Having loved drama at school, it was only natural for Leah O’Grady (2020, PPE), Audrey Raynes (2021, Classics) and Ursula White (2021, English) to go in search of fellow actors when they arrived at Somerville. However, they found a college in which Covid-19 had closed the doors on drama – potentially for good. Here, they explain how the current generation of students have rekindled Somerville drama and taken it to new heights.

Somerville has always had a rich dramatic heritage. The roll-call of recent talent includes the actor, writer and RADA coach Alison Skilbeck, the actor Christopher Sherwood, the stage, film and radio actor Daphne Alexander, Calam Lynch, who will soon appear in Bridgerton, and Ellie Cooper, a recent Somerville graduate who has just returned to Oxford to direct a musical adaptation of Carrie at The Playhouse.

And yet, despite this heritage, when Leah O’Grady arrived at Somerville in 2020, she found no plays in production and no way of rehearsing thanks to strict Covid-19 regulations. That was when Leah decided to bring an original piece of writing to a group of acting friends.

Entitled A*, Leah’s play revolves around the internal struggles of a student who has simultaneously lost a best friend to suicide and been rejected from university, and cannot reconcile the proportionality of the two events. Despite being produced entirely online with actors on separate screens, the play went on to win the Drama Cuppers for Best Direction.

“Our play wasn’t designed to be produced online,” Leah notes. “So I was proud we got Best Director, despite all the challenges and the fact that we had produced a pretty dark piece in what was already quite a dark term!”

Happily, Drama Cuppers were able to take place in-person in 2021. That encouraged Somerville’s newest intake of dramatists, including Audrey Raynes and Ursula White, to create another new piece of work. Adapted from a Denton Welch short story by Noah Wild (2021, English), When I Was Thirteen is a coming-of-age story about sexuality and trauma in which the 10 people who attended the initial read-through all took on key roles – including, somewhat courageously, a panel of four co-directors. Far from descending into creative anarchy, Audrey credits this collaborative approach with facilitating some real breakthroughs, including the overlapping timelines of one segment.

The approach was clearly a hit with the judges, because When I Was Thirteen won Best Overall Production at this year’s Cuppers. “It was challenging, putting together an entire production with people we hardly knew,” says Audrey. “But it also gave us such a close bond during that first term, which I think really helped us.”

Now in her second year, Leah O’Grady remains involved in the re-energised drama scene at Somerville. She’s just begun rehearsing an original adaptation of Dracula that will open next term. Inspired by the urge to recontextualise the male gaze of the original novel, the production will distil into two hours Stoker’s twenty-seven chapter narrative with additional inspiration from a thumping Spotify playlist.

What next for Somerville drama? Auditions have just completed for the drama society’s next play – a production of Twelfth Night that will, it is hoped, be staged on the Quad this summer. As pairings go, the prospect of combining Shakespearean comedy with a balmy Somerville evening will surely make for a night to remember!

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