Does Cambridge stifle creativity?

Harry Parker 4 February 2015

The immediate temptation here is to talk about the workload, but I’ll try and move away from that. We all have too much to do, and too little time to do it in: the reading week debate has made official the unmanageability of our workload. This rings especially true in an Arts degree, where we’re told – laughably – that doing more stuff faster is somehow a virtue.

So, in response to the issue of the workload: just stop doing so much work, and do more of the things you enjoy. The pits of hell won’t open up in your bedroom, and Zeus will not strike you down with his almighty thunder. Plus, procrastination’s a wonderful motivator. This article, in fact, was borne of procrastination, and so was the play I began working on this year (the timing of which I decided must coincide with the writing of two dissertations).

But the collective cry of despair seems to concern more than the workload. And so we wonder, is there something about the actual nature of the work that is stifling? I’m constantly being told by my supervisors that my essay writing style is ‘too informal’. They seem perplexed that I’ve gotten this far without adapting. Sure, I’d never have the guts to submit my ‘chatty’ first draft style as actual coursework, but for once I just wish that they could admit that it’s the rubric formality of the assessment system that’s the problem, and not me. But they never have and they probably never will. So maybe it’s this adoption of the argumentative tone which stifles an appreciation of art and creativity? We’re constantly being asked what our argument is. What our angle is. But is there any argument in the face of art? Can there be?

There are lots of creative people in Cambridge, and, as we’re all very young, lots of insecure people too (not being exempt from this category myself). So perhaps, when the need for ‘argument’ is thrust upon a large group of young, insecure creatives, we become highly competitive. Too often we hear fellow students gossiping about those who graduate with a First despite ‘not doing any work’ and lending all their time to extra curricular activities. Those who graduate with a 2:1 having spent twelve hours in the Library every day apparently ‘deserve’ the First more, which only really goes to show how completely fucked the examination system is. It shows nothing valuable. But yet it makes fierce competitors out of the usually most grounded of us.

And this sense of competition has, sadly, extended to the extracurricular arts in Cambridge. There exists an overwhelming pressure to show and be seen, an element exacerbated by social media. For fear of wanting to generalize – and this certainly does not apply to all student theatre put on in Cambridge – the pressure of ticket sales and filling auditoriums has lead to a culture of safety in terms of what’s put on, and how.

The ability of student theatre in Cambridge to imitate the professional industry is admirable, but perhaps what’s been lost is a rough edge which made it okay for people to experiment, okay for things to go wrong. The desperate need to have producers for student shows is part and parcel of this problem, and not having found a producer myself for Dreaming of Leaves, I’ve found some of the aspects of putting on the show pretty difficult to orchestrate.

And why do we have this whole bizarre reviewing culture? I guess the answer, as with all these things, is to sell tickets, and if we sell more tickets, then more people might want to come and chat to us about their visions of the post-apocalypse. And with an audience watching I can figure out whether doing sun salutations in every rehearsal made our process any better. This being said, if two people turn up to watch the show, it will be as interesting an experience as if fifty people turned up. Maybe it would be more interesting for those two spectators.

So, as a final note, come and see our show. Or don’t. I understand that poetic visions of the post-apocalypse aren’t for everyone. There are lots of Disney references in it, too. You might like it. You might not. That’s okay.

Dreaming of Leaves is on at the Newnham Old Labs from Tuesday 10 February until Saturday 14.