To celebrate its 10 year anniversary, FAITH Drama productions launches its 3rd Theatre Madness Festival and offers a £2,000 and play commission prize to one winning writer-director. For Artistic Director Gbemi Ikumelo, the time has flown by, “It’s such a blessed feeling. As a largely unfunded company, we have always been punching above our weight.” It has spent the last 10 years largely under the radar, but FAITH Drama has pluck, it has to be said.
The festival itself was born out of the 2012 MAD festival that brought music, arts, dance and most importantly, culture, to Newham, a borough of London not renowned for its cultural engagement. “The first one was a happy mistake, it’s really evolved since then. Each year we set our entrants a new challenge – in 2014 we had them write a play that was site-specific.” To get to the offices and speak with Gbemi I have had to walk through the Tardis-like building, complete with church hall, bell tower and industrial kitchen – I’m starting to get a sense of the locations that inspired the 2014 works. The winners have always had a commission from the production company side of FAITH Drama and last festival’s winner, Shrink Theatre, is in development for a full length play, Northfields, which is set to play later in 2016.
So what about the 3rd festival, 2016? The festival that I have been fortunate enough to sit in rehearsals for, speaking with the 4 shortlisted writer-directors. “We aren’t prescriptive when asking for work. The words that we have chosen, have some meaning or link with FAITH Drama for our 10th anniversary year.” hints Gbemi. This year’s competition is to write a 10-minute short play based on a secret word that each finalist was given at the start of August. The play has to involve the 5 pre-selected actors, a slightly backwards way of casting before the play is written, and is to be performed on Saturday 10th September at the celebration evening. The other spanner in the works – the writer-directors have one week to write the play before submitting it to playwright and dramaturg John Russell Gordon for notes. They then have another week to polish it up, 11 hours total to rehearse with the cast, realise their blocking, lighting and props and tech before the big performance. No-one said it would be easy to get £2,000 and a commission!
The exclusive for this article? Gbemi reveals a bit more about the commissioned prize, “We have always themed our competitions, so we are theming our prize. It will be a completely new piece of work that we ask of them, a response to our vision for the 2017/ 18 season. It might be site-specific, or thematic, who knows? We’re trying to find someone we want to work with long term.”
4 writer-director finalists, one prize. Over the rehearsal week I have had the chance to meet and get an insight into these talented four – Darrel Draper, Megan Fellows, Isaac Tomiczek and Kerri McLean. Here are some of my thoughts:
Not to give too much away, but there are some really different ideas coming through here. I purposefully made sure not to read the script, just absorb the rehearsal time. I am also still completely unaware of the secret words; as I will be reviewing all 4 plays on Saturday, I didn’t want any prior knowledge to cloud my objectivity and judgement here. So I thought I would have a guess at what I think the words are from what I’ve seen so far:
- Darrel Draper – Hazard; Aftermath; Service; Detention; Childhood; Youth
- Megan Fellows – Housing; Protest; Community; Change; Council; Eviction
- Isaac Tomiczek – Fabric; Hero; Music; Beats; Soul; Faith
- Kerri McLean – Medication; Paranoia; Injustice; Revolution; Retaliation; Crisis
There’s some variety here, but every script has a purpose, a message, a point. Each writer has had clear in their mind what they wanted to achieve – yes some are more successful at realising it than others, but none are muddled or confused. To convey this in 10 minutes is laudable.
There is a much variety in the scripts as there is in the direction and conceptualisation, with each budding director transferring their personality into their method. Darrel has an enthusiasm and extroverted persona that sees him jumping in feet first and involving himself in the midst of the action. He isn’t afraid to improvise, change his thoughts and move with the pace of the rehearsal based on what’s happening.
Megan has an eye for detail and is a meticulous note taker. Her more measured and tempered approach is reflected in the behaviour of the actors, who after a performance sit with notebooks out ready to debrief and build into their characterisation. The intensity in this rehearsal is apparent for all to see, a clarity that cuts out any timewasting.
Isaac has more energy than a Duracell bunny, an infectious passion for his topic that you can’t help but get caught up in. A stylised director, his energy pushes the actors to give all they have – you can see their exhaustion after his rehearsal.
Kerri has done this before and that is evident within 5 minutes of the rehearsal starting. A clear vision and an awareness of her characters’ backgrounds, she delves into the depths of their thought processes to make sure every single line has a purpose, a poignancy. Kerri thinks about her performance space too – immediately she is blocking the actors for their final stage performance, directing their eye line and projection.
In a twist to the process, the 5 actors were cast before they knew their roles. 4 lots of 10 minute plays isn’t a huge amount of lines to learn, but the trick here is in quickly jumping between characters. On the performance evening, there is only a couple of minutes between plays to allow the stage to be set and costumes to be changed – no time at all to work up to your next character, you have to land into the part feet first and ready to go. It’s a good thing that these chosen five have all the capability and more at their fingertips. But who are these five?
Charlotte Chinn knows her craft, often leading warm-up exercises with directorial authority. She has a sense of positioning, a self-awareness on stage that comes from having directed, filmed and visualised pieces before. Watch out for those dance moves too.
Luke Wilson has musical theatre running in his blood, but it’s not entirely obvious in the roles he’s playing here. A triple threat, he has graced the boards in The Lion King, The Scottsboro Boys and Jesus Christ Superstar. Versatility is his USP.
Ever the joker, William Frazer can all too easily be typecast for the funnier roles. Indeed in this set of 4 plays, he adds comic effect to 3 with apparent ease. But roles in The Local Stigmatic at the Old Red Lion earlier this year prove that there is more than playing the fool with this actor – his disarming smile hides a serious work ethic and intense performance.
Veronica Lewis probably has the greatest variety of role from the five, jumping from old grandma to budding hiphop star in a heartbeat. No stranger to stage, she has an emotional presence and seems at home with the quick changes needed to leap between characters.
Mark Ota is the only actor I have reviewed before (see my thoughts around I Went To A Fabulous Party as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015) – a bilingual performer, he would seem equally at home in serious works or in light-hearted musical theatre.
The final performances – Saturday, September 10th, Stratford Circus Arts Centre. That is where we find out who triumphs and gets the writing commission that they are earnestly seeking.
10 years into the future, Gbemi is hoping for a fully run arts centre, “a space for a 24/7 commitment to emerging artists.” Her eyes light up as she dreams of incubating talent, having a hub for creativity to blossom and come together in a melting pot. And in a borough that in 2013 had the lowest level of arts engagement in the UK according to Arts Council statistics, she realises the service she is providing. A service done with professionalism but, above all, a supporting, nurturing atmosphere. Here’s to the next 10 years then.
Theatre Madness Festival is playing Stratford Circus Arts Centre on 10 September 2016. For more information and tickets, see Stratford Circus website