35th CONDA Awards- 2013


2013 Winners

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Lesly Stevenson, the President of CONDA Inc,the organisation which manages the City of Newcastle Drama Awards, found herself being pushed away from the microphone when she came on stage to announce the recipient of the 2013 CONDA Inc Award for Outstanding Achievement in Newcastle Theatre tonight.

But her shock turned to delight when the person who took her place at the microphone announced that she was in fact the winner of the award.

The CONDA judges – Michelle Gosper, Sue Leask, Ken Longworth and Pamela Whalan – who chose the award recipient, said that Lesly Stevenson had been a prolific participant as actor, singer, dancer, director and producer in Newcastle theatre for many years.

She had the courage to set up her own theatre company, DAPA, a dozen years ago and from modest beginnings it was now an important performance venue and attracted a regular theatre-going audience.

“The quality of work coming from DAPA can be seen in the fact that it regularly earns CONDA nominations,” the judges said. This year DAPA productions had won eight nominations and two CONDAs.

Lesly Stevenson had herself won a CONDA in 2008, for her performance in the musical The Full Monty.

Her work at DAPA was hands on and it was not uncommon to see her in the box-office, then later onstage. What audiences did not see was the hard work involved in balancing the books, obtaining performance rights, maintaining the building, organising the publicity, the set, the costumes, the props, and all the other time consuming but essential elements of keeping a theatre open.

Her work in training young people in the performing arts was well respected. And when the CONDA Awards came under the aegis of CONDA Inc, she had become a committee member and subsequently president, making her theatre available, rent free, for committee and general meetings.

“Her hard work is always carried out with meticulous detail, courteously, charmingly and with great dignity,“the judges said. “Lesly Stevenson’s dedication to the ongoing development of Newcastle theatre over many years makes her a deserving recipient of the CONDA Inc. Award for Outstanding Achievement in Newcastle Theatre.”

The two DAPA-associated CONDAs this year were won by actresses in its production of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.

Alison Cox was named Best Non-Professional Actress in a Leading Role in a Drama or Comedy for her tender and sympathetic portrayal of troubled ageing Southern United States belle Blanche Dubois as she slid into insanity to escape from a real world that had become unbearable.

Rachel Levick, as Stella, the sister caught between Blanche’s demands and those of the husband she loves, collected the Best Non-Professional Actress in a Supporting Role CONDA, with the judges saying her performance clearly showed the dilemma facing the woman.

The winners in the 24 CONDA categories were spread widely over shows staged in the awards period, the 12 months ended October 31. Eleven productions collected trophies, with 10 groups represented.

The night’s big winner was the Metropolitan Players’ staging of the musical The Phantom of the Opera.

It was awarded seven CONDAs, including Best Non-Professional Musical Production.

The judges noted that it was a fine production and first-class entertainment, gripping audiences with its story of a scarred and generally hidden composer trying to win the love of a beautiful new singer in a Paris opera house.


Julie Black won the Best Non-Professional Director Award for her assured handling of the performances and other elements and musical director Greg Paterson collected the Excellence in Non-Professional Achievement in Music and Movement trophy for the quality of the music produced by his 28-piece orchestra.

Daniel Stoddart was named Best Non-Professional Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for the charisma and romanticism he gave to the role of Raoul, a nobleman who woos the troubled heroine.

Two pairs of Phantom nominees shared the award for Excellence in Non-Professional Achievement in Costume Design and Make-Up: Bev Fewins and Steven Harrison for their costumes and George Francis and Valmai Drury for hair and wig design. The judges noted that hair and wig design was just as integral to the look of this production as the costumes and there had obviously been close collaboration between these four people to achieve the spectacular visual results that made The Phantom of the Opera such a joy to watch.

The musical’s other award, for Non-Professional Achievement in Lighting and Sound Design, went to Jacob Harwood for his lighting that helped to create the different moods of its many scenes.

Another big winner was The Popular Theatre Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), which collected the CONDAs for Best Professional Production, Best Professional Director – Victor Emeljanow – and Professional Achievement in Set, Costumes and Make-up for Jennifer Ellicott’s costume designs.

The judges said the production was a slick, intelligent and fast-moving treat in its often slapstick look at Shakespeare’s plays. Victor Emeljanow’s direction had given audiences a lot of fun with his clever and intelligent handling of its frenetic pace, and Jennifer Ellicott’s costumes ensured that the needed quick changes from one character to another were done with skill and humour.

Two other productions were also triple winners: Stooged Theatre’s Ruben Guthrie and SNAP Productions’ Chicago. They each collected acting awards in three categories.

Carl Young won the Best Professional Actor award for his performance as the title character inRuben Guthrie, a rising young marketing executive who finds himself increasingly dependent on alcohol.  The judges said his performance was sensitive, powerful and moving.

Janet Gillam received the Best Professional Actress Award for her role as Guthrie’s mother, bringing a quiet urgency and sensitivity to the woman whose own life had been affected by a drunkard husband.

Brittany Ferry took home the Best Juvenile Female Performance CONDA for her role as Ruben’s Czechoslovakian love interest, Zoya, delivering a sophistication not usually found in an actress in her teenage years.

Katie Wright won the Best Non-Professional Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical award for her Roxie Hart, a showgirl with her eyes on fame, fortune and men in the 1920s mob-ruled world inChicago. She played Roxie with great zest and joyousness.

Drew Holmes collected the Best Non-Professional Actor in a Supporting Role trophy for his performance as the scheming Roxie’s ignored husband, Amos. The judges said Holmes gave strong pathos to his character and his moving rendition of the song Mr Cellophane gave added dimension to the musical.

Chicago’s third award was for Best Ensemble Acting in a Non-Professional Production. The judges’ commendation said the 33 cast members sent such goodwill and joy across the footlights as they sang, danced and acted that the audience was never aware of the hard work that ensured the success of this light and bright musical.

Hunter Region Drama School’s The BFG won two CONDAs, including the Best Non-Professional Dramatic Production trophy. The judges said the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story about a big friendly giant and a young girl who join forces to defeat a horde of man-eating giants is an imaginative play and it was given imaginative treatment in this production.

The lighting design, by company Lifelike Atmospheres, which won the award for Excellence in Professional Achievement in Lighting, Music and Sound, helped to create the magic that enabled watchers to escape into a world peopled by giants and royalty and children who flew.

The trophy for Best New Play Written for a Newcastle Company went to The Past is a Foreign Country, staged by The Paper Cut Collective in association with Tantrum Theatre. The story, drawn from people’s different recollections of ordinary events, such as a fishing excursion, was put together by members of the production’s creative team, and provided thoughtful entertainment.

The Boulevard of Blood and Dreams, presented by one its creators, musician David Baker, and The Royal Exchange performance venue, won the Best Special Theatrical Event CONDA. The tongue-in-cheek humour of the production was delightfully delivered as the improbable plot took those watching from Cairo to Paris in search of a murderer, with the many Agatha Christie references providing entrees for good jazz.

The award for Best Non-Professional Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama or Comedy went to Michael Byrne for his portrayal of a very troubled husband and father in Newcastle Theatre Company’s When the Rain Stops Falling. Byrne’s sensitive performance evoked sympathy for the character while acknowledging the repulsiveness of his actions.

Harry Gelzinnis collected the Best Juvenile Male Performance trophy for his playing of Romeo in Tantrum Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet. The judges said Gelzinnis, who was about the age of his character, showed the intensity of young love thwarted, and, while the play was set in a present-day caravan park, the poetry of Shakespeare’s language was not lost in his performance as a lad who found his love on the way to the beach.

A caravan park was the setting for another CONDA winner. The award for Excellence in Non-professional Achievement in Set Design went to Chris Bird and Brian Lowe for their title object setting in Theatre on Brunker’s comedy Caravan. The judges said that Bird and Lowe designed a realistic caravan that helped establish the claustrophobia of campers marooned in the dwelling during a week of wet weather without inhibiting the movement of the play or distorting sightlines.

The CONDA Awards were presented at a music- and laugh-filled show which had the appropriate theme Applause.

The evening was not without its serious notes, however, with the chairman of the judging panel, Ken Longworth,who has been a judge since Newcastle City Council introduced the awards in 1979, voicing the concern of the Newcastle theatre community over the council’s failure to provide any financial support for the CONDAs this year. Longworth said the awards had been a factor in boosting Newcastle’s growing reputation throughout Australia for being an innovative and accomplished theatre centre and it was disappointing that the council had ignored this.

Five young people aged 12 to 19 were presented with the Newcastle Youth Theatre Development Grants, each of $350, which are sponsored by Newcastle Theatre Supporters and are aimed at assisting young people in improving and expanding their theatre skills. The recipients, who were nominated by Newcastle’s five youth theatre groups are: Rosher Todhunter (DAPA Theatre), Claire Campbell (Hunter Region Drama School), Shannessy Danswan (Pantseat Productions), Jarrod Jurd (Tantrum Theatre) and Ellen McNeil (Young People’s Theatre).

The People’s Choice Award for best production, an award determined by the votes of NewcastleHerald  readers, went to the Pantseat Productions’ musical Xanadu.

The list of awards follows.




CONDA Inc Award for Outstanding Achievement in Newcastle Theatre: Lesly Stevenson



Production: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), The Popular Theatre Company

Actor: Carl Young, Ruben Guthrie

Actress: Janet Gillam, Ruben Guthrie

Director: Victor Emeljanow, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

Achievement in lighting, music and sound: Lifelike Atmospheres, lighting design, The BFG

Achievement in set, costumes and make-up: Jennifer Ellicott, costume design, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)


Open categories:

Best new play written for a Newcastle company: The Past is a Foreign Country, The PaperCut Collective creative team

Best special theatrical event: The Boulevard of Blood and Dreams,  David Baker and The Royal Exchange


Non-professional categories:

Dramatic production: The BFG, Hunter Region Drama School

Musical production: The Phantom of the OperaMetropolitan Players

Actor in a leading role in a drama or comedy: Michael Byrne, When the Rain Stops Falling

Actress in a leading role in a drama or comedy: Alison Cox, A Streetcar Named Desire

Actor in a leading role in a musical: Daniel Stoddart, The Phantom of the Opera

Actress in a leading role in a musical: Katie Wright,  Chicago

Actor in a supporting role: Drew Holmes, Chicago

Actress in a supporting role: Rachel Levick, A Streetcar Named Desire

Juvenile male performance: Harry Gelzinnis, Romeo and Juliet

Juvenile female performance: Brittany Ferry, Ruben Guthrie

Ensemble acting: Chicago, SNAP Productions

Director: Julie Black, The Phantom of the Opera

Achievement in music and movement: Greg Paterson, musical director, The Phantom  of the Opera

Achievement in costume design and make-up: Bev Fewins and Steven Harrison, costume design, and George Francis and Valmai Drury, hair and wig design, The Phantom of the Opera (tie)

Achievement in set design: Chris Bird and Brian Lowe, Caravan

Achievement in lighting and sound design: Jacob Harwood, lighting design, The Phantom of the Opera





When the City of Newcastle Drama Awards were first staged in 1979, there were a few raised eyebrows around Australia. “What? We didn’t know that coal and steel town even had any theatre,” was a common reaction. That now seems laughable, given that the best non-professional actor award that year was shared by two Newcastle University drama students who have gone on to national fame – Stephen “The Sandman” Abbott and Jonathan Biggins – and that many other actors, writers, directors and technical personal with Newcastle theatre connections have followed in their footsteps. The CONDA Awards have also become the longest-established, continuous theatre awards in a major Australian city. More on that later.


In the past 35 years, Newcastle theatre and the CONDAs have gone from strength to strength. In the inaugural year, 37 professional and non-professional productions were staged. In the 2013 judging year, the 12months ended October 31, there were 55, and 37 of them, the equivalent of the total number of shows in 1979, won nominations.


The companies and participants here are among the frontrunners in Australian theatre. In a seven-day period in May this year, for example, two significant premieres were staged by Newcastle theatre companies. Newcastle Theatre Company staged the first NSW production of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Next to Normal, after a proposed major Sydney production of the show was cancelled last year. And Newcastle Gilbert and Sullivan Players presented the Australian premiere of The Bold, the Young and the Murdered, a recent American comedy which amusingly sent up the clichés of daytime television soap operas. Metropolitan Players also staged the NSW non-professional premiere of The Phantom of the Opera, and as other companies which had won the rights for the show saw the production’s amazing costumes on social media they came knocking on Metropolitan’s door seeking to hire them.


There were quite a few surprised faces, too, when a Newcastle work entered in this year’s Sydney Short+Sweet Festival, People Strings, by writer-director Jo Ford, won the best production award. Given that around 180 productions from around Australia and other countries are accepted into Sydney Short+Sweet, that was an amazingly pleasing result. Sadly, People Strings has not had a Newcastle season, partly because there has been no Newcastle Short+Sweet since Newcastle City Council dropped its funding for the event early last year.The quality of the plays written by Novocastrians, including the 12 varied works by Hunter TAFE’s Regional Institute of Performing Arts acting students in this year’s Clegg Festival, reinforced the need to get events like Short+Sweet going again. 


You may have noticed, if you have had time to glance through the souvenir program, that the final award to be presented tonight, for Outstanding Achievement in Newcastle Theatre, has CONDA Inc as its sponsor and not Newcastle City Council, whose name has been on the award since 1995. Newcastle City Council, sadly, did not provide any sponsorship for the CONDAs this year, with its community events support program shelved. The council did not even subsidise the cost of hiring this theatre, as it has done in previous lean financial years. As a result, the future of the City of Newcastle Drama Awards could be under threat. Many people and groups within the theatre community provide generous financial support for the awards, but the organisation which proudly established the CONDAs 35 years ago no longer appears to see them as an important component of Newcastle’s cultural life.


This beautiful Civic Theatre had its 50thbirthday in 1979 and Newcastle City Council inaugurated the CONDAs as an on-going celebration of the role theatre, and this building, play in entertaining and engaging the minds of the people of this city and surrounding areas. The awards in that first year were presented at the beginning of an ABC Show Band concert that marked the anniversary of the theatre’s opening in early December. The council proposed to present subsequent years’ awards at dinners for the nominees but the then judges, including myself, suggested it would be more appropriate to have a public celebration, with musical numbers between awards. We offered to put the shows together. The Civic Theatre was eventually chosen as the venue. The council initially met all the costs and there was no charge for tickets. Over the years, alas, successive councils have forgotten that the awards were their initiative. The council should be proud of its role in establishing the CONDAs because the range of theatre works being staged in Newcastle, and their quality, has steadily become more impressive in the 35years of the awards.


People involved in theatre do not stage works with the winning of awards in mind, but they do appreciate the recognition that nominations and trophies give to their endeavours. The other judges – Shane Bransdon, Michelle Gosper, Sue Leask, Pamela Whalan – and I urge you to let Newcastle City Council know what you think of their disregard of the fine work that is being done in Newcastle theatre, work that has increasingly drawn the attention of people throughout Australia.


Best wishes to all involved in Newcastle theatre. 2014 looks like being another great year. And, before I go, I’d like to welcome our new judge, Shane Bransdon, to the stage. Newcastle City Council might not be looking to the future of the CONDAs but the judges are. Shane brings a younger voice to the judging process.


Report delivered to the 35thCity of Newcastle Drama Awards at the Civic Theatre on December 6, 2013, by Ken Longworth, chairman of the CONDA Judging Panel, on behalf of the judges.