City of Derry Drama Festival

This year sees the 30th City of Derry Drama Festival, a landmark that has prompted the organising committee to take a look back at the festival's illustrious history

The first City of Derry Drama Festival was held from March 22-29, 1981 in the Great Hall of the University of Ulster at Magee. The adjudicator was the late Ray McAnally, who died suddenly at the age of 63 in June 1989 after an extensive career in film and theatre.

The festival was founded by Michael Gillen, an active participant in local amateur drama and recipient of many a best actor award at drama festivals across Ireland. Gillen put together a cross-community team of all ages, drawn from all the local drama groups. Several of that initial founding group - like Kevin McLaughlin, Fred Logan and Thelma Arthur - all of whom stayed loyal to the festival for many years, have now also passed away.

The first festival attracted entries from as far afield as Ballymena, Dublin, Cushendall, Ballybofey, Eslin and Sligo. That policy of attracting groups from both north and south has remained a key feature of the festival.

Interestingly, a young actor named Alan Waugh, who starred in Newtownabbey’s production of Echoes at the first festival, returns for the 30th, this year directing Newtownabbey’s presentation of Three Tall Women by Edward Albee. Another actor on stage in that first festival is well known Irish comedian Conal Gallen, who featured in Butt Drama Circle’s production of Days of Wine and Roses.

The festival is organised by a small band of volunteers committed to providing local audiences with the opportunity to see as broad a range of theatre as possible. The City of Derry Drama Festival is primarily a celebration of the best of amateur drama from all over Ireland, with nine different drama companies staging a full length play over nine nights. The festival organisers strive to include a mix of comedy, tragedy, classical works and new writing, and also to feature at least one new company.

Over the years almost all the amateur groups in Ireland have competed, and many return on a regular basis. Last year five of the groups that competed in Derry went on to compete at the All Ireland and Ulster Amateur Drama Finals. One won the Ulster Finals and another was runner–up at the All-Ireland, a measure of the quality of the companies attracted to the Derry City festival.

Many of the plays staged would not be available in professional theatres. But it’s important to appreciate that although the plays are not staged by professional players, there is nothing amateurish about their productions. Over the years, the standard of amateur drama has greatly improved, due in no small measure to the professional input of the adjudicators who give both a public adjudication and then, in private, a detailed feed-back session to each drama company.

From those early days in Magee when the festival venue could only accommodate 100 audience members, it has moved via the Rialto, to the Millennium Forum and, in 2004, to its current home in the Waterside Theatre. With excellent facilities for the competing drama companies and seating to accommodate almost 400, the Waterside Theatre has proved an ideal venue. The theatre also provides an intimate environment for the interval chats over free tea and coffee that have become such an important part of the festival experience.

The festival depends heavily on the financial support of Derry City Council and the local business community, and their ongoing generosity has been crucial to its continued success in keeping admission prices low. The current down turn in the economy has had a major impact on funding as businesses simply have less money to donate to voluntary efforts, so the committee has had to run additional fund raising events this year.

Some outstanding productions have been staged at the festival over the years, most memorable perhaps being Butt Drama Circle’s Translations, Slemish Players’ The Last Burning, and Silken Thomas Players’ production of The Normal Heart, which went on to win both the Ulster and All-Ireland titles.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the history of the festival occurred in Magee College when the play called for a member of the cast to be hanged on stage. The safety harness failed and the actor was left dangling on the end of a rope with his toes touching the floor. Without the quick thinking and action of his fellow cast members, the play may have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The growth of the audience in recent years and the quality of the productions on offer have encouraged the festival committee to persevere with the hard work that it takes to put a festival together, and the sleepless nights worrying about making financial ends meet. But the City of Derry Drama Festival has an important part to play in the cultural life of the city and we want to continue to enable as many people as possible to share our enjoyment and love of drama.

The 30th City of Derry Drama Festival takes place from March 5 – 13. Further information on the 30th festival programme is available from the Waterside Theatre website here.