City of Derry Drama Festival

Amateur players from across Ireland head Folyeside to win points - and prizes  

It is not uncommon for theatre festivals to feature reprises of classic plays - though rarely are the players and companies all amateur. Neither are there many drama festivals where the public adjudicates the performances for a final night Oscars-style ceremony, with categories including best actor and actress and best director. 

But that's exactly what is happening at the 29th City of Derry Drama Festival, which takes place March 6 -14 in the city's Waterside Theatre.  Nine drama companies from all over Ireland will be performing a wide range of plays including The Pillowman and The Lonesome West (Martin McDonagh), Sive (John B. Keane) and True West (Sam Shephard). 

The companies are amateur but all are aiming for a professional production. 'Let there be no mistake,' says Marie Dunne, one of the festival organisers, 'these are experienced, award winning groups, many of whom have been performing on the circuit for decades. 

'Groups like KATS from Galway, Cloonacool Players from Sligo, Bangor Drama Club, Theatre 3 from Newtownabbey and Droichead Nua from Co Kildare are seasoned players with numerous Ulster and All-Ireland awards under their belts,' she continues.

The City of Derry Drama Festival operates under the auspices of the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland (ADCI) and the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals (AUDF) and the groups compete in drama festivals throughout the length and breadth of Ireland in order to win coveted points that will take only the best through to the finals. 

Performances are publicly adjudicated each night and in addition to the overall festival winners individual players and crew will have the chance to receive recognition for their input - a range of awards are presented on the final night to the best actress and actor, best supporting actress and actor, best director, best set and best lighting, etc.

Each group chooses the play they want to do. But why choose such big name plays that even the pros might be loath to take on for fear of falling flat on their faces? 'Well,' says Dunne, who has also been involved in performing on the festival circuit, 'It’s probably a bit of a balancing act.

'Groups have to take a number of things into consideration when deciding what to take on. First and foremost, they need the talent. Then they need to consider the money they have available. Some will chose plays with minimal scenery because of the sheer logistical difficulties of transporting a complex set to a venue in the other end of Ireland, erecting it, putting on – hopefully – an award winning performance, and then striking the set and moving either home or to the next festival venue,' she explains.

The City of Derry festival received 30 applications this year, evidence of the vibrancy of the circuit and of the popularity of the venue. But is the element of competition really necessary and what’s it like to have an adjudicator stand up in front of an audience after each performance?

'Absolutely nerve-wrecking - sometimes more nerve-wrecking than putting on the performance itself,' Dunne continues. 'If things have gone well, then it’s wonderful to hear positive comments. But if it’s been a bad night, then it can be horrible.'

Dunne has had mixed experiences in front of the adjudicators. 'I've won best actress at one festival and been slated at another, and believe me, when an adjudicator is standing in front of an audience containing friends and family and picks out your performance for particular criticism it’s soul-destroying. But you just have to pick yourself up and go to the next festival, having maybe learned a couple of things and hoping that the next adjudicator will be kinder.'

'Of course, you have to be thick-skinned, otherwise you would just whither up and die,' continued Marie. “But so long as you take out of it what you can to help improve your skills, and remember that it is only the opinion of one adjudicator, an opinion that is often turned on its head by the next adjudicator, you’ll survive to tell the tale.' 

The 29th City of Derry Drama Festival starts on 6th March and runs to 14th March. Tickets costing £8 and £6 concessionary are available from the Waterside Theatre box office on 028 7131 4000. Season tickets - £40 and £30 concessionary - and three nights for the price of two are also available.