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The University of Cambridge receives worldwide recognition as an academic institution, but arguably as distinguished is its theatrical legacy. In fact, many of the University’s most historically significant moments have happened not at the front of a lecture theatre but under a proscenium arch. The likes of Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Rachel Weisz and Sam Mendes first learned the ropes on the stage of the ADC Theatre – a fact which is guaranteed to inspire and intimidate any would-be thesp in equal measures.

Any discussion of drama in Cambridge is immediately complexified by the recent impact of COVID-19. Nevertheless, it is worth explaining what the Cambridge theatre scene looks like when things are running smoothly, without the pressures of a global pandemic. The large number of theatrical societies that are open to University students may cause some confusion to the uninitiated, but for a starting point, take my society, the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club (CUADC).

Frequently confused with the ADC Theatre, at which we are the resident company, we are a University-wide dramatic society with an active membership of approximately 1300. Each term we fund, support and publicise three to five shows in Cambridge; every member of the cast and crew is a student. But we are only a small part of the picture. In any normal term at the University there might be a total of 100 shows, across 20 venues, involving hundreds of people.

“While the number of shows we are able to run is scaled back, our ambitions for a vibrant and diverse season are not”

There are, as alluded to above, a great many alternative options. Admittedly CUADC is the largest and oldest, but we are often outshone by our bitter rivals the Footlights, catering primarily to comedy, and outsold by the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society (CUMTS), who handle the majority of musical theatre. It is likely that your college will have a society, such as the Preston Society at Trinity Hall, and possibly even its own venue, like the Howard Theatre at Downing. The lion’s share of shows, however, take place at the ADC and, in a normal year, the Corpus Playroom, which are both administered by a small, full-time staff – ‘Management’.

Every Michaelmas, CUADC reserves three (this year, two) slots in week 6 for its Freshers’ Plays, in which every role is filled by a fresher. Participation in the Freshers’ Plays is by no means a prerequisite for further involvement in theatre, but many find their experiences in these shows gives them a leg-up for future applications. Often the best way to start is to dive in with a show.


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Vacancies are publicised on camdram.net, the CUADC mailing lists – which can be signed up to at the virtual Freshers’ Fair – and the Cambridge Theatre Facebook group. Acting roles are filled by audition, and production roles by written application. Advice on both of these processes is readily given by fellow thesps, but the CUADC reps are also on hand for queries specific to a particular role.

No previous experience is required. This cannot be overstated. The first time our current President, Nick Harris, even considered theatre was Freshers’ Week, initially learning through the CUADC stage management workshops, which are still running this year alongside equivalents for technical designers, producers, directors, writers and actors. You can opt in or out of as many shows as you like, and you can start or restart at any time of your degree. For returning students, this year is as good a time as any to get into theatre – although the current pandemic inevitably introduces a couple of caveats.

Performing arts has been one of the worst-hit industries since COVID-19 took hold, and unsurprisingly so. Any activity which brings so many people together is anathema to the new norm of social distancing. Fortunately, there are currently exemptions for some types of theatre to take place in person, so while the number of shows we are able to run is scaled back, our ambitions for a vibrant and diverse season are not.

The most obvious change this term is that the Corpus Playroom is closed for the time being. Prized for being ‘intimate’ and ‘atmospheric’, the Playroom is just as easily described as being ‘tiny’ and ‘unventilated’; we do not know when it will be safe or economically viable for such small venues to reopen. The ADC, conversely, is sufficiently large to permit social distancing and, as a department of the University, has secured exemptions to the ‘rule of six’ provided that students adhere to their pithily named Pandemic Production Guidelines.

“What has remained the same is the wealth of opportunities”

To maintain opportunities for those less comfortable with in-person events, and those merely seeking a bit of variety, we have also launched CUADC Online. This will take the form of a season of free-to-view shows and workshops on Youtube and Zoom, running alongside the in-person season at the ADC. Due to the reduced audience capacity, our in-person shows will also be streamed at reduced cost. One silver lining of the coronavirus cumulonimbus: our plans for online content creation have brought into existence new roles such as camera operators, sound and video editors, which will be advertised in the usual way.

What has remained the same is the wealth of opportunities to meet people, express yourself creatively and develop skills outside the world of academia. Budgeting for a show, running a tech rehearsal, scheduling auditions, negotiating with a nitpicking director – Cambridge theatre gives you the chance to turn your hand to all of these for free, and for fun.

This article is by no means exhaustive, but we hope it signposts some of the many routes into drama at Cambridge. For those interested, we thoroughly recommend joining the Cambridge Theatre Facebook group or attending the CUADC stand at the virtual Freshers’ Fair. Failing that, watching a play at the ADC (or one of the college venues, if operational) should give you an impression of the standard of amateur drama in Cambridge. It may even inspire you to try it yourself.

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