I was fortunate to have joined Wyong Drama Group just in time for the first annual Theatrefest hosted at the Memorial Hall in 2004, and I well remember the thrill of that weekend. In addition to the contributions from WDG and Woy Woy Little Theatre, we had a bumper crop of visiting groups from as far away as Oberon, Sydney and Newcastle. The drama spread over the whole weekend and I was amazed at the variety of plays and the high standard of the performances. That weekend I met many new people who would soon be friends, and many more whose faces would become familiar as I was welcomed into the theatrical community of the Central Coast and beyond.
Since then Theatrefest has remained one of my favourite highlights of the theatrical year. It is a weekend to indulge in great entertainment, meet up with old friends and make new ones, enjoy the food provided by Apex 40, sample the wares of craft stalls and admire the work regularly exhibited by local artist Maxine Johnston. A full experience to say the least!
The drama itself has never failed to surprise and delight, and many have agreed that the selection we witnessed in this, the tenth anniversary year, was the best yet. Eleven plays were presented for the competition by local groups, independent producers, and visitors from Rylstone and Port Macquarie, including three unpublished works by aspiring playwrights, and the standard was consistently high throughout.
The weekend began on Friday evening with exhibition performances from the young students of XtractDramaAcademy. For several years now Xtract has been training, moulding and supporting aspiring young actors from around the area with classes for children in year 3 to year 11 age groups. The fruits of their labour have been rewarded as we have seen former students taking prominent places in local adult productions, some taking awards in this year’s Theatrefest competition.
The Friday evening “Jump” performances offer an opportunity for the students to showcase what they have learned in the year, and this year’s exhibition produced some of the best to date. There were good performances all round, well disciplined and rehearsed, with the children showing great composure and confidence on stage. Two names in particular to watch out for in future productions are Tallulah Cobban and Ryan Knowles, both of whom had great stage presence and physicality and who showed a mature understanding of stagecraft. The contribution of the Musical Theatre Class, a new feature this year, was particularly admired by festival adjudicator, Lyn Lee, for both the singing and choreography, and by a packed audience that almost overflowed the hall!
The competitive part of the festival took place on Saturday. There were three sessions, in the morning afternoon and evening, with up to four plays in each session. The advantage of a one act play festival is that it offers a variety of theatrical experience all in one day. There were experimental works such as Penny Dilworth’s play about writer’s block, where an author was harangued by his own characters, and more traditional plays, such as WDG’s Laundry and Bourbon, which told the story of three women in small town America. There were plays by well known authors such as Alan Ayckbourn, and works such as Mr Owen’s Providence, which earned Gavin Critchley the award for best unpublished play. There were sharp comedies like Border Productions’ The Craft and powerful dramas such as WDG’s On the Edge, which was Apex 40’s favourite play this year.
Some productions were elaborate: WDG’s In the Tank and Why Can’t They Just Eat Flowers have both won awards for design, set and costume at this and other festivals this year. Others were simple but still effective: the entire set and props for On the Edge consisted of two milk crates. Throughout the day we were treated to a host of wonderful performances from seasoned actors such as Duncan Mitchell and Helen Herridge, who took the awards for best actor and actress, to promising newcomers like Tiffany Duncan and Scott Russell who respectively received the award for best supporting actress and the Adjudicator’s Special Award.
The standard of the productions throughout the day was so high that adjudicator Lyn Lee admitted she lost sleep trying to decide who should receive this year’s awards.The wealth of her experience as professional actress and director, and as NIDA teacher, was evident both in her commentaries during the competition, which she wisely kept her brief but encouraging, and in her presentations at the award ceremony on Sunday morning; her comments to the winners were both interesting and illuminating. She also took the time to give credit to the technical and stage crew whose important contribution over the weekend is often underestimated by audiences.
It was an emotional ceremony for many reasons. The 10th anniversary of this prestigious annual festival, which has been a focal showcase for our local talent and that of groups from all over NSW, is a milestone event, but it is also the last time the Memorial Hall will house the Central Coast Theatrefest. The hall is being demolished early next year as a first step toward the building of the proposed Wyong Performing Arts Centre. Councillor Doug Eaton is hopeful that this project will be completed within a few years, and assured the audience that every effort would be made to ensure Wyong Drama Group and Wyong Musical Theatre Company will be provided alternate venues in the interim. At this stage, however, it is unclear where next year’s festival might take place.
It was also the end of an era for another reason as Wyong said a formal goodbye to two WDG veterans that have been an integral part of the festival since its inception, Barry and Millie Sampson, who will shortly be moving to Victoria. In addition to serving on the festival committee, Millie has directed a number of WDG’s entries over the years and earned the group several awards in the process. Barry has served as stage manager and in other capacities as and when needed, and he also hand crafted each of the beautiful award trophies affectionately known as “Woscars”. In recognition of their contribution to the festival over the years they received special awards: Millie for “most prolific Theatrefest director” and Barry “for services above and beyond”. They’ll be greatly missed by the members of Wyong Drama Group, but we wish them all the best for their new life in Victoria.
It remains to thank festival co-ordinator, Ruth Jordan, who has been the inspiration, organization and driving force behind Central Coast Theatrefest. The festival was Ruth’s baby and has grown into a legacy of which she can be truly proud. Hopefully the Coast’s talented upcoming generation will be inspired to continue the momentum Ruth began so we may look forward to the continuance of Theatrefest for many years to come.
(See below for photos of the winners and list of awards presented)
Best Production: “Countdown” Players Theatre, Port Macquarie
Best Production Runner Up: “Small Things”, Aphrodesian Theatre
Best Design: “In the Tank”, Wyong Drama Group
Best Unpublished Play: Gavin Critchley, “Mr Owen’s Providence”
Best Director: Gavin Critchley
Best Actor: Duncan Mitchell
Best Actress: Helen Herridge
Best Supporting Actor: Marc Calwell
Best Supporting Actress Tiffany Duncan
Best Ensemble: Rose Cooper and Kalani Katsoolis
Special Adjudicator Award: Scott Russell
John Axford Memorial Award: “Why Can’t They Just Eat Flowers?” Wyong Drama Group
Apex 40 Award: Declan Green and Scott Russell