Top universities for student drama – south and central England

Stage lighting shining down
These five universities have more student theatre than you can shake a jazz hand at.

Whether you want to perform, write, work backstage or simply suggest a silly topic for an improvisation game, there are student drama societies for all tastes and abilities. The mainstays are classic drama, contemporary theatre, comedy/improvisation, musical theatre and opera. But some universities have very specialist dramasocs – for medics or for performances in Latin, for instance.

University of Birmingham

Variety is the name of the game with the University of Birmingham’s student drama scene. We don’t mean variety in terms of old-fashioned music hall, although if you want it, there’s a touch of that with some of its societies. But the sort of variety that can encompasses Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore and Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

  • Article 19 specialises in quirky adaptations of classic plays: Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians, for example, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • Footnotes Comedy does stand-up and sketches, and is ‘for jokers, for actors, for writers, for fans’. The society performs weekly on Birmingham’s student radio, runs regular gigs where anyone can turn up and do stand-up, and has a longer summer sketch show called Comedy in Danger. It’s also at ValeFest – a charity music festival organised by Birmingham’s students.
  • Gilbert and Sullivan Society puts new spins on old operettas – ones featuring bearded hipsters in trendy cafes, for instance.
  • Guild Musical Theatre Group (GMTG) is unashamedly about the razzle, the dazzle, the stars and the dancing chorus.
  • Infinity Stage Company gives all of its profits to worthy causes.
  • ThreeBUGS Fringe stages new and contemporary theatre only, along with workshops on modern forms such as physical theatre. It hosts the yearly Birmingham University Fringe Festival and takes a play to the Edinburgh Fringe.
  • Watch This is all about original writing and improvisation. Its speciality is the 48-hour show, where you deconstruct an old story and reinvent it for performance in two days.

Public theatres:

  • The Crescent
  • The Drum
  • Birmingham Repertory Theatre
  • The Mac.

University of Bristol

There’s a particularly healthy improvisation scene at Bristol University and in the city in general, and the university’s improv society has won plaudits at the Edinburgh Fringe. But the output and quality of the university’s four societies devoted to scripted drama is also high.

  • Dramsoc is the university’s largest performing arts society. It has a broad policy in terms of types of production and notches up around ten productions a year – a lot for a university theatre group.
  • Bristol Improv produces hour-long shows with weird names such as Gobblefunk as well as making things up as it goes along in short sketches and games. It has a fortnightly comedy night at the Brewhouse pub near Clifton.
  • Musical Theatre Society creates a lot of ‘newsicals’: in other words original musical productions. Some of the recent ones have student themes – Fresher and Take It Interns on particular.
  • Pantosoc members take part in quirkily named shows – Batman and Dobbin and Goldilocks: the Case of the Half-Eaten Porridge to name but two. They also have Pie Nights and Panto Balls.
  • Revunions tours the festival circuit with Planet of the Japes and other sketch shows.
  • Spotlights and Spotlights Bristol Playwrights Collective is a busy hub of scriptwriting and experimental theatre. It also has the Spotlights Family Scheme in which second-year and third-year students offer to ‘parent’ freshers interested in drama.
  • Stage Technicians’ Association (STA) lends technical expertise to university drama societies.

Public theatres:

  • The Bristol Old Vic
  • Alma Tavern and Theatre
  • Bierkeller Theatre
  • Redgrave Theatre
  • The Tobacco Factory
  • The Brewery
  • The Hen and Chicken Comedy Box
  • The Little Black Box
  • The Wardrobe Theatre.

University of Cambridge

Fancy treading the boards in a Cambridge University theatre production? You’ll be in the company of Ian McKellen, Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston to name but a few. And there are many drama societies to join – from the mainstream to the niche – plus productions with scripts from Christopher Marlowe to new writers.

  • Footlights is the big cheese of student comedy sketch troupes, and has been setting the benchmark for years. Its alumni include Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Inbetweeners star Simon Bird, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Sue Perkins, and Ben Miller from Armstrong and Miller. As its reputation is international, it tours the globe: in 2016 to London, Edinburgh, California, Las Vegas, New York and the Cayman Islands among other locations.
  • Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club (CUADC) is the university’s biggest and oldest theatre group and the resident company at the University Playhouse ADC Theatre. Recently, CUADC staged plays by Jez Butterworth, Shakespeare and Mike Bartlett.
  • Cambridge American Stage Tour (CAST) produces theatre that tours North America.
  • Cambridge University Christian Drama Society (CUCDS) was founded by a group of Asian Christians and aims to spread the Gospel.
  • Cambridge Impronauts puts on shows, performs at balls and runs improvisation workshops. It says: ‘We love you even if you don't live and breathe the theatre’.
  • Gilbert and Sullivan Society is for devotees of all things by the Victorian duo and Musical Theatre is for fans of choreography, tugging at the emotions and belting out those big, beautiful stage songs.
  • Cambridge University Light Entertainment Society (CUES) is – by its own admission – ‘not a “serious” drama society’ but places enthusiasm above experience. Its job is to take plays to special needs schools, homes for the elderly and homeless shelters in and around Cambridge.
  • Five of the university’s colleges have their own drama societies.

Public theatres:

University of Oxford

As per the other collegiate universities, individual colleges have their own drama societies – but these groups are open to any Oxford student.

  • Oxford University Drama Society (OUDS) runs a summer season which tours the UK, an international tour and a new writing festival. Recent productions have included Jekyll, Grimm and Around the World in 80 Days.
  • Oxford University Classical Drama Society (OUCDS) performs in Greek and Latin as well as in English. Typical productions are Aristophanes' Frogs and Aeschylus' Agamemnon.
  • Ionian Productions is a multilingual drama society originally formed by modern language students.
  • Oxford University Light Entertainment Society (OULES) takes its frothy fun to those who might not otherwise go to the theatre, visiting special needs schools, hospitals and retirement homes. Productions include Let’s Steal the Crown Jewels, Off with their Heads and 007: the Musical. Members vote in the Flosscars, awarded to creators of candyfloss-light entertainment as opposed to those who floss their teeth.
  • Oxford University Musical Theatre Society claims: ‘We are a group of totally insane people who love performing and spending time together’ – so no shrinking violets there. (It’s not uncommon for university musical theatre companies to describe themselves as full of crazy folk.)
  • Milk and Two Sugars is a relatively new student production company. Previous productions include Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Arcadia by Tom Stoppard.
  • Faded Ink Productions is a society ‘committed to introducing opera to a younger generation’.
  • Oxford University Gilbert & Sullivan Society stages one show a term.
  • TAFF – Oxford University Theatre Technicians and Designers provides design and technical support to student theatre productions.
  • The One Day Play (and other workshops) provides training for novices.
  • Oxford Imps has a weekly pub gig where members of the public come up with scenarios for improvisation.
  • Theatron Novum concentrates on classic operas such as The Fairy Queen.

Public theatres:

  • New Theatre
  • Oxford Playhouse
  • Burton Taylor Studio
  • Old Fire Station Theatre.

University of Warwick

Being so close to Stratford-Upon-Avon you’d hope that the University of Warwick might have a strong record for student theatre, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s got great form in the annual National Student Drama Festival, and its workshops for students cover everything from Stanislavski’s system, where you focus upon the inner workings of character, to puppetry.

  • Codpiece Theatre may be the oldest theatre society at Warwick but its main task is to create new works from scratch and promote new techniques. This is the group that explores the role of clowning, mime and using puppets in contemporary stage craft – and lets you get your hands dirty handling the strings of a marionette. Codpiece Theatre has won awards and critical acclaim in the national news.
  • Freshblood New Writing does what it says on the tin and is for Warwick students who write original theatre. Faith healers losing their faith and a forgotten town besieged by wolves are just two of the starting points for recent plots by Freshblood students.
  • Comedy Society hosts weekly sketch, stand-up and writing workshops. It puts on one sketch show and two to three stand-up shows each term, and makes comedy videos for YouTube.
  • Musical Theatre Group puts on shows and has a wonderfully titled five-a-side football team called Offside Story.
  • Opera Warwick productions update the classics in new ways – in a The Only Way is Essex style format, for instance.
  • Shakespeare Society… well it would have to exist, wouldn’t it? Particularly with the RSC on its doorstep.
  • Improvisation Society is great if you don’t want to learn lines but enjoy making it up as you go along, seat-of-pants style.
  • Public theatres:

    • Warwick Arts Centre on campus
    • The Loft Theatre in nearby Leamington
    • The Royal Shakespeare Company’s multiple theatres in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon.

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