City Of Newcastle Drama Awards :The CONDAs – Celebrating 37 years

Winners Best Ensemble - My Fair Lady by St Phillip's Christian College. Photo Dan McCririk
Winners Best Ensemble – My Fair Lady by St Phillip’s Christian College. Photo Dan McCririk

I have never won a trophy! Not one. Not even a plasticky tacky “Most Improved” or anything.

Loads of certificates and stuff, but no real, honest to goodness “I won” hold aloft bit of pleasure. So I take great joy in watching other people win and being part of the team that awards them.

There is a beautiful hand blown glass winged trophy that is unique to the City of Newcastle Drama Awardsthe CONDAs. A lovely gentleman named Julio makes each one in his home workshop at Medowie and at this years 37th CONDA ceremony, held at Wests Leagues Club, some beautiful footage of Julio making a CONDA trophy made them look even more desirable.

Winning, celebrations and winged glass trophies are a fragile combination. Many happy recipients over the years have carried home broken wings.

Back in 1979 The Civic Theatre in Newcastle turned 50 and Newcastle City Council was looking for a way to celebrate the event. So, the City of Newcastle Drama Awards – CONDAs – was created, complete with the glass-winged trophy.

37 years later and the CONDAs are still going. The CONDA Awards are unique in an Australian city. They are the longest established, continuous theatre awards and one of the original judges, theatre critic and Mr CONDA himself, Ken Longworth is still critiquing and judging

Newcastle and the Hunter Valley have over 37 independent theatre companies. This year there were 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, and this year four school-related works won a total of 21 nominations.

Newcastle youth theatre groups have also 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.

Newcastle is a great breeding ground for performing arts talent and many well known celebrities have come through our theatre scene, wielding a CONDA trophy or two on the way.

The awards night is a hoot. In 2015 the CONDA award ceremony moved to the Starlight Room at Wests Leagues Club in New Lambton and the change in venue created a whole different event. Instead of formal seated rows, and everyone shuffling off after finale, tables of 10 and an open bar made it a party, complete with dancing to ABBA once the ceremony was over.

It’s now the Christmas Party for Newcastle Thespians.

Other changes were brought to the table by in kind sponsorship by Out of the Square Media, (OOTS) run by Marty Adnum and Life Like Atmospheres Sound and Lighting.

Marty was also production manager and his wife, Rachelle Schmidt Adnum was Artistic Director and co host with Drew Holmes. Theatre groups in the community were asked to nominate presenters for various awards.

Musical Director Daniel Wilson opened the evening with Cut, Print…Moving On from Smash and periodically kept the momentum going throughout the evening with One Night Only from Dreamgirls, Under Pressure from We Will Rock You and a huge finale with The Rocky Horror Medley.

In between were the nominations and winning announcements for the 22 categories, ranging from Hair, Make and Wigs, to Best New Play or Musical Written for a Newcastle Company, Excellence by Actors, Directors, Designers, Ensembles and Productions.

Another new sponsor for 2015 was Music Theatre International (Australasia) with special guest presenter Stuart Henricks representing the company and presenting the CONDAs to Best Male and Female Actor Under the Age of 18.

The final award for the evening, The CONDA Inc. Outstanding Achievement in Newcastle Theatre, has no prior published nominations. It is nominated and decided by the judges on their judging day and for 2015 it was awarded to Wendy Leis, the retired Artistic Director of Young People’s Theatre, and Assistant Principal from Hunter School of Performing Arts.

The shows nominated were hugely diverse in style and size but big productions such as MY FAIR LADY by St Phillip’s Christian College and MARY POPPINS by Metropolitan Players were popular and well received winners, as was THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING by Popular Theatre Company.

Some winners were for productions with smaller audience numbers in venues not traditionally theatre. Cadi McCarthy from Catapult Dance won for her choreography in WARRIORS REST, STORIES IN OUT STEPS, performed in the former St Phillip’s Church. This work 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.

Rebecca Fitzsimmons won Excellence by a Female Actor in a Musical for her performance as Ellie Greenwich in LEADER OF THE PACK, presented at St Stephen’s Church Hall, known in Newcastle as Theatre on Brunker. The shows there are dinner theatre and Rebecca wooed the audience with the effortless charm of her sweet, but not naive Ellie, and her confident, clear and melodic delivery.

Another new work that won Best Special Theatrical Event was THE SPEAKEASY by David Baker and the Smokin’ Chops. The show, staged in the intimate Unorthodox Church of Groove venue, took the form of a tongue in cheek radio play set in the United States in the 1920s-30s prohibition era, with the musicians and singers playing characters including gangsters and chorus girls as they took the audience on a journey through the jazz music of that era.

An edgy, exciting new work from Tantrum Youth Arts and Paper Cut Collective, NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR CAT won the award for Best New Play Written for a Newcastle Company. Looking at the way social media is changing our lives, for better or for worst, it was thought provoking, engaging and emotionally honest in showing how we currently interact with others.

A moving and significant part of the ceremony was the In Memoriam. Elise Jensen presented a beautiful rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow dedicated to the significant members of the Newcastle theatrical community who have passed during the year.

Not everyone can win so on every table a couple of big stickers were supplied with I’M A CONDABALOOZA on them for the unsuccessful nominees. Better to laugh than cry.

Most importantly, the CONDA Award ceremony is a celebration of the diverse, dynamic and increasingly ground-breaking theatre that is being developed and presented in Newcastle and the Hunter. Long live the CONDA awards.

A full list of the categories, nominees and winners can be found on the CONDA Inc Website and Facebook pages.