City of Derry Drama Festival

Amateur theatre companies from across Ireland compete for a place at the All-Ireland Finals

On March 7, the 34th City of Derry Drama Festival opens in the Waterside Theatre, with nine productions in as many days. Festival Director Maureen Gallagher, who has been involved with the festival from the outset, says: ‘When we know that our audience has got the theatre bug, then all our efforts have proved worthwhile.'

Over the next fortnight, the festival gives audiences the opportunity to enjoy competition between a wide range of amateur productions. Not that ‘amateur’ (if last year’s performances are anything to go by) betokens any lack of professionalism in the participants.

’This is an amateur drama festival but there is seldom anything amateurish about the quality of productions on offer,' Gallagher confirms. 'Each year we never cease to marvel at the enthusiasm, commitment and skill which the teams bring to their productions, and the warm appreciation that this engenders in the audiences.'

Nonetheless, mounting a festival of this scope and calibre is a major undertaking. Gallagher admits fatigue at times: ‘During the year when we are wrestling with grant aid application forms or stomping frozen feet while trying to raise a few pounds at car boot sales, we may doubt the sanity of our commitment. However, that all vanishes when the curtain goes up on the opening production and the audience suspend their disbelief and engage with the company in the magic of live theatre.'

This year’s offerings range from well-established, perennial farces – like the 1962 Boeing, Boeing performed by the Prosperous Dramatic Company of Kildare – to the challenging American classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by the Dublin Bradan Players. A difficult play with which to convince, given that the Burton-Taylor film was such a definitive version.

Equally difficult might be John Pielmeier’s play Agnes of God by the Glenamaddy Players, which also reached the large screen in 1985, starring Jane Fonda. And there are, of course, Irish plays: on the opening night John B Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty, a vintage piece that should contrast nicely with Billy Roche’s almost contemporary play, On Such As We.

In all nine companies – from as far afield as Dublin, Kildare and Galway – are in the running to make the All-Ireland Finals in the Dean Crowe Theatre in Athlone in May 2014.

One play that will recall the troubled days of the inaugural festival in March 1981 is Chronicles of Long Kesh by Belfast playwright Martin Lynch, performed by the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group. It promises to confront the audience with ‘a rich assortment of republicans, loyalists, prison officers, chancers, escapers, wives, Smokey Robinson-imitators and hypochondriacs'.

Those first festivals took place in the Great Hall of Magee College, before moving to the Rialto Cinema (now demolished) and then to the Millennium Forum. Finally in 2006 the CDDF came to its present home in the more intimate surroundings of the Waterside Theatre.

The festival is a local show in the sense that the different drama groups compete for 15 cups and awards, whose names read like a roll-call of Derry’s leading actors, producers and set designers of the past 40 years or so.

The Michael Gillen trophy commemorates a founding member of the festival, while another bears the name of Jack Gallagher, a leading light since the later 1940s in the former City of Derry Drama Club. The husband-and-wife team of Jim and Ita Patton, producer and set designer respectively of many well-loved productions from the 1970s onwards, have lent their names to the award for the Best Stage Setting. And so on.

The adjudicator for this year’s festival is Englishman Mike Kaiser, a drama teacher and producer whose own drama group won the All-England Drama Festival in 1997. He is no stranger to amateur drama in Ireland, having adjudicated recently at festivals in Enniskillen and Ballyshannon.

His will be the difficult task of appraising the different performances, while simultaneously pleasing the local festival devotees. Gallagher is well aware of his unenviable task. She finds it ‘invigorating to eavesdrop on the heated interval discussions in the foyer’. Here, ‘over a cup of tea, there is animated chat on the issues raised by a production and debate on the how effectively the company has, or has not, presented them. This creates a wondrous cacophony’.

And as the rich diet of Derry’s year as UK City of Culture subsides somewhat, it is worth remembering how much theatre audiences are indebted – year in year out – to the work of volunteers such as Maureen Gallagher, who organise and run the City of Derry Drama Festival for the love of it.

City of Derry Drama Festival runs from March 7 – 15 in the Waterside Theatre, Derry~Londonderry.