Image: Coventry’s Albany Theatre
by Rod Chaytor, NDFA National Council & Chair, All-Winners Sub-Committee
The National Drama Festivals Association (NDFA) has just spent the week in Coventry at the UK City of Culture’s Albany Theatre.
The reason was the All-Winners Finals were taking place as they tend to each and every year. However, and it’s a pretty big ‘however’, this year isn’t your usual year and comes at the tailend of a traumatic sixteen-month pandemic which has closed down the entire theatre industry, arguably since March 2020.
Add on a four-week government delay to the eradication of Covid restrictions and all of a sudden the All-Winners Finals need to set out exactly how things are going to play out.
With all of the week’s workshops cancelled along with other extra events, social distancing being employed and the public wary about buying tickets (see page 8), most associations might throw the towel in… but most associations aren’t NDFA – and NDFA loves the Albany!
Launching a national drama festival for the first time in a new location in the teeth of a global pandemic is not something I would necessarily recommend, but we pressed ahead if only for the benefit of the participating teams who – like all theatre groups – were just desperate to get up there on stage and perform. Oh, and a planned performance by the Leamington Spa access theatre group, Side By Side, also had to be scrapped.
We were on tenterhooks all week in case the Festival was wrecked by Covid but, in the end, ironically, the only play we lost was because an actor tripped over and badly sprained his ankle at home.
Audience numbers were clearly affected, but we look to build on those in the hope that things are better next year. We were particularly saddened to lose the Conference and the performance by Side By Side, many of whose vulnerable members were self-isolating and therefore physically unable to rehearse. But these two events will be the first names on the team-sheet when we start planning for next year.
The National Drama Festival Association’s All-Winners Finals is to return to Coventry next year. It is believed to be the first time in the organisation’s near sixty-year-old history that the annual event has returned to the same venue two years running – and the city’s Albany Theatre could now become its permanent home.
NDFA Chair Stewart Mison said: “The All-Winners chose Coventry because it has a wealth of drama festivals and drama groups within a twenty-five-mile catchment area and also because 2021 is Coventry’s UK’s City of Culture Year. “What we did not necessarily anticipate, but were then delighted to find, was a superb venue in The Albany with a wonderfully-welcoming as well as solidly professional team both front and back of house.
“Throughout its long history, the All-Winners has been deliberately peripatetic, moving on each year and with no permanent home. But maybe Coventry, with its superb transport links and such a great venue in The Albany, will become just that. It is certainly worth a serious look and, in the meantime, it is great news that we anticipate coming back next year.”
The week-long NDFA All-Winners features full-length, one-act and youth competitions with awards handed out in all categories. Participants are marked according to the Guild of Drama Adjudicators scorecard with the winners announced by the adjudicator – this year, Paul Fowler a former Chair of the Guild.
He said of the Coventry All-Winners: “This is the first time that this event – the pinnacle of the competitive drama festivals movement in the UK – has been held in this vibrant Midlands city, and I am delighted to hear that it won’t be the last. “The fourteen community theatre companies – hailing from as far away as Nantwich in Cheshire and Woking in Surrey, as well as local teams from Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire – were unanimous in their praise for the venue and the art-deco gem that is The Albany.
“And there are ambitious plans to complement the theatre with more studio space, rehearsal rooms and a revamped foyer and bar area next year.
“The completed theatre complex will be the envy of the UK’s amateur theatre community and Coventry’s highly-accessible location will make it even more attractive when unrestricted theatre-going becomes the norm once again.
“Previous British All-Winners have been staged in many different theatre venues all over the country, but if thoughts of a move towards a permanent home for the event are fulfilled, then the Albany Theatre could be the ideal candidate, bringing a major event to the heart of England for many years to come.”
Kyle Goold as Tommo in Limitless Productions’ Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
This year’s winners included the Limitless Academy from Royston, Herts, who brought a moving one-man show, Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. The monologue, performed by eighteen-year-old Kyle Goold and directed by Peter McNally, won the NDFA Youth Trophy. Adjudicator Paul Fowler said: Private Peaceful from Limitless Academy was a superb example of just how engaging and moving theatre can be. Teenager Kyle Goold’s solo performance of Michael Morpurgo’s doomed Great War soldier was one of great power and subtlety, matching focused physicality with vocal versatility – a worthy winner.”
The IMPACT youth group from Tamworth, Staffs, won the prize for the most promising youth participation with Shuddersome Tales of Poe, an adaptation of three stories from the pen of the American master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Rebekah Fortune.
The adjudicator added:”IMPACT Youth Theatre’s stylish re-telling of three stories from Edgar Alan Poe in Shuddersome Tales of Poe was a visually striking piece that combined mime and movement skills of a high quality with impressive choral speaking and a strong sense of ensemble playing that richly deserved the award.” The same director, Rebekah Fortune, also picked up the Irving Trophy for the Best One-Act Play with her adult group, TACT, portraying a harrowing story of serial abuse in Five Kinds Of Silence.
In the full-length plays section, Georgia Kelly from Coventry’s Criterion Theatre won the Adjudicator’s Award for her performance as cross-dressing Bobby in a collection of seven monologues, Queers. The same production also won the Criterion – who were the Festival’s first-ever wild card entry – the Runners Up Amateur Stage Trophy in the full-length section and two more of the same company, Gareth Cooper and Anne-marie Greene, were highly commended.
Ruth Kelly and Emma Francis in Vita and Virginia by Eileen Atkins
Ruth Kelly and Emma Francis in Vita and Virginia by Eileen Atkins were also praised for their strong acting skills.
The overall winner in the full-length section was the Hertford-based Company of Players for their production of David Haig’s Pressure which tells the story of the conflicts between two military weathermen, one American and one Scottish, as the countdown begins to the Allies’ D-Day invasion. The production ended with the casts’ sepia uniformed images being projected onto a back screen alongside pictures of the real-life characters they had played.
Adjudicator Paul Fowler said: “The Company of Players turned the unlikely topic of weather forecasting into a compelling story with an intelligent and riveting portrayal of Group Captain Stagg and a truly memorable curtain call.”
The prizes were presented by Coventry’s Lord Mayor, Cllr. John McNicholas, and the City’s West End musicals legend Dave Willetts who took the lead in London productions as both Jean Valjean in Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Mis and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom. After presenting the
IMPACT Youth Theatre production of Shudersome Tales of Poe by Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Rebekah Fortune
awards, Dave Willetts told the audience: “I was very excited at the prospect of being back in the theatre after the longest of eighteen months. I felt a warm glow in my stomach as I walked in.
“Despite my thirty-eight years as a professional, tonight brought me back to where I started – back to where I belong. To see the casts and crew giving their all re-affirmed to me that amateur theatre is the backbone of the community.”
Although the evening Festival competition went ahead as planned, some ‘fringe’ events had to be cancelled because of the Covid pandemic, including a Les Mis masterclass by Dave Willetts, workshops by RSC Practitioners, and a one-day Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in UK Amateur Theatre which would have been led by, among others, the Artistic Director of Coventry’s Criterion Theatre, Professor of Diversity Anne-marie Greene.
Full list of awards…
Best Comedy Moment:
John Scowen Award for Comedy.
Ross’s hilarious exhibition of Dad dancing that opened Scene Three of Raving from Thursday Night Project.
One Act Plays…
The Sydney Fisher Trophy (one act)
chosen by the Festival host’s backstage crew – TACT.
The Amateur Theatre Trophy (one act). Stephen Fortune Smith as the vile Billy in Five Kinds of Silence.
NDFA Council Trophy (one act)
Under Milk Wood – Spiral Curtain.
The Irving Trophy (one act)
Five Kinds of Silence – TACT.
Full Length Plays…
The Sydney Fisher Trophy (chosen by the backstage crew). White Cobra
Felixstowe Festival Trophy.
Georgia Kelly for her performance as cross-dressing Bobby in Queers – Criterion Theatre.
Best Full-Length Play:
Amateur Stage Trophy.
Criterion Theatre – Queers.
Mary Blakeman Trophy.
Company of Players – Pressure.
Above: Coventry City Centre ‘2021 City of Culture’. Photo: Si Chun Lam
by Rod Chaytor… NDFA National Council & Chair All-Winners Sub-Committee
“This is probably the strongest All-Winners line-up I’ve seen in my twenty-one years associated with the event.”
The assessment, in May, from National Drama Festivals Association chair, Stewart Mison, energised the Zoom room.
Because, if correct, it meant that – in a year when there had been no drama festivals, and therefore no winners – we had nevertheless been able to put together for Coventry 2021 a running order not only meeting all expectations for a British All-Winners Final, but surpassing them.
And that, added into a mix containing an exciting week-long programme of daytime workshops and a ground-breaking weekend Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in UK Amateur Theatre, held out the prospect of a really special event.
Curiously, the origins of the Coventry competition, probably the biggest amateur theatre festival to take place in the UK this year, lie with one of the smallest.
In 2013 we launched the Lighthorne Festival of One-Act Plays in the Village Hall of our tiny south-Warwickshire settlement – friendly, intimate, unique cafe-style, hot meals waiter-served at table in the interval – and watched in amazement as it took off and became a national event.
As a result, we were invited to nominate a representative onto the NDFA Council, the jewel in whose crown is the All-Winners, a peripatetic annual roadshow which for nearly fifty years has travelled the length and breadth of the country, inviting – as its name implies – Festival winners from the previous 12 months to compete in a national championships.
At the first NDFA Council we attended, there appeared to be a glaring omission. As plans were discussed for Woking 2019 and Isle of Man 2020, the question was asked, when had the All-Winners last been in the Midlands? There was much shuffling of feet and paperwork. But the answer was, pretty much, not in living memory. And the reason? Because there had been no local festival willing to take it on.
Clearly, the 70-seater Lighthorne Village Hall, with its tiny stage, could never put on an All-Winners. But the links between south-Warwickshire and neighbouring Coventry go back centuries, and Coventry, embracing Warwickshire, was celebrating its UK City of Culture Year in 2021. A cunning plan began to form!
The hunt was on for a venue and the ideal choice presented itself. The Albany is a magnificent, art-deco, 500-seat theatre, built in the 1930’s as part of Coventry Technical College during the city’s industrial heyday; now a pro-am entertainment venue and with a mix of full-time st
aff and dedicated volunteers who rescued it in 2014 in the teeth of a legal challenge from greedy developers.
If that was not enough, the Albany adjoins a Premier Inn with a £5-a-day, 400-space multi-storey car park on the other side.
Geographically, Coventry is in the very centre of England and the Albany is just off the city-centre and yards from its ring-road, little more than five minutes walk from Coventry railway station which is on the main Birmingham – Euston line with a stop just up the track at Birmingham International, servicing Birmingham Airport.
As a (Surrey-based) fellow Council member remarked:”We’re not going to do better than that.”
So, venue booked and sorted. But what next and where to begin?
Again, Lighthorne had the answer. Since its launch in 2013, it had built up a really engaged, almost protective, family of supporters and participating groups – the sort who, when you launched an anguished appeal following a last-minute drop-out, would instantly fill your inbox with mails saying:”We can bring something. We can help!”
From its ranks, a NDFA sub-committee was formed, with an eye-watering degree of talent. Seasoned Festival organisers, award-winning directors, actors, playwright. To the initial list was added Professor Anne-Marie Greene, Artistic Director of the Criterion, Coventry’s Premier amateur theatre, and – to my personal delight – Rebekah Fortune, national chair of the All-England Theatre Festival, and a nationally-important UK drama festival organiser.
Work began on identifying suitable material for the daytime workshops, designed to have the venue a-bustle with activity all week, not just at night. Then the biennial Drama Festivals Conference, organised of late by the Guild of Drama Adjudicators, was also added into the programme for the weekend.
NDFA chair, Stewart Mison, made the inspired choice for the Conference theme of Diversity and Inclusion in UK Amateur Theatre and, unlooked-for, the decision seemed instantly to catapult us up to another level.
Anne-Marie got in touch to say:”You do realise that I am a professor of work, employment and diversity ? Can I assist?” Rebekah, whose Seahorse Films production company features those with unheard voices, immediately asked:”How can I help?”
Ian Wainwright, Participating Producer at the Royal Shakespeare Company in nearby Stratford-on-Avon, and who famously produced the RSC’s 2014 Open Stages engagement with UK amateur theatre, was on the line discussing daytime workshops to be given by RSC Practitioners acting as freelances, when passing mention was made of the Conference and its topic.
His reaction was instant. “I’ll be there on a personal basis, and I’ll represent the RSC. What do you want me to do?”
You know how it feels when some things are just meant to be?
And then COVID hit!
And the reaction was …. ? Well, extraordinary, because there really was no reaction. None of the team dedicated to bringing this all-embracing event to the Albany seemed even to falter in their stride. In all the online meetings of Council, the Sub-Committee, a Working Party chaired by NDFA vice-chair Ian Thomas to deliver the workshops and conference, I struggle to remember a negative word.
Who knows? The whole event may yet be derailed by another bump in the road. But, throughout the pandemic, none of those involved in preparing for NDFA Coventry 2021 seems to have worried that this really hard work will be wasted or to have doubted for a second that it will go ahead. We shall see!
The first decision to be made was, in a year with no winners, where do we find winners? The answer did not seem difficult to find. Former winners, former finalists, top quality acts the length and breadth of the country whose work can absolutely be relied upon. And, again and again, there was a heartwarming response as those groups we contacted stepped up to the plate, offering – notwithstanding all the difficulties of rehearsing in a pandemic – sometimes plays which were part on their feet when Covid struck, sometimes revivals of plays previously performed.
Another unlooked-for benefit came with the realisation that, although we were in effect organising three separate elements – the evening festival programme in the Albany main house, the daytime workshops in the Albany Studio and the weekend Conference, also in the Studio. The three could be seamlessly interweaved.
Thus – if we were, this year, exceptionally, putting groups into the evening programme by invitation – why not invite Coventry’s Criterion, and ask them to perform on the opening night …Queers: The Monologues, curated by Mark Gatiss, which they had staged in a socially distanced performance last year. And, how appropriate the theme of the piece in the light of the Conference topic, plus the fact that Anne-Marie was performing one of the monologues as well as, inevitably, by now taking a leading role in the Conference itself?
Similarly, Ian Wainwright now linked the workshops to the Conference where Rebekah Fortune would also be a contributor, as well as directing entries from her all-conquering TACT group and its youth counterpart, IMPACT in evening shows. All very joined up.
Yet another opportunity to be embraced was the ability to impart a strong Coventry and Warwickshire flavour to all three elements of this national event…
NDFA Patron, Sir Derek Jacobi, on stage at the last All-Winners, held in 2019 at the Rhoda McGaw Theatre, Woking
Dave Willetts, the City’s West End legend, will run a daytime Les Mis Masterclass in the Albany Studio. Dave is also Patron of the Side By Side access theatre group of nearby Leamington Spa, whose leaders will feature heavily in the weekend Conference.
And on the Saturday night, adjudicator Paul Fowler, GoDA, will announce the week’s winners who will thereby become national champions, with the prizes hopefully to be presented by our Patron, Sir Derek Jacobi, who has attended in the past and will do so again, work permitting.
It would be a fitting end to what promises to be a memorable week – and not least for me – as we celebrate the return of live theatre and Coventry’s City of Culture year.
I am what is known locally as a Coventry Kid, born and raised in the city and with a lifetime’s fondness for it. It will be a privilege to help bring this national theatrical event to it in its landmark City of Culture Year.
We very much look forward to welcoming you!
There will be seven nights of top-quality amateur theatre, performed by groups from all over the country, in the Albany’s main house, opening on the evening of 18 July with Coventry’s Criterion Theatre performing the full-length Queers: The Monologues, curated by Mark Gatiss.
The evening programme (at the time of going to press!) features three nights of full-length performances, three nights of one-act plays and one night of youth plays.
It’s a classic All-Winners line-up.
The entrants come from as far away as Cheshire and Surrey and the plays they will be performing include classic 20th Century Americana in the form of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters from former winners White Cobra; the gritty and challenging Five Kinds of Silence by Shelagh Stephenson, performed by multiple English and former British champions TACT from Tamworth; and the tense wartime drama of Pressure by David Haig from Hertford’s Company of Players, directed by award-winner Jan Palmer Sayer.
Tim Guest (right) and Paul Muldoon as Harold and Albert Steptoe in Men of Letters by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson
By contrast there will also be the barely-controlled mayhem of Shipwreck Productions’ Late Night Fish by Liam Alexandru, which managed to pick up a number of comedy and script awards in last year’s truncated festival season; a piece of 70s TV nostalgia in the form of a Steptoe & Son episode, Men of Letters by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, in which Caramba Theatre Company of Stratford-on-Avon actors Tim Guest and Paul Muldoon play Harold and Albert Steptoe; and the gentle and lyrical comedy of Dylan Thomas’ masterpiece, Under Milk Wood performed by Spiral Curtain from Surrey.
Tickets for the evening performances are available from the Albany Box Office at: www.albanytheatre.co.uk/shows/ndfa
…and are competitively priced at £12 per night or £10 through a group booking of eight or more, with discounts for students under-25 and the unwaged at £11 per night. ‘Season tickets’ for all seven nights are at the priced at £59.50 for all seven nights or £52.50 with the discount.
The ground-breaking one-day Drama Festivals Conference in the Albany Theatre Studio on Saturday, 24 July 2021, will follow the themes of ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ in UK amateur theatre.
The morning session focuses around race/ethnicity and sexual orientation/ gender identity. It will be led by young black actor Alexander Mushore, a veteran of multiple roles in amateur theatres across Coventry and Warwickshire before turning professional and ultimately joining the RSC, and whose family still lives in Coventry; and Anne-Marie Greene, Professor of Work, Employment and Diversity at Leicester University and Artistic Director of the Criterion, Coventry’s premier amateur theatre, and who also lives in the City.
RSC Participating Producer Ian Wainwright, whose role producing the RSC Open Stages programme gained him great experience of, and insights into, the UK amateur theatre
scene, adding to his knowledge gained while working at one of the world’s finest professional classical theatre companies, will also contribute.
Alex will discuss why there are so few black participants in UK amateur theatre, both onstage and backstage. Anne-Marie will speak about efforts by the Criterion to reach out to people of all ethnicities and take positive action with regard to diversity generally, and explore how we can all be part of making change and becoming more representative?
Supported by cast members of the Sunday night show, Queers, the session will also explore the issues confronted by LGBTQ+ actors. What are the real-life experiences in terms of auditioning, casting, performance, organisational culture and practices, which might be inhibitors or obstacles to taking part? And what can we, the amateur theatre community, learn about diversity and inclusion’ from our professional colleagues?
The afternoon session will discuss Inclusion. How inclusive is UK amateur theatre? What opportunities do, and do not, present themselves for actors living with disability? What roles exist or could be made to exist? And what is the experience of actors who find themselves in that position?
The session will be jointly led by Penny Amis, chair of the access theatre group, Side By Side of Leamington Spa, Warks, vice-chair of the Lighthorne Festival, and member of Kenilworth’s Talisman Theatre, together with Sara Evans, choreographer with the Rugby Theatre, Warks, A.D. of Side By Side, and co-director of the Fiery Feet Dance Studio; and Rebekah Fortune, A.D. of the multi-award-winning TACT theatre company from South Staffs, its youth counterpart, the IMPACT theatre company, and the Two Rivers Theatre Company based at a Special School of the same name in Tamworth, Staffs, as well as being the director of Seahorse Films, a film and TV production company which specialises in telling stories from unheard voices. Ian Wainwright will again contribute.
The day-long conference costs £35 and includes lunch. Places are limited. Details and advance tickets are available from NDFA President, Derek Palmer at email@example.com or 07860 573896.
Throughout the week there will be in the Albany Studio’s exciting daytime programme of workshops including a Les Mis Masterclass led by Coventry’s West End legend Dave Willetts, the first actor ever to play the leads in both Les Mis and Phantom on the West End stage, and who still lives in the city.
On Wednesday, 21 July, accompanied by a professional at the piano, Dave will demonstrate the art of the West End musical audition. Participants will be asked to bring sheet music of an audition piece – not from Les Mis – and Dave will give constructive criticism of the performances before moving on with the assembled company to take on Les Mis in a play-in-a-day format.
Those who so wish can audition for a half-dozen lead roles such as Eponine, Jean Valjean, Javert etc. while others can opt to be in the Chorus.
At the end of the day there will be an impromptu 20-min performance in the Albany Studio which can be watched for free by friends, colleagues and family of those taking part.
The cost of the day-long Les Mis Masterclass will be £40. The number of places is limited. Tickets and details are available only in advance from NDFA President Derek Palmer via firstname.lastname@example.org or 07860 573896.
There will also be Albany Studio workshops coached by RSC Practitioners, acting as freelancers.
On the morning and afternoon of Monday, 19 July, in two-hour sessions, Ian Wainwright (directing and acting), Tom Jordan (stage combat) and Michael Corbidge (voice and text) will share the tips of the trade which they regularly impart to RSC actors and others, both professional and amateur.
In the case of the workshops and the Les Mis Masterclass, lunch will NOT be provided and participants are advised to bring their own packed meal.
The cost for two two-hour workshop sessions is £40. The number of places is limited. Again tickets and further details are available only in advance from NDFA President Derek Palmer via email@example.com or on 07860 573896.