Click here to print this page

     Well, On the Road Again didn't win The British Finals. But those of us who saw the marvellous winning performance of The Steamie by the Kirkton Players, representing Scotland, could only congratulate them on their triumph and hardly feel disappointed at being runners up in such illustrious company. It was the Kirkton Players' third win in five years! The Irish and Welsh groups had both made the finals on previous occasions, but for St Austell Players it was our first visit and a steep learning curve. It was heartening to realise that Cornish groups could compete with the best and, as a small thank you for the warm and generous support from our fellow Amdrams all around Cornwall, we would like to offer some feedback from our experience "On the Road Again."
     If your group is contemplating entering the All England Festival, we hope you may find it helpful to address the following questions, not only before you start, but also as you progress through the stages

     St. Austell Players were fortunate enough to win the 2003 All England Theatre Festival of One Act Plays with their production of Laurence Allan's On the Road Again. The Finals, at The Gladstone Theatre, Port Sunlight, were preceded by a preliminary round at St. Austell and Division and Area Finals at Falmouth, and Rugeley.
     Winning meant that we could have the honour of representing England at the British Final Festival of One Act Plays, competing against winners from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, in the wonderful Gaiety Theatre, Douglas, Isle of Man.


     Would you like the opportunity to give the performance of your life, in a real theatre, in front of perhaps 1,000 people? No? Then don't enter!


     The winning Scottish group on the Isle of Man has not won three British Finals because a few individuals were doing their own thing. Theirs is a highly organised and cohesive team from a group thoroughly committed to winning competitions.


     Consider the consequences of success. Working through the various qualifying rounds and finals is expensive and time consuming - transport of cast, crew, scenery and props, accommodation must be considered. Work out a realistic estimate of potential costs - you'll be surprised! Are your group's funds adequate if you go all the way to the final? Some funding may be provided as you progress, but you will need to consider other sources, sponsors and any forms of fund-raising that you can exploit.
     Will your cast and crew be available for every round? The commitment may not occur to you when you enter the first round. It may seem presumptuous, but check that the finals do not clash with someone's holiday and whether your boss will allow you time off. Remember that, when you enter, you undertake a contract to appear at the following rounds - if you carry on winning.


     Points are awarded for Acting (40), Production (35), Stage Presentation (15), Endeavour, Originality and Technical Attainment (10). Sooner or later you will come up against a group that is just as good as you and a single point gained in any of these categories could make the difference between winning and losing. So, know the rules, play to them and use them, if you can, to your advantage.
     Be aware that different festivals have different rules. For example, in the British Final it appeared that the least restrictive rules of each of the four competing countries were applied, or perhaps it was completely laissez-faire - we never quite managed to find out. We saw full box sets and plays running well over the hour that would have been penalised under English Festival rules. There is surely a case to be made for unified rules, but, meanwhile, there may be an opportunity to take an advantage.


     Small is beautiful. Or is it? On the face of it, the ideal festival play would have two speaking parts, a set that would fit in the back of a car, no sound effects or music and work under almost any lighting set up. But REMEMBER THE RULES: all else being equal, you will win if you have a bigger cast, a more impressive set and more adventurous sound and lighting effects.
     The choice of play is probably THE most important and THE most difficult decision in the whole venture - everything hangs on it. REMEMBER THE RULES: Acting and Production count for ¾ of the points, so the highest priority is to choose a play that has characters with depth and complexity, variations in pace and emotion to challenge your actors and director and exploit their talents to the full. Balance this against your collective ability to do full justice to the script. Eliminate weak links. A simpler play done extraordinarily well will probably score more highly than a complex one not fully explored.
     As you progress through the rounds of the competition, the venues will become grander. The play of your choice should be capable of growing to 'fit' the larger stages. Good actors can, of course, project well, but the bigger the venue, the more energy is needed to fill and reach out into the whole audience - pretty tough on the members of a cast who thought they had given their absolute all in the last round!


     All the technical things may not be the top priority, but there are points waiting to be earned for presentation, originality and so on. Think long and hard about your set. The trick may be to decide on the one or two key messages that it has to send to the audience. Ensure they are clearly sent without over-embellishment, but also regard it as an opportunity for point-scoring originality. Keep it within the rules (no box sets!), and make sure that you can comfortably meet the allowed set up and strike times (10 and 5 minutes), even if these operations have to be organised, practised and run like a Formula One pit stop.
     Opportunities for originality in lighting and sound are limited. In the half-hour usually allowed for set-up and rehearsal, there really isn't time to arrange special lighting effects. Keep it simple and effective. Despite all that forwarding of lighting plots, your choice is really limited to selection from the pre-set lanterns and balancing of individual levels. No two theatres we saw had the same lighting control system, so, unless you are vastly experienced, you are completely in the hands of the resident operator.
     Sound equipment varies much less. Mixing desks are mostly fairly similar and mini-disc players are more-or-less universal. Be careful though if you need overlapping effects - there won't be two mini-disc players. You may have to persuade someone to drag a cassette deck from a dusty cupboard and connect it up. Take back-up copies of everything, in multiple formats. Do a thorough sound check and ensure that all levels and settings are logged.
     Make friends, if you can, with the resident operators, but be politely assertive to ensure that you make the best of whatever may be available to you. Remember that, for them and the resident stage manager, the festival is just another day at the office; their job is not to act as nursemaids to amateurs. Although they know their jobs, they don't know your play. Take and keep control of what is going on and do not assume that they will do the right thing at the right time. The technical facilities may well be more sophisticated than your home venue, but you will have much less direct control of them.


     Rule No. 1 (and 2 and 3 for that matter) is to make friends with the local organisers of the festival round. They know the ropes (literally) and are generally friendly and sympathetic because they have been in the same position themselves.
     It helps to have a bus load of supporters to warm the audience in your favour!


     You need to find out in advance as much as you can about the stage and technical set up. If you didn't know the stage was raked then your set may be vertically challenged and any furniture or props on wheels or castors may end up in the orchestra pit. Lighting and sound equipment lists are sometimes inaccurate (items may not always be available), so if there is any doubt, check, without making yourselves a p-in-the-a, of course! Lighting rig drawings only tell a part of the story. Be aware that lighting angles may be very different from anything you have met before. (Avoid hats, if you can!)


     Information, information, information. Don't rely on Chinese whispers! You need to know the name of that chap with the clipboard and what he is doing, where to book tickets, where you can eat, even at what time you are actually performing, and so on . . .
     An information pack, on who's who, what, when and where everything is, would always be useful - but may not be provided! (Organisers, please note!)


     It can be embarrassing to turn up for a festival unprepared and unaware that it is the normal practice for groups to exchange gifts and Good Luck cards or that you are expected to do a cabaret turn in the hotel after the event.
     In reflecting on our experiences, these are some of the questions we found we had asked. Perhaps more often than we would care to admit, they are the questions we rather wished we had asked. Those of us fortunate enough to have shared in this experience will know some of the answers if we go "On the Road Again". We sincerely hope that this may be of some help to others in finding their own road to success.
  Craig Taylor & Steve Holland,
with support from Paul Brady, Darren Williams and Freddie Rowe.    
 © St. Austell Players 2003
  Darren Williams and Paul Brady in
On the Road Again.    Photo TJF Video
The Gaiety Theatre, Douglas, Isle of Man, where the British Final Festival of One Act Plays was held in July 2003. This is a 100-year-old Frank Matcham masterpiece, beautifully restored in all its original glory. The first sight of this 1,100-seater, from its vast raked stage was pretty daunting!
< Back to top