and the possibility of furthering their theatrical careers.
I decided to take a closer look at the intricate details behind a theatrical performance and how it can reflect the influences and thoughts of the performers, playwrights, directors and other members of the theatre group. I looked particularly at The March, one example of a devised theatre piece in which, rather than being based on a playwright’s work, was inspired by a stimulus. In this case, the life of James Irvine served as the prompt. As the first Dean of Sciences and later Principal of the University of St Andrews, Irvine played a significant role in St Andrews’ history and traditions. As part of the process of crafting a devised piece, all members of the cast and crew contributed their ideas which were collated and compiled by student Oliver Savage in order to form a script. Through this journey, the finished script reflects the unique experiences of individual people involved in the process. The resultant performance is a true expression of the distinct ideas and influences of each member contributing to its creation. Moreover, through the development of a devised piece, relations between cast and crew became closer. Cast and crew hear each other’s ideas and experiences, getting to know one another and working more intimately together. Another advantage of a devised piece is that it allows for deeper and more meaningful connection with the characters as they are a product of your own ideas.
Another way in which theatre can serve as a form of self-expression is when thespians produce their own work. Take, for example, the upcoming play Our Saviourwhich was co-written by two first-year students and will also take to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The play is based on the story of Peter Popoff, who conned religious worshippers by claiming to receive guidance from God to heal them in exchange for payment. This conflicted character, when diagnosed with a brain tumour, goes through a “period of self-reflection and begins questioning his faith and religion”. Rather than a criticism of Christianity or religion in general, Popoff’s journey reflects one of the playwright’s exploration of his own faith. Brought up in Christianity, the playwright struggled with his faith in light of his homosexuality and moved away from its teachings. This religious debate and conflict is reflected in the play.
All the interviewees agree that theatre is intrinsically linked to self-expression, unanimously agreeing that you cannot act without bringing your own life and influences into your work and portraying characters through your lens. Through the process of playing a character you shape their personalities and also learn to appreciate different viewpoints as your character’s decisions and choices may differ significantly from your own. In the end, acting offers you the opportunity to explain your perspectives to audiences. There is a certain vulnerability involved with expressing your emotions and “revealing your inner character”, claimed one actor. He drew on the example of his recent role as a soldier in the First World War for the play Journey’s End in which he had to depict a breakdown. To portray his character’s fear and desperation, he needed to draw on real-life personal experiences when he may have felt similar emotions, in order to accurately impart them to audiences. In this way, not only did his performance have traces of self-expression but he was also able to connect with a character he was vastly different from through sharing parallel emotions. Therefore, through this, we can see how an actor’s own experiences affect their theatrical performance.
It is clear that theatre is deeply meaningful and intricate part of the St Andrews community. Important for expressing the creativity of the vast student body as well as expressing and presenting a varied range of ideas, experiences and influences, theatre in St Andrews is just as multi-faceted and unique as the actors, directors, playwrights and crew that produce it, and the audiences that watch and engage with it.