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Steeped in History

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 6 February 2004, celebrated the silver anniversary. It was also a year which saw important changes in the management of the awards, 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:

“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.”

Theatre in Newcastle continued to expand with more companies being created and bringing quality theatre to the region. However, with this market expanding, funds are always a challenge for many companies and costs rising for venue hiring as well as general expenses. It has unfortunately seen some companies no longer able to exist. This also affected CONDA Inc., with another loss in 2013 forcing the organisation into negative funds. If it wasn’t for the kind donation by (at the time) CONDA Treasurer Don Mitchell the organisation wouldn’t be celebrating 40 years in 2018. Changes were required for CONDA Inc. to stay afloat and the committee in 2014 decided to move the award ceremony to Wests Leagues Club at New Lambton. The change and format, along with some successful fundraising, has seen CONDA Inc. rise again and be in a position to give back to the theatre community with new and exciting annual events like Condabalooza and StageCon. This has been achieved from the theatre community pulling together and some very hardworking volunteers on the CONDA Committee to bring CONDA Inc. into the 21st Century. A major change was made in 2017 to CONDA where its title no longer stood for City of Newcastle Drama Awards but changed to the City of Newcastle Drama Association. The committee believed CONDA stood for more than just an awards night and have worked tirelessly to provide more for the theatre community.

  • 1979

    City of Newcastle Drama Awards – CONDAs was born with four theatre critics.

  • 2003

    Celebration of silver anniversary and establishment of a CONDA Organising Committee.

  • 2004

    Initially operating under the auspices of Performing Arts Newcastle, it subsequently became CONDA Inc, a non-profit incorporated body.

  • 2017

    CONDA title changed to City of Newcastle Drama Association.

  • 2019

    The beginning of StageCon, Newcastle's first Drama and Theatre Convention.

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