A massive thank you to our Major Sponsor and Supporters Out Of The Square Media for this stunning visual memory captured of the 2015 Conda Awards Ceremony
Wendy Leis never imagined when she began appearing in Newcastle’s Young People’s Theatre productions as a child in the 1960s that one day she would be heading the company.
But over the years she became a tutor and director and, for the past two decades, its artistic director.
By the time she stepped down from the post in April this year, she had helped thousands of young people develop their skills as actors and backstage workers, with many going on to professional theatre careers throughout Australia.
And while she has formally retired from her YPT duties, she has offered to direct shows for the company and assist it in other ways, such as helping to administer its costume stock.
Wendy Leis’s role in supporting young people with an interest in theatre and in staging shows with appeal for children and adults alike was formally recognised tonight when she was announced as the 2015 recipient of the CONDA Inc Award for an Outstanding Contribution to Newcastle Theatre.
Since the CONDA Awards began in 1979, she has won three trophies for her direction and been nominated on many occasions for her various roles in theatre, including costume and set design. She has also trained many people in their mid- to late-teens in directing, by having them initially acting as her assistants.
As well as being a key trainer at YPT, she was assistant principal of Hunter School of the Performing Arts from 1993 until 2014, managing the primary classes.
The CONDA judges – Shane Bransdon, Michael Cooper, Michelle Gosper, Carl Gregory and Ken Longworth – said Wendy Leis had always shown strong artistic vision and intellectual rigour in her leadership.
She was also noted for her incredible generosity towards the entire theatrical community.
Wendy Leis’s award was announced at the climax of an exciting and entertaining evening in which CONDA winners were revealed between engaging musical numbers.
Ten productions, staged by nine companies and a school group, shared the trophies in the 22 award categories.
Two musicals, Mary Poppins, presented by Metropolitan Players, and My Fair Lady, produced by St Phillip’s Christian College, each won awards in five categories.
Mary Poppins collected the trophy for Best Musical Production, with the judges saying “This lively adaptation of a well-loved film had a large, well-rehearsed and energetic ensemble who worked seemingly effortlessly. Life and colour abounded”.
Daniel Stoddart, cast as a chimney sweep, Bert, who helps the title character, a magical governess, bring happiness to a mother, father and their two young children, won the award for Excellence by a Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical, giving his character “a knowing warmth and infectious joy”.
Rachelle Schmidt Adnum, who played an unsmilingly harsh nanny known as “the Holy Terror” in Mary Poppins, received the CONDA for Excellence by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role. The judges said she brought “power, strength and stage presence to the role,” causing all those watching to fear her.
The director of Mary Poppins, Julie Black, collected the Excellence by the Director of a Musical award, for co-ordinating a large production team whose collective vision “transported all into the wonderful and magical world of Mary”.
The production’s fifth award went to George Francis and Valmai Drury in the Excellence in Hair, Make-up and Wigs category for their hair and wigs design. They tied with another nominee, Dianne Garred, who did the hair and make-up design for My Fair Lady. The judges noted that the award recipients brought out the authenticity of the periods in which the musicals were set through their workmanship, sophistication and attention to detail.
My Fair Lady’s other trophies included the awards for Excellence by a Male Actor Under 18 and Excellence by a Female Actor Under 18.
The male actor prize was shared by brothers Lachlan and Hamish Pickering, with the judges finding it too hard to choose between them. Lachlan Pickering played Henry Higgins, a professor who takes on the challenge of transforming a girl flower seller into a sophisticated woman, and Hamish Pickering was his friend and occasional critic, Colonel Pickering. The judges said they created a riveting stage chemistry.
Hannah King won the Female Actor Under 18 CONDA for her role as the flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, “masterfully commanding the shifts in dialogue and physicality” that marked her growing sophistication.
The skill of the large, 55-member, teenage cast of My Fair Lady was shown by the production’s collection of the Best Ensemble Acting award, with the judges noting that “every cast member in this slick and visually exciting production created a unique and memorable character”.
Dianne Garred won a second trophy for her work on My Fair Lady, for her Excellence in Costume Design. The judges said the costumes “told their own stories in terms of character, reinforcing the class divisions, individuals and stereotypes inherent in the show”.
The CONDA judging rules excluded My Fair Lady from the Best Musical category because its director, Michael Cooper, is a CONDA judge. Cooper absented himself from the judges’ discussion of the show.
The Popular Theatre Company’s The Book of Everything won awards in four categories.
The Book of Everything, a look at a disorientated Dutch family in the post-World War II period through the eyes of a boy “aged nine, almost 10”, collected the trophy for Best Dramatic Production. The judges said that “All aspects of this unusually and emotionally complex production were exemplary”, making it “theatre with the power to change society”.
David Brown won the CONDA for Excellence by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role for his “honest depiction of a man grappling to reconcile his faith and his impulses” and eventually “opening up to the love of his family”.
Daniel Stoddart received the Excellence by a Director (Drama or Comedy) trophy for giving the audience “a truly heart-warming production that resonated with deep emotion and meaning”.
And Marion Giles won the Excellence in Set Design and/or Props category for her set, which incorporated multiple houses and streets, with “the old storybook look and feel of the set effectively supporting the themes of the play”.
The Tantrum Youth Arts and Paper Cut Collective co-production No One Cares About Your Cat collected four awards, with two of its winners sharing the prize in one category.
No One Cares About Your Cat was named Best New Play or Musical for a Newcastle Company. The work, which was put together by the producers and acting team, looks at the way social media is changing our lives, for better or for worse. The judges said it was “thought-provoking, engaging and emotionally honest” in showing how we currently interact with others.
Lighting designer Lyndon Buckley and audio visual artist Tim Buchanan, collected trophies in the Excellence in Lighting and Audio Visual Design category, with the judges noting that “the lighting and audio-visual design were integral and crucial to the plot development of this technically interactive work”, with the technologies complementing the mood and tone of the performances.
The sound design team, Jess Blackburn, Julia Rutten and Melanie Coombes, were likewise complemented by the judges for their award-winning Excellence in Sound Design, saying that “the sound was a key component of the production”.
The Best Special Theatrical Event CONDA was won by The Speakeasy, presented by the Smokin’Chops Jazz Quintet and its leader, David Baker. The show, staged in the intimate Unorthodox Church of Groove venue, brought to life an amusing radio play set in the United States in the 1920s-30s prohibition era, with the musicians and singers engagingly playing characters including gangsters and chorus girls as they took the audience on a journey through the jazz music of that era.
Callan Purcell received the award for Excellence by a Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama or Comedy for his performance as the troubled Alan Strang in Stooged Theatre’s Equus. His intensity and focus took watchers on a journey from the character’s childhood and explained why he had committed horrific acts involving horses.
Claire Williams won the Excellence by a Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama or Comedy CONDA for her portrayal of Sister Aloysius in Newcastle Theatre Company’s Doubt. She had a firm control of the nun’s character and emotions, and moved believably between assertiveness and compassion as the circumstances continually changed.
Rebecca Fitzsimmons collected the Excellence by a Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical trophy for her performance as songwriter Ellie Greenwich in the Theatre on Brunker and Novocastrian Players’ production Leader of the Pack. The judges noted that audiences fell in love with the effortless charm of her sweet, but not naive Ellie, and her confident, clear and melodic delivery.
The Excellence by a Musical Director award went to Daniel Wilson for his work in Star Struck: a-MAZE-ing, staged at the large Newcastle Entertainment Centre by the Hunter Area of the NSW Department of Education and Communities. Wilson masterfully and professionally managed the complexity and enormity of leading the student singers, a musical team and a large orchestra, comprising of a mixture of students and professionals, through a diverse range of song styles and soundscapes.
Cadi McCarthy won the CONDA for Excellence by a Choreographer for her staging of the Warriors Rest sequence in Stories in Our Steps, a Tantrum Youth Arts production that took the audience to various places along Watt Street, Newcastle’s oldest thoroughfare. The sequence, performed in the former St Phillip’s Church, looked at the World War I experiences of soldiers whose lives are commemorated by plaques in the building. Her use of the church space and the dancers’ movements affectingly conveyed to the audience the strength and vulnerability of the soldiers and the quiet mourning of those who remained at home.
In addition to the CONDA trophies, the 2015 CONDA Youth Theatre Encouragement Award was presented to Benjamin Stuart, who was nominated by Young People’s Theatre. The $500 grant gives the recipient financial support in seeking further training in theatre skills. Ben, 19, has been involved in the performing arts from the age of six and, since moving to Newcastle in 2009, when he was 12, has been a member of YPT, as well as other companies in the Newcastle and Hunter Region. He has taken leadership roles in all aspects of productions, and as a well trained and awarded music student is sharing those skills through his roles as a tutor and director. While currently undertaking tertiary studies in performing arts and music, he continues to be actively involved in productions. Ben is a highly respected, hard-working and dedicated role model who has the potential to have a career as an actor, director, musical director and industry trainer.
The 37th CONDA Awards were dedicated to Newcastle-area theatre workers and patrons who died in the past year: Robert Gregg, actor, director and playwright, Maitland Gilbert and Sullivan and Musical Society (now Maitland Musical Society) and Maitland Repertory Theatre; Gabrielle (Gabby) O’Connor, costume designer and maker; Noah Oerlemans, assistant tutor and workshop participant, Tantrum Youth Arts; Tony Pieterse, actor, singer and CONDA winner in 2000; Rewa Richardson, actor and director, Newcastle Repertory Theatre (Newcastle Theatre Company), and other groups; Keith Rudkin, actor, singer and theatre program printer; Bruce Scully, actor and founding member of Maitland Gilbert and Sullivan and Musical Society; Reuben Sutherland, actor and student, Young People’s Theatre; Len Young, theatre supporter.
The 2015 CONDA Awards had two major sponsors: Newcastle company Out of the Square Media, which put together the CONDA night presentation, and Music Theatre International, which sponsored the CONDA Youth Theatre Encouragement Award. Music Theatre International, which is headed by musical theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh, has the world’s biggest library of musicals available for staging.
THE 2015 CONDA WINNERS
Outstanding Contribution and Achievement in Newcastle Theatre: Wendy Leis
Youth Theatre Encouragement Grant: Benjamin Stuart, Young People’s Theatre
Dramatic Production: The Book of Everything, The Popular Theatre Company
Musical Production: Mary Poppins, Metropolitan Players
Special Theatrical Event: The Speakeasy, David Baker and The Smokin’ Chops & The Unorthodox Church of Groove
New Play or Musical Written for a Newcastle Company: No One Cares About Your Cat, developed by the ensemble (Tantrum Youth Arts and the Paper Cut Collective)
Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama or Comedy: Callan Purcell, Equus (Stooged Theatre)
Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama or Comedy: Claire Williams, Doubt (Newcastle Theatre Company)
Male Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical: Daniel Stoddart, Mary Poppins (Metropolitan Players)
Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical: Rebecca Fitzsimmons, Leader of the Pack (Theatre on Brunker and Novocastrian Players)
Male Actor in a Supporting Role: David Brown, The Book of Everything (The Popular Theatre Company)
Female Actor in a Supporting Role: Rachelle Schmidt Adnum, Mary Poppins (Metropolitan Players)
Male Actor Under 18: Hamish Pickering and Lachlan Pickering, My Fair Lady (St Phillip’s Christian College) – tie
Female Actor Under 18: Hannah King, My Fair Lady (St Phillip’s Christian College)
Ensemble Acting: My Fair Lady (St Phillip’s Christian College)
Director (Drama or Comedy): Daniel Stoddart, The Book Of Everything (The Popular Theatre Company)
Director (Musical): Julie Black, Mary Poppins (Metropolitan Players)
Musical Director: Daniel Wilson, Star Struck 2015: a-MAZE-ing (Hunter Area of the NSW Department of Education and Communities)
Choreographer: Cadi McCarthy, Warriors Rest from Stories in Our Steps (Catapult Dance and The Flipside Project, for Tantrum Youth Arts)
Costume Design: Dianne Garred, My Fair Lady (St Phillip’s Christian College)
Hair, Make-up and Wigs Design: George Francis and Valmai Drury, hair and wig design, Mary Poppins (Metropolitan Players); and Dianne Garred, hair and wig design, My Fair Lady (St Phillip’s Christian College) – tie
Set and Props Design: Marion Giles, set design, The Book of Everything (The Popular Theatre Company)
Lighting and Audio Visual Design: Lyndon Buckley, lighting design, and Tim Buchanan, audio visual design, No One Cares About Your Cat (Tantrum Youth Arts and the Paper Cut Collective) – tie
Sound Design: Jess Blackburn, Julia Rutten and Melanie Coombes, No One Cares About Your Cat (Tantrum Youth Arts and the Paper Cut Collective)
Want more info? Contact Ken Longworth – 4942 2410, 0402 356 399
REPORT BY THE CONDA JUDGES ON NEWCASTLE THEATRE IN 2015
Theatre, like other performing arts, is becoming stronger each year in Newcastle and the Lower Hunter. While the two institutions which boosted the quality and diversity of this region’s theatre in the 1970s, the professional Hunter Valley Theatre Company and the Newcastle University Drama Department, have respectively disappeared and diminished to classroom activities, the growth they engendered has been taken up by others.
Hunter TAFE’s Regional Institute of Performing Arts has given young actors, singers, musicians and dancers excellent training in the past decade, and staged engaging works that we might otherwise not have seen. Its Advanced Diploma of Arts (Acting) students now complete their course by appearing in an offbeat musical that is an Australian premiere. This year’s students, for example, will perform at the Civic Playhouse for three nights from Thursday, December 10, in Our House, a British musical that has songs by the ska/pop band Madness and a book by playwright Tim Firth, whose other works include Calendar Girls. Ironically, the show, which won the 2003 Olivier Award for best new musical, was workshopped in Sydney last year by a professional musical team including Newcastle-raised Tyran Parke, in the hope, unrealised, that a production company would take it on tour.
This year saw the introduction by WEA Hunter and Pantseat Academy of a Diploma of Musical Theatre course, with the first intake of students working with American musical theatre writer Elaine Pechacek for two weeks this month and presenting last weekend a public workshop staging of her latest work, The Lady Juliana. The musical looks at the lives of the first shipload of women convicts to be sent to Australia from Britain in 1789, and the staging showed the story and songs to be moving, and not without moments of humour. It also revealed just how accomplished the musical theatre diploma students are becoming. And the students recorded the 12 songs so far written, with Pechacek taking the recording back to the United States with her, to use as a tool in getting producers interested in the musical.
Newcastle will also see the staging of its inaugural Fringe Festival from January 28 to February 6 next year, with 30 performing companies doing 108 performances at eight venues in the CBD. Branxton’s Phillip Aughey came up with the idea of a Newcastle Fringe after taking his popular comedy show The Exchange to last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And while the Newcastle event will feature Australian performers such as Stephen Abbott, who developed his Sandman character while a student at Newcastle University, plus performers from the US, around a quarter of the shows will be staged by performance students and graduates and by amateur companies, with all forms of performance involved, including theatre, music, dance, comedy, children’s events, circus and cabaret, and with tickets kept at affordable prices.
Phil Aughey, who was nominated for this year’s Special Event Award for his one-man show, Chopin’s Last Tour, that he subsequently presented at the Edinburgh Fringe, is seeking financial support through crowd-funding to meet overheads including printing, rentals and advertising. The Fringe Festival program is expected to be announced on December 4. Look at the Newcastle Fringe website or Facebook site for details on how to make donations. Aughey and his voluntary team are confident that the success of the first Newcastle Fringe Festival will boost the fortunes of the second event and give Newcastle added theatrical prominence.
The growing quality of the theatre works being staged in and around Newcastle is evident in the scope and number of the shows nominated, with more productions from beyond Newcastle being nominated this year following an expansion in 2014 of the area covered by the CONDAs to include venues within a 50km radius of the Newcastle CBD. And, while there were not quite as many nominations this year as in 2014, following a decision by CONDA Inc to limit the number of nominees in each category to eight, the list is still impressive, with the judges taking longer at their nominations meeting to whittle the numbers down in some categories.
There are 138 nominations across the 22 categories, selected from 57 productions that were entered in the awards. Twenty-two theatre groups were represented in the nominations, plus four schools and education groups. School groups were included on a trial basis last year, with two productions being entered and receiving nominations. The quality of the school shows led CONDA Inc to decide to continue their inclusion. This year, four school-related works won a total of 21 nominations. Newcastle youth theatre groups have increasingly been renowned for the quality of their productions, and many of the people associated with the school shows are also in youth theatre productions.
In relation to that, I’d also like to point out that under the CONDA rules a production that has a CONDA judge as its director cannot be nominated in a best production category, nor, understandably, can the judge be nominated for a director’s award. That explains why the St Phillip’s Christian College production of My Fair Lady was not nominated for Best Musical Production, despite receiving eight nominations. CONDA judge Michael Cooper, who directed My Fair Lady, was excluded from discussions about the show, and another judge, Shane Bransdon, who directed Hunter Drama’s Fame Jr, likewise was absent while that was discussed. And it makes sense that at least some of the people who are on a theatre judging panel should have practical involvement in the staging craft.
We were all impressed by the high quality of the work staged. Several of the musicals, for example, had a quality that is generally associated with high-budget professional productions. And one of the year’s pleasures was the ever-increasing quality of set designs and their appropriateness to the works that had them.
It was also good to see new companies such as Eclectic Productions and Two Tall Theatre making their debuts with well chosen and staged works.
Myself and the other judges, who also include Michelle Gosper and Carl Gregory, are looking forward to the 2016 year. The productions already announced promise another exciting and engaging 12 months.
Report delivered to the 37th City of Newcastle Drama Awards at Wests New Lambton on November 28, 2015, by Ken Longworth, chairman of the CONDA Judging Panel, on behalf of the judges.