Behind the curtain on the NSDF awards

by Alice Saville

Getting a show to the NSDF is already a pretty sweet achievement: albeit one that requires tons of hard work and fundraising to enjoy. But the cherry on the top is winning a prize at the festival awards. We've interviewed Robert Hewison to get the inside story on how the judging system works – and on a few times where it's been inches from chaos.

First out, he's keen to stress that “this is a celebration, not a competition, so our role is to find and celebrate talent in whatever form”. But the prize-giving element is still a useful way of signalling the very best shows it houses to the world outside. There's also cash on offer for winners, although the exact amount is kept under wraps as it varies according to how many prizes are given.

New judges are selected every year, so they've got a fresh perspective on the festival – although often they've brought shows along back when they were students. Hewison explains that “my first task is to explain to the judges that they have much more flexibility than they think”. Awards can be ditched, or extra ones can be dished out, according to the crop of shows each year. And although “obviously there's a big difference between a big musical and a one-hander, if you look at the way the awards are structured there's a definite attempt to reach across different types of show, and to reward them”.

Judges convene in two top-secret meetings during the week “which gives us a chance to get attuned to each other”, followed by a Friday lunch at Interludes where they thrash through everything they've seen. Then, as Hewison recalls with relish, “we give the judges a nice lunch. The director Michael Brazier comes too, and we make him guess who's won what." And what's his success rate? "Very high, which is reassuring."

But how controversial are the judges' choices – anything to rival Kanye's infamous MTV “Imma let you finish, but”? Hewison feels that "generally by the end of the week, a kind of consensus emerges. And it's very rare that people come to us to complain”. A few students had spotted controversy on the ground, though. As one said, “the prizes are taken very seriously”. Last year, Angry won the Sunday Times Playwright's Award, even as it stirred up NSDF crowds: "The judges knew that by giving Angry an award people were going to be upset, and they were. But it was good that they wanted to reward really strong writing."

There's been the odd upset within the judging team, too. Hewison told the story of physically separating two judges who came to blows. And one year, he had to cover up for a judge who disappeared, deciding it was wrong for an actor to judge other actors. What does the term 'Best' actually mean, anyway?  As actor Lucy Ellinson put it at last year's awards (and we're paraphrasing here): "Imagine these awards don't have 'Best' in front of them. Imagine it says 'Awesome' instead." 

At a festival with so much goodwill, sharing and free conversation as NSDF, it can feel a bit wrong to pick out winners. But as well as handing out gongs, these awards are also a chance for (hopefully non-violent) debate and to think about what makes a great piece of theatre. You can't compare a puppet murder with a real-life tragedy. But interrogating the relative merits of each is a great way to pull out the universal – and the specialness of student theatre that hums with life and new ideas.