Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: Thursday, 17 April 2008

Association of Ulster Drama Festivals:

17 April 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
The Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Richard Mills ) Association of Ulster Drama Festivals
Mr Paddy Ormonde )

The Chairperson:
I welcome the representatives of the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals; Mr Richard Mills, who is very much associated with the Castlereagh Festival, adjudications and all kinds of things, and Mr Paddy Ormonde, who is the vice-president of Ulster Drama Festivals.

Mr Richard Mills (Association of Ulster Drama Festivals):
May I make it clear from the outset, Mr Chairperson, that unlike Brian Kennedy who attended the previous session, we are not going to sing? [Laughter.]

Mr Paddy Ormonde (Association of Ulster Drama Festivals):
I thank the Committee for allowing us to explain who we are and what we do. I am a vice-president of the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals (AUDF). I imagine that each of us here probably does not live far from a drama festival centre — there are 13 of them scattered across the Province — and the function of the AUDF is to co-ordinate the festivals; prevent a clash of dates, and organise the finals of the festival movement. We also organise the annual one-act drama festival final, and the winner of that represents Northern Ireland at the final of the British drama festival.

Membership of the association must be applied for, and it is granted when a festival has proved to be a consistent entity in the community in which it is based, usually after it has been running for three years. The association is over 60 years old. The Arts Council currently funds the association — as it has done in the past — by providing a grant towards the running of the three-act and one-act finals. All of our festivals are professionally adjudicated.

The festival movement operates on a cross-community basis in Northern Ireland and on a cross-border basis, as Southern teams are welcome to participate in the festival movement in Northern Ireland and compete for a place in the finals. There is also an east-west dimension to what we do, as we are associated with the National Drama Festivals Association in England, Scotland and Wales. Therefore, our work has a North/South and east-west dimension.

In the absence of a professional drama school in Northern Ireland — such as RADA or the Central School of Speech and Drama, both of which are in London — the festival movement provides a tremendous platform for emerging artists. Some have gone on to distinguish themselves professionally — for example, Colin Blakely, Liam Neeson, and Ciarán Hinds. Those actors have all come through, and benefited from, the festival movement in our Province.

It was remiss of me not to introduce my colleague Richard Mills, who is a legend in amateur drama circles — he works as an actor, director and adjudicator, and he is also a member of the AUDF.

Mr Mills:
Paddy has summed up what the AUDF does, however, it is important to emphasise that all the work is voluntary. That is one of the interesting aspects of the amateur theatre movement in Northern Ireland and throughout the island of Ireland. We have great relationships with our colleagues in the South — the Drama League of Ireland (DLI) and the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland (ADCI). Of the 13 festival centres in Northern Ireland, I believe that 11 of them are affiliated to the DLI or the ADCI as well as the AUDF.

I would like to paint a picture of how an amateur drama festival operates. Half a dozen men and women get together at their local drama club at 9.00 am, having taken a day off work, probably in lieu of holidays, and load up a van — perhaps a furniture van or a hired van, or even a big cattle trailer — with their set and props. They then drive up to 100 miles, perhaps, to the festival venue. As soon as they arrive, they build their set, and then the lighting technician will spend another two or three, even four, hours setting the lights and getting the atmosphere right. Those people therefore work right through the day, until 6.00 pm or 7.00 pm.

At 5.00 pm, the cast — who have just finished their day’s work — get together and travel the same 100 miles to that festival. The cast arrive filled with adrenalin, with their nerves pumping, and get their make-up and costumes on. In the meantime, the audience — possibly 200 of them — arrive at the venue, and the play starts.

At the end of the play, the cast assemble backstage while the adjudicator goes on stage and offers advice and criticism, which is conducted by way of education. They then have a bite of supper, the crew usually start dismantling the set and stack it back on the vehicle, and the cast meet the adjudicator to have a friendly chat over a cup of tea. After that, they all get together to drive back to their base and unload the set into their club room, which will usually be at approximately 2.00 am.

That will happen 11 times over 10 nights at that festival, which is repeated at 11 or 12 festivals each year throughout Northern Ireland. All that work is voluntary; not one penny from the public purse is spent towards that.

I said that the adjudicator offers advice and criticism. However, it is not so much about criticism as it is about training and education. The Chairperson tells a nice story about how even the car-park attendant or the laundrette manager gets educated. That is what it is all about — learning.

Those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth and more grey bearded have been involved in amateur theatre for quite a while, but we are encouraging others to come along. There is tremendous interest among young people. For example, in my own club — Belvoir Players — we have about 150 youngsters between the ages of five and 16. Involvement in amateur theatre gives them self-confidence and is character building.

The festival movement is the umbrella body that covers a large amount of the voluntary activity that takes place. We receive approximately £10,000 a year from the Arts Council, which, in most cases, is regarded as petty cash.

There are other ways of getting funding from the Big Lottery Fund or the Arts Council — some small grants are available for equipment, lighting and so on. However, those are not available very often. I am the wrong person to complain though: I managed to hit the jackpot by obtaining a grant from the Arts Council to build a studio at Belvoir and to keep it going. Any work conducted there is entirely voluntary and we do not get any revenue costs. There is an enormous amount of effort put into the community on a voluntary basis.

The idea that amateur theatre is some sort of middle-class hobby is one that I like to squash quickly. An amateur drama group in Helen’s Bay may well be a middle-class company; however, a visitor to the Creggan Drama Circle at Creggan crossroads outside Carrickmore would see a packed hall with the first three rows filled with children. I have adjudicated there, so I know what I am talking about. As an adjudicator, it is scary to look down and see three rows of children who are all listening to, and hanging on, every word. It is a similar situation to that of the caretaker’s in the Chairperson’s story.

That gives the Committee an idea of the work that is conducted by amateur theatre groups, particularly through the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals, which is the only way that we can provide the required education, training and so on.

Mr Ormonde:
Dick is the director of the Castlereagh Drama Festival and I am the director of the Newtownabbey Drama Festival, which is one of the feeder festivals. Such festivals are highly valued in the community. Time and again we get praised by the audiences, who say how much they enjoy it and how much they look forward to it every year.

The festivals are particularly valued by older people in the community. Rightly, a lot of work is conducted for young people, which I appreciate. However, sometimes the older generation gets left to one side. The festival movement gives older people the opportunity to see plays that they may not be willing to travel to see in major centres such as Belfast or Derry. They appreciate that very much.

From the point of view of value to the community, I think that it is a very valuable exercise indeed.

The Chairperson:
How many nights does the Newtownabbey festival run for?

Mr Ormonde:
Our festival runs for eight nights.

The Chairperson:
And the Castlereagh festival?

Mr Mills:
The Castlereagh festival is a one-act festival which usually runs for three or four nights a week. As we are talking about the community, I would like to point out that most festivals do have the support of their local councils, and that is one area where the amateur theatre is very vibrant. A lot of us serve on the Forum for Local Government and the Arts in addition to working in amateur theatre as we work very closely with local arts officers and the local councils.

One of the greatest benefits that amateur theatre had was the Group Theatre, which was given to us by the Belfast City Council. Unfortunately — and I have to get this in — we lost that theatre a couple of years ago, which was a big blow for us. I fought the council hard to reverse that decision but did not succeed. However, aside from that, the support that drama festivals receive from local councils is invaluable and that is where they derive most support.

The Chairperson:
Alan Marshall has submitted some points to the Committee for consideration, which have been included in the Committee papers. We are now going to open up the meeting for questions.

Mr Shannon:
Thank you for your presentation gentlemen. Do the general public pay an admission charge to the drama festivals or are they free of charge?

Mr Mills:
There is an admission charge.

Mr Shannon:
How much money do those charges raise to help run the festivals; aside from the £10,000 received from the Arts Council?

Mr Mills:
The AUDF does not administer nor handle the finances: the local festivals have autonomy. The admission charges usually vary from £6 to £7, and there is normally a concession rate, slightly below that amount. Therefore if 200 people pay an average of £6, that amounts to £1,200.

Mr Shannon:
That is not a great deal of money.

Mr Mills:
In some cases the finances are administered by the local councils, but the festival committee look after all the expenses. Each team has its own expenses: travelling to and from the festival, hiring the van that I referred to earlier, personal expenses whilst at the festival, and hospitality costs incurred while they attend the festival. Fees and expenses are also paid to the adjudicator, a process which often involves bringing someone from across the water or from down South and putting them up over the course of the festival.

Mr Ormonde:
The 13 contributory festivals that I mentioned earlier are totally autonomous. Their funding is their own concern and nothing to do with the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals. It is up to them to attempt to tap into local council funding or get sponsorship from business firms elsewhere. The AUDF exists merely to co-ordinate the work and organise the finals. The venue for those finals have varied over the years from the Grand Opera House in Belfast to the Market Place in Armagh — where they are at present — to other locations such as Bangor and Ballymena Town Hall.

The Chairperson:
What is the distinction between the open and confined sections in the festivals?

Mr Mills:
As far as the AUDF is concerned that is an anomaly as we do not have a confined section. The Southern areas have a confined section, which is for less-experienced groups, and open sections for more experienced groups. If a group wins a confined final one year, it would automatically be entered into the open section the following year. A festival in Carrickmore, which is affiliated to both North and South, will have a confined section for the South but all groups competing there will be in the open section for the North.

Mr Shannon:
In relation to the festivals themselves, what is the biggest expense? Would it be the props; the promotion, or something else? Also, what is the relationship between the AUDF and other people who are not in your organisation? Do you, for example, have a relationship or partnership with the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster or historical groups that also run festivals in the part of the country that I represent?

Mr Mills:
Yes. The Young Farmers’ Club of Ulster, in particular, is a wonderful organisation. I have been adjudicating the young farmers’ festival this year so I am well versed with their work. We would regard them as being part of the amateur theatre movement.

When talking about the amateur theatre movement, I include young farmers’ clubs and music societies. Notice that I said theatre, rather than drama. Young farmers clubs are an intrinsic part of the amateur theatre movement, and they do wonderful work. Often, people evolve from such productions and go into amateur theatre.

Similarly, in Belfast and Derry, community theatre, rather than being open, is concentrated in certain areas. I once received a call from someone in a community theatre group who, with a view to eventually going professional, wanted to advance into an amateur group. Without wanting to sound patronising to community theatres or young farmers’ clubs, I thought that that was a nice little hierarchy of steps, leading from one level of experience towards another.

Mr Shannon:
And the most expensive element is?

Mr Mills:
Obviously, the big expenses are props, lighting, equipment and keeping up to date with everything that the club requires. We try to spend as little as possible on publicity and marketing, because we cannot afford to get involved in advertising in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, or even in the local papers. We form good relationships with arts correspondents from the local press to get some editorial coverage for plays. In the 1970s, when professional theatre was not prevalent, amateur shows in the Group Theatre managed to get weekly previews and reviews in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’. Unfortunately, since professional theatre has become more popular, the papers tend to ignore the amateur world.

Lord Browne:
Regrettably, for financial reasons, Belfast City Council had to close the Group Theatre. However, I am sure you would agree that, of all councils, Belfast City Council is the most generous to drama, and I want to place our gratitude to Belfast City Council on the record. Having said that, I remember James Young in the Group Theatre, and I am sure we all miss that.

Belfast City Council offered concessionary rates for Belfast Waterfront’s small theatre. Have you considered taking up that offer and putting performances on there?

Mr Mills:
Unfortunately, the concessionary rates were not, in our opinion, terribly concessionary. For example, the concessionary cost of hiring the Studio is £600 a night. We would be lucky to attract 100 people, and we would charge £6 per person. Therefore, we would be working to pay the council for hall rental, and we might even make a loss.

Furthermore, the people who came to the Group Theatre were able to step off a bus and go into the theatre; whereas, people going to the Waterfront must get a taxi or bus or pay to park a car, which would increase an evening’s costs to about £10. Therefore, accepting that offer was not feasible.

Lord Browne:
Things will open up if we get a light railway through to the Titanic Quarter.

Mr Mills:
Concerning Belfast City Council’s support for the arts; having sat on the Forum for Local Government and the Arts, I willingly accept and welcome the significance and level of the council’s contribution not only to drama but to the arts in general.

Lord Browne:
Do you use local writers for the plays you produce, or are there a wide range of productions?

Mr Ormonde:
One of the great benefits of the festival movement is that it is spread very widely. There is European drama as well as American and British drama. Irish drama is very well represented across the board, as well as Russian drama by the likes of Chekhov, which is often performed. People get a taste for it in the community.

Lord Browne:
Which would be the most popular among local audiences?

Mr Ormonde:
It is very difficult to say. Irish drama figures highly on the agenda and is very popular with a lot of people. American drama goes down well too.

Mr Mills:
There is a difference between community theatre and amateur theatre, apart from the £300,000 a year subsidy. The difference is that community theatre groups tend to devise their own work from an improvised script. Amateur theatre tends to use scripted pieces. The most popular playwright in Northern Ireland is undoubtedly Sam Cree, but his work does not go down well at festivals, which is part of the problem. He is very popular, nevertheless, and those of us who perform other plays at festivals would like to do the Sam Cree plays in the summer so that we can get the money to do the other plays in the festivals. It is a nice circle.

Mr P Ramsey:
You are very welcome. It is not very often that we get the opportunity to acknowledge the contribution that so many people make in the community, and the huge returns that are achieved despite such small investments. I do not know how we can do that; perhaps we should write a letter to the Arts Council acknowledging the contribution of these groups.

We will meet the Arts Council later today to discuss the review of drama and the development of a national theatre. What message would you want us to give to them about the review of drama?

Mr Mills:
Please, could we have some more? [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
I would ask the same question. Is there sufficient engagement by the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure with the amateur drama sector, or do they throw you £10,000 and tell you to get on with it? Do they give you any other encouragement or support?

Mr Ormonde:
As Dick said, perhaps they could increase the grant that we get. They gave us between £10,000 and £12,000 to run two very prestigious festivals; the three-act finals and the one-act finals. Every four years we host the one-act finals for groups from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — the all-British finals, if you like. We take it in turns on a rota basis. With more money in the form of an increased Arts Council grant, we could create more publicity for the finals.

This year, for example, we decided that we would hire a professional PR person to represent the finals. However, we have to pay for that out of our own purse and from other sources. There would not be enough money in the Arts Council grant to cover that aspect. A little bit more money from the Arts Council would be helpful.

Mr Mills:
It is worth noting that, at our last meeting, we were informed by our treasurer that the Arts Council had turned down our application this year. It was proposed that the treasurer apply to some other fund within the Arts Council lottery area to get funding for this year. He will not know about that until June 2008.

Mr Ormonde:
We are flying by the seat of our pants this year. We are not sure that we are going to get that Arts Council grant. If we do not get it, we are in very serious trouble. If that continues, the whole festival movement will cease to exist.

Mr P Ramsey:
Paddy made the point about the enjoyment that older people get from attending and participating in those drama festivals. I have seen the passion of the people who organise the City of Derry festival behind the scenes. It has significant occupational therapy benefits as well.

I think that it is something we can raise with Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, when she attends the Committee this afternoon.

Mr Ormonde:
Thank you very much.

Mr K Robinson:
First, I apologise for being late; I was watching a wee bit of amateur theatre in a primary school.

Paddy, you and I normally walk past each other and we talk about parking issues and the weather, and so forth; we never really talk about arts and arts in the community. However, you are aware of what Newtownabbey Borough Council is contemplating ways to help the arts along. The members of Belfast City Council have made a very spirited defence of their generosity, although I am not totally convinced. It strikes me that you sound like you are flying by the seat of your pants. Given what outside observers would regard as the current relatively stable situation, what is the next phase, and how would you raise amateur theatre a notch? How would you link together all the elements to attract the obvious talent that we have at all levels in our schools, from primary upwards?

Mr Ormonde:
The next major step for amateur drama in Northern Ireland would be the formation of a professional school for aspiring actors. Although universities provide degrees in media studies and qualifications for those who want to teach drama, there are people with drama, set design and directing talents who would benefit enormously from attending a professional training academy here. It would be marvellous and should be considered because none exists, either in the North or the South.

Mr McCarthy:
I remember discussing that at a previous Committee meeting. The problem was that, having completed their studies, people could not find work in Northern Ireland and had to go elsewhere.

Mr Ormonde:
Actors have always had that burden. They have to go where the money and the employment are, so whether an academy would be viable is another question.

Mr Mills:
Several of our members have gone to either Scotland or Dublin, which has the Gaiety School of Acting. However, students aged 17 to 19 are taking a big risk because while they may believe that they have theatre in their blood, they rarely get grants from local education authorities to attend drama schools. Therefore, they sometimes work and save as much as they can for a few years, so that they can go on one of the three-year drama courses.

When we got the studio built eight years ago, I hoped that we could get in league with schools such as the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. I had the dean of the Scottish academy over to see me and we talked about possibly doing a one-year foundation course that would allow students to decide whether a career in theatre was right for them, without taking too big a risk.

Not everyone has to leave Northern Ireland to make it as an actor. Many stay at home and make it big. People like Ian McIlhenny, Sean Kearns and Olivia Nash have contributed an enormous amount and found employment here.

Mr Ormonde:
Alexandra Ford, the blonde bombshell who plays Dympna in ‘Give My Head Peace’ on the BBC, is another — so there is some employment for actors here.

Mr K Robinson:
That brings me to the second part of my question. How can local television companies making drama loosely set somewhere on this island be encouraged to use home-grown talent, rather than actors from outside? What prevents our amateur actors coming through in sufficient numbers to give them that opportunity?

Mr Mills:
There is one slight problem — Equity. People must have an Equity card in order to be professional actors. However to get an Equity card you must do a certain number of performances. You cannot do the performances until you get an Equity card, but you cannot get an Equity card until you have done the performances. That is a slight problem.

However, it does happen that local actors can make that breakthrough. I am forever getting phone calls from television producers, producing re-enactments of various things for ‘Spotlight’ or ‘Insight’ or other such programmes, and they are looking for amateurs to come along. There is a television company at the moment producing ‘An Audience with James Young’ — William Caulfield will play James Young — and it is looking for an unknown actress to play Emily Beattie. Around half a dozen women from our group are going along to audition for that part. There are opportunities like that in the local television and film industry.

Mr K Robinson:
Have you spotted the raw talent in this room while you have been sitting here, Richard?

Mr Mills:
Obviously what we would also need is a national theatre, but that is an argument for another day. No doubt someone else will lobby for that.

The Chairperson:
If no other members would like to comment further on the issue, it remains for me to thank Richard and Paddy for coming along. You have opened up our scrutiny of the whole area of drama, and the matter of whether the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure are adequately supporting, appreciating and understanding it. Your comments today have helped us to understand it a bit more, so I thank you for your presentation.

Mr Mills:
Thank you very much for listening to us and for your kind words of support. It is very important that those of us who contribute voluntarily feel that that contribution is valued. Pious words are not enough, to be honest. They must be backed up with action, which was why the city council was so valuable to us when they gave us the Group Theatre.

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