Ed Barnes and fellow members of Bath University Student Theatre use archives to help celebrate an important anniversary.
Preparations for our 50th anniversary celebration event introduced a team from the student theatre society (BUST), me included, to the university archives for the first time. Lizzie and Adrian had unearthed a wealth of posters, flyers and footage spanning decades, later presented on the night. The footage became a crucial element in our 50th anniversary film. Among the staggering scenes of the city and university campus as they once were, Adrian offered a selection of behind-the-scenes documentaries from performances the society were involved in, including a 1984 production of The Hobbit.
The viewer is transported into the rehearsal process - piles of promotional flyers, a pianist in deft recital, and the production team in coffee-infused discussion with Pat Bishop, one of the founding forces of theatrical activity on campus. Sets are being hand-drawn, built and painted; costumes are being hand-sewn; technicians are adjusting sound levels and lighting the scene. All is familiar and evocative of the formative phase of every BUST play 35 years on. Well, almost.
This particular production seems to have been supported by staff groups as well as students, which was common at the time. From the viewpoint of a BUSTian in 2019, the infrastructure behind this single production is frankly staggering, and seems to dwarf our present-day capacities, though perhaps the musical society, its few shows supported by huge casts, ambitious sets and often sold-out ticket sales, comes fairly close. Determined to recapture Tolkien’s fantastical imagery, Pat recruited the backstage team to construct an entire mountain in the centre of a hall, against a painted backdrop. This monumental set piece would become the terrain of an epic chase scene, and all was supported by a gigantic scaffolding structure; as Pat commented, ‘The greatest difficulty is safety’. A relatable remark to the ears of an experienced student performer.
It would be naïve to assume the show’s scale was simply an artefact of its available budget. There is a sense of resolve and a willingness to put in a lot of time from all who were involved - apparently the backstage group worked especially hard on this production. Anything might have gone wrong, and undoubtedly a few things did along the way. Pat was lucky to discover ‘one of the boys in the bookshop has turned out to be a fantastic artist; he’s done not only the posters but designs for the costumes!’
This two-minute sequence was certainly a fitting segment in our completed film, which left our invitees awestruck on the night. I felt the same way when I watched it for the first time. Alongside every other archival gem, the clip broadened my perspective considerably. Much has changed in BUST, to be sure. Common themes have evolved with the wider social zeitgeist, and perhaps our annual budget is smaller than it used to be. But - I can’t help mentally drawing a Venn diagram as I type this - there seems to remain a palpable sense of ambition and resilience, fuelling productions then and now. In the face of varying restrictions on available resources, a consistent team spirit, coupled with a steely determination to achieve the highest possible result, seems to have been carrying and catalysing productions from the beginning; those we have taken some involvement in, and those we have originated entirely. Looking back, these past 50 years seem to distil into a sheer exercise in punching above our weight. Long may that continue.