Nothing Amateur About the North West
As the City of Derry and Strabane Drama Festivals mark milestone years, organisers are stressing just how far standards on and off-stage have soared
Out of darkness, light can shine. Marie Dunne is one of many who remembers the depressing litany of 'bomb scares, checkpoints and everything that went with it' that characterised daily life in Northern Ireland during the long years of the Troubles.
And yet it was, she points out, in 1981 that an unlikely birth took place, of a new City of Derry Drama Festival, tapping into the widespread enthusiasm for amateur theatricals that developed in the city throughout the seventies, perhaps in stubborn reaction to the general grimness of the period.
Derry~Londonderry man Michael Gillen was the CDFF’s founding father, and 35 years later his festival is still going strong, with a healthy line-up of seven companies performing in this year’s event, from March 4 - 12 at the Waterside Theatre.
Marie Dunne, CDDF secretary and a member of its organising committee, says interest in the event has remained high over the decades, the explosion of the internet and online entertainment alternatives notwithstanding.
'After the first CDDF, which attracted entries from Dublin, Sligo, Antrim and Donegal, the festival became a fixture in the arts calendar in the city, and was held every year. Audience numbers fluctuated from time to time but have stabilised reasonably well in the past few years, and continue to show slow but steady growth.'
Central to the ethos of the CDDF, and its sister event the Strabane Drama Festival, is competition. ‘The CDDF is essentially a drama competition which is strictly adjudicated by a professional adjudicator,’ Dunne explains.
'Prizes are awarded for best actress, best actor, best lighting et cetera, but what each group really wants is to win or place in their section. That gains them points, and these points, along with those they hope to be awarded in other festivals in which they compete on the circuit, take them closer to the All Ireland or Ulster finals.'
Given what’s at stake for those participating, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the word 'amateur' can be something of a misnomer. The time involved in getting productions to festival standard is, for one thing, considerable.
'Usually the companies will be working for months ahead of the festival season, which starts in February,' says Dunne, 'designing and building sets, lighting plans, costumes and, of course, rehearsing. Many companies will have a run through a few times to audiences in their local or neighbouring areas, to hone the production and ensure it is festival ready.'
And what finally ends up on stage, adds Dunne, far from seeming ‘amateur’ to those watching, can be of extremely high quality. 'Some outstanding productions at the CDDF are still talked about now.'
Butt Drama Circle’s Translations, returning this year to open the CDDF as a tribute to the late Brian Friel, is one show that she specially mentions. The Last Burning by the Slemish Players – where Liam Neeson cut his acting teeth – and Silken Thomas Players’ The Normal Heart are two others.
Dunne is not alone in feeling that the standard of amateur drama productions in Ireland has been edging steadily higher. She cites the comments made recently by the actor and television personality Michael Twomey, an adjudicator on the festival circuit, as compelling evidence.
There are, Twomey reports, more than 300 amateur drama groups on the island, and 35 regional drama festivals, leading to the All Ireland Drama Festival finals. 'Night after night, you’re looking at productions that are often of a professional standard. This is keeping theatre alive. The standard of amateur drama has gone way up. A lot of professional theatres are drawing players from the amateur circuit.'
The question of adjudication can, of course, be a contentious one, and Marie Dunne has personal experience of it, having acted on the circuit herself and won a number of best actress and best supporting actress awards. The adjudication is, she says, a rigorous process involving detailed feedback.
'Groups competing in the festival have a public adjudication after they perform, with adjudicators commenting to the audience that has just viewed the play, on every character, on costume, set, lighting and sound. They then have a private adjudication for more in-depth analysis of their production.'
The idea is, Dunne continues, to stimulate reflection and improvement in the companies, and adjudicators will not necessarily pull their punches simply because the individuals in front of them are nominally 'amateurs'.
'Sometimes it’s harsh,' she says, 'though in fairness, not often. And sometimes what one adjudicator thinks is a fault or weakness in the production is praised by another adjudicator the next night! But overall it’s an opportunity to learn more about your art, something you don’t often get from performing in front of your home crowd. I believe I’m a better actress for having performed on the festival circuit.'
Dunne is part of what she calls the 'rejuvenated committee' which emerged at the City of Derry Drama Festival after the 2015 event was cancelled - the first year missed since 1981 - because of funding difficulties. She points to the crucial part which has been played by sponsorship from the Derry City and Strabane District Council and from local businesses, in making this year’s 35th festival possible.
Strabane Drama Festival, meanwhile, is celebrating its own 30th birthday with a nine-night programme at the Alley Theatre, hosting three of the same productions as Derry. With plays by authors such as Pinter, Friel, Hugh Leonard and Frank McGuiness on the menu, and companies from all over Ireland, Dunne is promising 'a veritable feast' for Northern Irish theatre-goers, and 'a different play every night of the festival.'
'The CDDF has gained a reputation across the island of Ireland for friendliness, hospitality and good organisation,' Dunne says. 'The result was, and is, that drama groups are keen to come to Derry and there are always many more applications to perform than there are festival nights.
'A few years ago, Letterkenny Music and Drama Society staged The 39 Steps on the festival circuit, lifting silverware everywhere they went and going on to win the All-Ireland final. I saw the play in the West End later that year and I can honestly say that Letterkenny’s production was equally good, and perhaps marginally better.
'This is the standard we have come to expect. Audiences attending the festival are rarely disappointed by the standard of production.'
The 35th City of Derry Drama Festival runs from Friday, March 4 to Sunday 6 and Wednesday, March 9 to Saturday 12, at the Waterside Theatre, Derry~Londonderry. For tickets and information visit www.watersidetheatre.com. The Strabane Drama Festival runs from Friday, March 11 to Saturday, March 19 at the Alley Theatre, Strabane. For tickets and information visit www.alley-theatre.com.
Both festivals are part of the programme for #CreativityMonth 2016, celebrating creativity and the creative industries in Northern Ireland throughout March. For more details of events taking place visit www.creativityni.org/events.