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CONDA Awards Confirm The Strength And Variety Of Newcastle Theatre In A Troubled Year


The engaging nature of the shows presented by theatre companies and teams in Newcastle and the Lower Hunter has been confirmed by the diverse nature of the works that have won CONDA trophies in a year when the Coronavirus forced the closure of theatres for many months.

Eleven shows performed in theatres collected 20 awards, with four presented as online events during the closures collecting four trophies. And the awards were spread across a variety of companies and theatre teams, including school groups.

Two shows, The Grainery Theatre’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas and Opera Hunter’s She Loves Me, each received three awards, with five – As I Lay Dreaming (Hunter School of Performing Arts), Dali: Hallucinogenic Toreador (Stray Dogs Theatre), The Fix (Black Sheep Theatre), Picnic at Hanging Rock (Young People’s Theatre), and The 39 Steps (Metropolitan Players) – each receiving two. And four shows – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang JR (Young People’s Theatre), I Hope: Thoughts on a Pandemic (Aspire), Miss Bennett’s Christmas at Pemberley (Newcastle Theatre Company), and Nick, Jess & Simon’s Lip Sync Battle (Southern Cross Austereo) - collected one trophy.

The four CONDA-winning online shows are Shrek The Musical JR (Hunter School of Performing Arts), TVS Online in Concert (The Voice Studio), and two by Bearfoot Theatre - Bearfoot Pride Concert and Bearfoot Readings.

Riley McLean, who is a member of the Young People’s Theatre and Bearfoot Staging Teams, received the 2020 award for Outstanding Achievement and Contribution to Theatre.

And two senior high school students, Imogen Bamback, 16, and Jay Scott, 17, were announced as the 2021 Youth Ambassadors, roles that give them the chance to see many stage shows during the year and to converse with people presenting them.

The CONDA judges – chairman Ken Longworth, who has been a judge since the awards were introduced in 1979, Anna Lambert, Guilherme Noronha, and the two who joined the team this year, Louise Chapman and Jason King – were impressed by the quality of the shows, given that theatres were unable to re-open for more than five months after the Coronavirus forced their closure and still have restrictions on their audience sizes and seating arrangements. And they took on board the CONDA Inc committee’s decision to have the acting categories sexless, rather than divided into male and female categories.

The shows that received nominations certainly had very different natures.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas, which won the Best Musical Production CONDA, was put together by a Grainery Theatre team headed by director and writer Theo Rule. It also had a mix of new songs and numbers from the 1960s, where the story was set. The story looked at the final days and relationships of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt before he disappeared while swimming in a bay near his Melbourne home in December 1967, and the rumours about his vanishment and death. The show’s other two trophies are for Performer in a Supporting Role in a Musical, which was won by Jerre Succar, and the Musical Direction of Stuart Brown and Okke Klassen. Succar played a Russian spy, Boris, who was sent to indoctrinate Holt to communist ideology, but ended up befriending him.

The other show that won three awards, She Loves Me, was also a musical. Zoe Walker, who collected the Performer in a Leading Role in a Musical CONDA, played a woman who got a job in a perfume store and was unaware that the assistant manager was a man with whom she’d established a postal relationship using love letters, with the unknowing pair not getting on in their workplace. Zac Smith won the award for Director of a Musical and shared the Set and Props Design award with Drew Holmes, with the characters moving between different venues on stage and the front and sides of the auditorium.

The Hunter School of Performing Arts production of As I Lay Dreaming, which received two CONDAS, was the first official production of Catherine McKinnon’s musical play, which has many different characters meeting on a river bank where three people and the 10-year-old daughter of one of them have come together to reminisce about a young woman who drowned in the river a decade earlier, with her ghost appearing to watch them. Ruby Page, who played the ghostly figure who moved around them, was one of two performers who won an award for Performer 18 and Under in a Play – Drama or Comedy, with Bridget Ponman, as a demanding older woman in Young People’s Theatre’s production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang JR, also receiving an award in that category. As I Lay Dreaming’s second award went to Connor Crowe and Logan Crawford for their Lighting and Visual Design that brought out the very different natures of the settings.

Writer, actor and director Carl Caulfield won two awards for Stray Dogs Theatre’s Dali: Hallucinogenic Toreador. One was for New Play or Musical for a Newcastle Company, with the play looking at the life and relationships of the very eccentric Spanish artist Salvador Dali. Caulfield also played Dali, receiving the award for Performer in a Leading Role in a Play – Drama.

Black Sheep Theatre’s The Fix won two CONDAs – Best Dramatic Production and Director – Drama or Comedy, with Angela McKeown collecting that trophy. The show was a revised version of a 2017 play by Newcastle’s Dez Robertson that looks at the interactions between two men who meet on the roof of a high office building, with one a security guard who goes there to smoke cigarettes as he is banned from smoking in working hours, and the other a lawyer whose much-troubled life has him thinking about ending it by jumping off a roof. The show had watchers engaged throughout its brisk one-hour running time.

Young People’s Theatre’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which had a rural area teacher taking troubled young students to a nearby mountain climb to try to end their worries, with unexpected things happening, received the CONDA for Ensemble Acting, with its actors bringing out the physical nature of their surroundings as they made an effort to end their problems. The contribution to the students’ concerns of the sounds they heard as they moved around the mountain was remarkable, with Riley McLean and Matthew Hudson winning the award for Sound Design.

Metropolitan Players’ production of The 39 Steps, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, won two acting awards: Carl Gregory – Performer in a Leading Role in a Play – Comedy, for his darkly determined man who wants to bring down an international crime gang; and Phil McGrath – Performer in a Supporting Role in a Play – who had to swiftly change between characters such as criminals and police, and switch from males to females.

Two stage productions which had people getting together to deliver messages in very different ways received awards. The Special Theatrical Event trophy went to Nick, Jess & Simon’s Lip Sync Battle, with three radio people from Southern Cross Austereo moving around swiftly asking each other questions and demanding answers. And the award for an Ensemble Aged 18 and Under went to Aspire, a team drawn from acting students in Hunter Catholic schools, for I Hope: Thoughts on a Pandemic that had them looking at problems they had recently encountered because of the Coronavirus.

The award for Costume Design was won by Fran Hodgson for the colourful garb she put together for Newcastle Theatre Company’s Miss Bennett’s Christmas at Pemberley.

Riley McLean, the recipient of the Outstanding Achievement and Contribution to Theatre Award, who is still in his 20s, has had a remarkable theatre career. Riley developed his skills largely through Young People’s Theatre and is now one of its acting tutors and technical team members. He also has been one of the founders of several contemporary youth companies, such as Bearfoot Theatre, with the members generally writing and staging new plays and touring them to Sydney and interstate. Riley is also renowned for putting a spotlight on the talents of other new and young theatre people. So it’s not surprising that Riley was involved in two of the four CONDA-winning online events.

Hunter School of the Performing Arts had planned to stage its colourful adaptation of Shrek the Musical JR in its Hunter Theatre, but the COVID restrictions on theatre seating led to it being put online, at the same times as the planned live-stage version. Fortunately, many people booked for online viewing of the brisk show, which had two alternating casts, and found it to be very enjoyable.

The quality of young people involved in Newcastle theatre also came across in the submissions put in by actors aged 18 and under for the Youth Ambassador roles in 2021. They all had good theatre records, having appeared in a vast range of shows.

The Youth Ambassador Program, supported financially by Newcastle theatre promoter Don Mitchell, enables the recipients to attend local theatre company shows on a complimentary basis, be observers at CONDA Inc meetings to learn how the organisation operates, and attend other CONDA functions and the awards ceremony

Imogen Bamback has appeared in many stage shows, including playing Peter Pan in a Hunter Drama production of Peter Pan. Jay Scott has also been in many Hunter Drama shows, as well as school productions including a St Phillip’s College staging of Strictly Ballroom.

This year’s CONDA Awards are dedicated to the memory of seven Newcastle and Lower Hunter region theatre participants who died in the past 12 months: Peter Trist,

Janelle Davies, John Morris OAM, Dorothy Morris OAM, Alan Gilmore, David Bailey, Dr David Watt.

THE 2020 CONDA WINNERS

Outstanding Achievement and Contribution to Theatre: Riley McLean

Youth Ambassadors: Imogen Bamback and Jay Scott

Dramatic Production: The Fix, Black Sheep Theatre

Musical Production: I’ll Be Home for Christmas, The Grainery Theatre

Special Theatrical Event: Nick, Jess & Simon’s Lip Sync Battle, Southern Cross Austereo

New Play or Musical Written for a Newcastle Company: Dali: Hallucinogenic Toreador, by Carl Caulfield (Stray Dogs Theatre)

Online Educational Event or Series: TVS Online in Concert (The Voice Studio)

Online Special Event: Bearfoot Pride Concert (Bearfoot Theatre)

Online Live Event: Shrek the Musical Jr (Hunter School of Performing Arts)

Online Series: Bearfoot Readings (Bearfoot Theatre)

Performer in a Leading Role in a Play – Comedy: Carl Gregory, The 39 Steps (Metropolitan Players)

Performer in a Leading Role in a Play – Drama: Carl Caulfield, Dali: Hallucinogenic Toreador (Stray Dogs Theatre)

Performer in a Leading Role in a Musical: Zoe Walker, She Loves Me (Opera Hunter)

Performer in a Supporting Role in a Play: Phil McGrath, The 39 Steps (Metropolitan Players)

Performer in a Supporting Role in a Musical: Jerre Succar, I’ll Be Home for Christmas (The Grainery Theatre)

Performer 18 and Under in a Play – Drama or Comedy: Ruby Page, As I Lay Dreaming (Hunter School of Performing Arts), and Bridget Ponman, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang JR (Young People’s Theatre)

Ensemble Acting: Picnic at Hanging Rock (Young People’s Theatre)

Ensemble 18 and Under: I Hope: Thoughts on a Pandemic (Aspire)

Director – Drama or Comedy: Angela McKeown, The Fix (Black Sheep Theatre)

Director – Musical: Zac Smith, She Loves Me (Opera Hunter)

Music or Vocal Director: Stuart Brown and Okke Klassen, I’ll Be Home for Christmas (The Grainery Theatre)

Costume Design: Fran Hodgson, Miss Bennett’s Christmas at Pemberley (Newcastle Theatre Company)

Set and Props Design: Zac Smith and Drew Holmes, She Loves Me (Opera Hunter)

Lighting and Audio-Visual Design: Connor Crowe and Logan Crawford, As I Lay Dreaming (Hunter School of Performing Arts)

Sound Design: Riley McLean and Matthew Hudson, Picnic at Hanging Rock (Young People’s Theatre)

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