The Metropolitan Players’ production of Wicked bewitched the City of Newcastle Drama Awards judges in 2016, winning five categories and a major accolade for veteran director Julie Black.
The flourishing Newcastle theatre community celebrated its 38th annual awards night in a sellout ceremony hosted by Mathew Lee and Mitchell Cox at Wests New Lambton on Saturday.
Mrs Black, who has directed all but one of Metropolitan Players’ productions since 1983, won the major honour of the evening, the CONDA Inc Award for outstanding contribution and achievement in Newcastle theatre.
Wicked, which set a box-office record on the Civic Theatre main stage in September, was hailed as best musical production and earned Mrs Black best director of a musical.
The alternative telling of the Wizard of Oz story also won trophies for Tayla Choice (female lead in a musical), costume designers Bev Fewins and Steven Harrison, and George Francis (hair, make-up and wigs).
CONDA Inc president Daniel Stoddart said the longest-running theatre awards in Australia were representative of the lower Hunter’s increasingly vibrant theatre scene, which includes up to 40 companies and a handful of festivals. Twenty-five of those companies nominated 65 productions for this year’s awards.
Mr Stoddart, who runs youth theatre company Hunter Drama, said rapid growth in the number of young people on the region’s stages in the past 10 years had invigorated the performing arts community.
“It’s growing very, very quickly. A lot of the younger people are starting to create their own theatre companies any time they want to put on a show, which is kind of exciting,” he said.
“In the last 10 years, youth theatre has just boomed extraordinarily. Now some of those people are getting into their early 20s and they’re taking that passion through and they’re all starting to experiment with their own ideas.
“Young people have more to say than older people. That can’t be underestimated, the voice of an opinionated young person with a bit of passion and something to say about the world.”
Mr Stoddart said the days of safe, predictable theatre in Newcastle were largely over.
“The majority of it is challenging work now, particularly all of the stuff that’s being recognised with nominations, all of the fringier stuff, a lot of the contemporary, modern plays.
“Not just edgy in terms of content. For example, Wicked and Shrek The Musical are both musicals that have been on Broadway in the past 10 years, as opposed to doing Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s all new.”
Wicked was one of 13 productions that won CONDAs. Eight companies, two of which staged shows in association with other groups, and a school organisation shared the trophies in 22 categories.
Best drama went to the Peter Campbell-directed Australian premiere of Suicide Incorporated, the first production of James Chapman’s Knock and Run Theatre, which the judges praised as a sensitive examination of a difficult topic.
Manning the Fort, staged jointly by Tantrum Youth Arts and Catapult Dance at Fort Scratchley, won awards for choreography (Cadi McCarthy and Marnie Palomares), lighting and audio-visual (Lyndon Buckley) and sound design (Huw Jones).
The production told the story of the women who helped to operate the fort in World War II.
Three productions, Opera Hunter’s The Marriage of Figaro, Stooged Theatre’s Punk Rock, and Newcastle Theatre Company’s Noises Off, each collected two awards.
Alex Sefton, who played the title character in The Marriage of Figaro, was voted best male actor in a musical and Susan Hart won for music and vocal direction.
The majority of it is challenging work now.
The confronting Punk Rock, a bloody tale about students preparing for end-of-school exams, won acting awards for Scott Eveleigh (lead role) and Jerry Ray (supporting role).
The Newcastle Theatre Company comedy Noises Off received the best ensemble trophy for actors Lynda Rennie, Brian Randell, Andrew Black, Rebecca Wall, Jennifer Halliburton, Paul Sansom, Tracey Gordon, Jay Smith and Michael Smythe, and won for best set and props design (Adelle Richards and David Murray).
Three other NTC productions won awards. Katy Carruthers collected the female lead acting gong for Other Desert Cities, about a dysfunctional Christmas gathering, Elise Bialek won best supporting actress for Proof, and Cheryl Sovechles won best director for the reflective Anzac Day drama The One Day of the Year.
Saviour’s Day, a drama about Cyclone Tracy written by Theo Rule for Grainery Theatre Company, was named best new play or musical written for a local company.
There’s Something Strange About Marvin McRae, staged by the Hunter Catholic Schools Aspire unit, won the CONDA for best special theatrical event.
The under-18 acting awards went to Nicholas Thoroughgood (Lindsay Street Players’ The History Boys) and Tallulah Cobban (Tantrum Youth Arts’ Trailer).
Rebekah Abel, 17, and Tom Rodgers, 16, won the CONDAs’ new Youth Ambassador Program awards.
Mr Stoddart said Hunter theatre companies were working hard to meet audiences’ higher expectations.
“The requirements are extraordinary now. It’s not just a matter of putting on costumes . . . The benchmark has been reset with shows in recent years like Phantom of the Opera and Wicked.
“In order to have a well recognised and well respected show, you do have to go that extra mile in Newcastle now.”
Mr Stoddart said the young people in the industry had also helped change the awards themselves, from a “lofty” ceremony to a more rousing and collegial celebration.
“I think it’s a representation of the tone of where we’re up to as a theatre community.”