BNC Arts Week: How It All Began

Since this has now been published in Brazen Notes, a newsletter that goes out to all Brasenose College (BNC) alumni, I think it’s OK for me to share here. It includes contributions from three of my BNC contemporaries: Liz Owen, Mia Bennett and Rikesh Shah. So, here it is: how BNC’s now well-established Arts Week began…


It’s hard to believe, but Arts Week, in some form or other, has been going for twenty-one years. This realisation made some of us who were involved in its first incarnation look back at how it started.

I was part of a keen group of theatre-makers that first came up to BNC in 1993. When we arrived, however, there wasn’t much theatre happening in college. Brasenose Players rarely staged its own productions. In fact, the idea of the college being a home to drama would have seemed absurd to many; the stereotype was that it was all rugby and rowing. So, when we decided to set up an arts festival to take place in Trinity of our first year, the initial hurdle for us was to get our idea to be taken seriously.

Luckily, the domestic bursar gave us his support, and eventually enough key members of the SCR were persuaded, although – not unreasonably – there was some scepticism about our ability to carry off such an undertaking and be ready for our first-year exams. There was also a fair amount of negotiating about which week it should be. We wanted it later because of the weather, but the college – again, not unreasonably – wanted it to be as far away from finals as possible. It ended up in Third Week, where it has pretty much remained.

There wasn’t a battels contribution then, of course, so we had to plead our case to a slightly bemused JCR. Producer Liz Owen also managed to persuade several local businesses to buy adverts in the programme. We then decided to set up a new company, Oxford Everyman’s Theatre, to produce the event. We got very enthusiastic about setting up companies in those days: a group of us had already set up Daedalus, in order to do our own productions in Oxford and Edinburgh. Later Daedalus would become a professional company; it is still going.

And so the first Brasenose Summer Arts Festival, as it was then called, started to take shape. It had two Shakespeare productions in New Quad: Coriolanus directed by Michael Brett Drennan (the joy of togas in the rain) and Romeo and Juliet directed by Tom England, whose Land Rover was well-employed for costume and prop trips to London. A large seating rake was hired – a slightly problematic process, to put it mildly. We also ended up with real (albeit unsharpened) swords, and then had to stop a bout of improvised sword-fighting amongst the cast before blood was spilt in the quad. In the chapel, meanwhile, was the mediaeval morality play Everyman, which I directed and which Daedalus later took to Edinburgh. Performed amidst candlelight and choral singing from the organ loft, its musical director was Laura Senior, who also organised the fourth element of the festival; an early music concert.

The whole thing was a steep learning curve, naturally, as nothing like this had been organised at BNC by undergraduates, but it was also extremely rewarding. And it’s also very rewarding that it’s still going, all this time later. The original group got as far as organising a second festival. After that came finals and we handed over to a new generation. Our involvement with Brasenose arts didn’t stop, however, as many of the same people went on to set up and run the King’s Hall Trust for the Arts, which continues to fund projects in college and beyond.


Below (and also as a cover image for this article: a selection of photos of the first Brasenose Summer Arts Festival by Thomas Furlong:




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