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The UK's Largest Student-Run Arts Festival Returns

Hannah Shiblaq provides a breakdown of the first weekend of On the Rocks.

17 March marked the beginning of On the Rocks: Nine action-packed days where artistic talent has the chance to shine for the entire St Andrews community.

The festival debuted in 2009, making this year the fourteenth annual On the Rocks. The organisation began after a group of students sought an all-encompassing festival to replace the annual separate film and theatre ones. Since then, On the Rocks has showcased every possible artistic medium imaginable.

The 2023 festivities range from live music to dog yoga, remaining faithful to this year’s theme of ‘collage’.

“We’ve really focused on creating a real range of different events and working with lots of different groups and societies in the hopes of attracting as many people as possible!” Said Head of Press and Marketing Nishka Dalmia.

Dalmia, a member of the group’s planning committee, has worked tirelessly in preparation for this year’s festival. “We’ve spent six months planning events, finding venues, organising collaborations and more”, said Dalmia, “so we’re really excited to enjoy these events after all our hard work!”

The festival began with the Launch Party on Friday night, hosted in the hub of St Andrews performing arts, The Byre Theatre. Entry was free and offered the chance to meet and mingle with On the Rocks committee members and art-appreciators alike.

The event provided a friendly hour and a half window for people to come and go as they pleased. The ambiance was both peaceful and intimate, consisting of a few tote-bag adorned tables and couches. Additionally, the BrewCo bar was open throughout the launch, serving both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages.

The Byre’s first floor was transformed into a performance stage, complete with a piano, keyboard, guitar, and violin. The primary performer was one-man band Louvre Doors, Rory Gibb. Under the glow of the orange and purple lights, everyone was entranced by his music, getting in the spirit of all things performing arts.

For the following day, the Byre hosted yet another On the Rocks event: a Jazz Jam with St Andrews’s own JazzWorks. Similarly to the launch, the Byre became ground for a five person jazz performance, consisting of a piano, bass, saxophone, and two types of drums.

The ambiance was chilled and relaxed, with different players and singers drifting on and off the stage, sometimes even resuming their work on academic assignments whilst they waited for their chance to perform. Despite the loud volume, the steady beat and curated tranquillity made for a perfect - albeit nontraditional - study space. The audience was a sea of all-too familiar laptop screens, adding a chorus of typing sounds to the already-steady tempo of Frank Sinatra renditions.

18 March included one of the festival’s more unique events, SoundScapes. For a more scientific deviation from the other events, SoundScapes explored the technicalities behind sound, something that Tristan Kleyn, the event’s organiser, declared was “just vibes”. For an hour and a half, the audience observed a series of spectrograms, or coloured depictions of frequencies, ranging from underwater humpback whale songs to the splashes of a skinny-dipping session.

The sounds took the audience on an acoustic tour of the world, ending with Scotland’s Loch Awe. Watching the textured, squiggling hues of greens and yellow, while unfamiliar, became recognisable as unique patterns of frequency, something that goes easily overlooked in everyday encounters with various sounds.

The opening weekend of On the Rocks promised many more exciting events to come, each showcasing a different medium of artistic performance. There will be a Blind Mirth improv performance, a play that satirises the romanticism of mental illness, a Ceilidh at St Andrews Castle, various live music concerts, a Makers Market, and so much more. Even if you can’t attend the festival’s entirety, each day offers a taste of performing arts talent from St Andrews and beyond.

Despite the local tendencies of On the Rocks, its status as the largest student-run festival in the UK makes it the target of attention beyond St Andrews. The festival is advertised across Fife, calling some performers from just across the way in Dundee, such as the band the Highland Lonesome. Some events this year, such as the watercolour session at the Rusacks on Thursday 23 or the gig at Saint Sizzle on Saturday 25, will also take place in venues that allow out-of-towners to join in the festivities.

Artistic expression has always been an integral part of life at St Andrews, and On the Rocks is certainly proof of this. It explores every component of the art world and puts them proudly on display, giving some of St Andrews’ most talented students and residents an opportunity to claim their place in the spotlight.

Illustration: Holly Ward

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