For those keen to tread the boards in St Andrews, the most obvious wellspring of theatrical potential in town is the university’s Mermaids Performing Arts Fund. Mermaids serves a critical purpose in funding, supporting, and managing student productions – not to mention providing us with the ever-popular Christmas Ball each December (which many are so eager to attend that they’d just about do anything short of sell a kidney to procure an elusive ticket). But in recent years, our small town has expanded its appetite for theatre, giving rise to several independent groups and productions to rival Mermaids’ monopoly on the entertainment scene.
Anyone who has been involved with the theatrical social circle in St Andrews will tell you the same thing (with, yes, just the smallest of wry grins) – technically, everyone’s a Mermaid. As one of the union’s affiliated societies, every member of the student body is indeed automatically a part of the Performing Arts Fund. Nonetheless, as someone who remembers what it was like turning up as a pasty fresher looking to ingratiate herself, there’s no denying that Mermaids has on occasion felt intimidating to outsiders.
In some small way, independent productions seem to splinter that social fabric, offering students a chance to explore theatre outside of the proscribed route. By providing an alternative to Mermaids’ mandated productions, independent shows and groups allow for a well-needed breath of fresh air… and while the lawlessness of producing theatre without compulsory attendance at committee meetings, the careful checking of budgets, and all of the accountability therein can seem like a recipe for disaster, it can also be the opportunity for true artistic liberation.
Perhaps one of the most famous independent theatre groups of recent years in St Andrews is BoxedIn Theatre, a prime example of the way in which an independent group stood by its own ethos and developed a uniquely ambitious vision. Founded by the now-recent graduate Oliver Savage, BoxedIn has moved from St Andrews’-based productions such as Romeo and Juliet or student-written Lobes to touring Britain and Ireland on its summer 2018 ‘Back of the Van’ tour. After a summer spent in Edinburgh showcasing eight original shows in the Fringe’s first ever zero-waste venue, BoxedIn has certainly redefined expectations of what St Andrews’ theatre-minded students can do – if only they’re willing to take a few risks. Being bold enough to tread a new path has forged several success stories, after all. 2017 graduate Joanna Bowman, who led the independent group Wanton Theatre in productions such as 2017’s Hedda Gabler, has since gone on to Assistant Direct at venues including Chichester Theatre.
Of course, independent productions are also offered the freedom of fewer logistical interventions. Staged in the James Gregory Telescope, last year’s show The Little Prince, produced by the group Peachy Keen, was a moving testament to how performances can benefit from independence – even in terms of securing such a remarkable venue.
This semester sees two independent plays announcing themselves on the scene – Lost Boot Productions’ Snore and Tom Basden’s play Party, directed by Alex Schellekens. Alongside six upcoming Mermaids’ shows, the theatre scene is feeling especially fertile. Ultimately, independent productions and Mermaids’ shows aren’t rivals. They’re not competing so much as they are working in tandem to widen an artistic and social environment that ought to support all of the people who come to this university with a well-worn playscript in their bag – and a hope of one day staging it.