Founded in 1979 by Newcastle City Council to recognise theatre excellence in the region.
Dedicated to achievement and advancement of theatre arts and practices, the CONDA’s corporate management and general policies are overseen by the CONDA Committee, which includes CONDA member representatives.
35 YEARS OF THE CITY OF NEWCASTLE DRAMA AWARDS
The Civic Theatre was 50 years old in 1979 and Newcastle City Council was looking for a way of celebrating the event on an on-going basis. A senior council officer who was a keen theatregoer suggested theatre awards. It was the right time to put forward the idea. Newcastle University Drama Department had begun operations in 1975 and its enterprising productions and engaging students were beginning to stir the city’s theatre scene. And Hunter Valley Theatre Company, the region’s first professional theatre company, staged its initial shows in 1976. While HVTC sat out 1978 because of financial problems, it was in action again at the start of 1979 and for its second production of the year, the musical Cabaret, it moved into a new theatre, the Civic Playhouse. So the city aldermen eagerly supported the City of Newcastle Drama Awards – CONDAs – and a glass-winged trophy designed by the now long-vanished Leonora Glass Works. Newcastle had four theatre critics at that time – Marjorie Biggins (ABC Radio), John Harris (The Newcastle Sun), Ken Longworth (The Newcastle Herald) and Lucy Wagner (NBN Television) – and all agreed to judge the awards. The council was vague about what it wanted, except to stipulate that professional and non-professional theatre work alike should be recognised.
The CONDA Awards are unique in an Australian major city. They are the longest-established, continuous theatre awards. The Sydney Theatre Critics Circle Awards were also established in 1979, but went into hiatus for 10 years after 1995 because of internal problems. That the CONDA Awards have maintained their status is a tribute to Newcastle and its people and organisations.
The 2003 City of Newcastle Drama Awards (CONDAs), held at the Civic Theatre on Friday, February 6, 2004, celebrated the silver anniversary. As well as being the silver anniversary year, 2003 saw important changes in the management of the awards that were aimed at ensuring their continuation. Since Newcastle City Council pulled out of a management role in the CONDAs in the 1980s, they had been organised by the critics on the judging panel. At the critics’ instigation, a series of public meetings between April and June, 2003, resulted in the establishment of a CONDA Organising Committee drawn from theatre groups and community members. Initially operating under the auspices of Performing Arts Newcastle, it subsequently became CONDA Inc, a non-profit incorporated body, in December, 2004.
In their report on the 2012 theatre year, the judges stated that “There has never been a time in the 34-year history of the CONDAs when the strength of Newcastle theatre has been so evident in all areas. Professional co-operatives are staging contemporary, provocative and edge-of-the-seat productions that a few years ago would not have been seen on our stages – and they are attracting audiences, including people aged from 20 to 35 who traditionally are only occasional theatregoers. TAFE acting students, youth theatres and long-established companies are likewise staging more demanding material. At the same time, bread-and-butter works such as farces, thrillers and popular musicals are being given a greater vitality and edge.”
NEWCASTLE THEATRE: SOME NOTES ON ITS HISTORY
Newcastle’s isolation in the first decades after it was established as a convict outpost in 1804 meant that theatrical performances were few and far between. The first court house and public halls were used as venues. In the 1850s, however, Newcastle was thriving because of coal exports, and a publican, James Croft, opened the Newcastle Theatre behind his hotel on the busy corner of Hunter and Watt Streets in 1857. It was destroyed by fire two years later but the first Theatre Royal and, in 1876, the Victoria Theatre in Perkins Street followed. The latter was rebuilt in 1890-91 and survives today, behind a shopfront. These theatres were used mainly by touring companies.
The opening of BHP’s steelworks in 1915 boosted the population and gave rise to new local amateur companies. The council-owned Civic Theatre opened in December 1929 and was immediately leased for films. It was not used for live theatre until 1974. Local theatre groups continued to perform in the City Hall (also opened in 1929) and in suburban halls. The establishment of the Newcastle Dramatic Art Club (NDAC) by Colin Chapman in 1938 gave Newcastle its first long-lived company. It continued to operate until the early 2000s, despite financial ups and downs that saw it buy and sell two Roxy Theatres in Hamilton. The first was Newcastle’s premier live theatre venue from 1955 until its closure in 1971.
The John Laman Co was prominent in presenting musicals in the 1940s and in 1952 some of its members, led by Geoff Solomon, formed Newcastle Gilbert and Sullivan Players to concentrate on works by the eponymous pair. Other members of the Laman company, including Glen Barker, continued its work in staging musicals under the banner of the Independent Theatre Co. In the mid-1970s, that company evolved into Metropolitan Players. The Newcastle Children’s Theatre, established by William and Elizabeth Ford under the auspices of NDAC in 1948, became a separate entity around 1956 and changed its name to Young People’s Theatre in 1967. The year 1957 saw the establishment of two significant groups: Newcastle New Theatre, which presented socially relevant works until its demise in 1979, and the still flourishing Newcastle Repertory Club (renamed Newcastle Theatre Company in 2007), with Peter Bloomfield as the driving force. The opening of Newcastle University’s Drama Department in 1975 and the foundation of two professional companies – the Hunter Valley Theatre Co and Freewheels Theatre – in 1976 were major boosts to the city, encouraging the setting-up of alternative theatre co-operatives, such as Wherehouse Theatre. Despite HVTC’s demise in 1997, professional co-operatives continue its work.