#AssemsOnTour - The Hastilow Drama Festival 2016 at Two Rivers High School


Being a venue tech is without doubt a great job; I can’t imagine doing anything else.  But sometimes working in the same venue show after show can make you yearn for the challenge of a new space, so we jumped at the chance to get out of the Assembly Rooms and help our long-time collaborators and friends of Total Arts Community Theatre (TACT) put on the 2016 Tamworth Hastilow Drama Festival at Two Rivers High School. 

The Hastilow Festival has been run annually at Tamworth Assembly Rooms for the last decade and before that was based at the much missed Tamworth Arts Centre (where I cut my teeth as a technician).  It’s named after stalwarts of the Tamworth Arts scene Joan and Gerry Hastilow, who were the grandparents of the Assems’ own Laura Hastilow, so there’s a lot of history and affection for this long running festival and we always look forward to tech’ing it.  The Hastilow Festival acts as a first round that feeds into the All England Theatre Festival, which is now in it’s 80th year, so there’s a competitive element to the proceedings which gives it an extra edge.  The rules are quite simple; plays must be amateur productions of only one act, with a minimum of 2 speaking parts and a duration of between 20 and 55 minutes.  It must take no more than 10 minutes to build or strike the set.  There are penalty marks for over or under time on performance, and disqualification for running over or under time by 5 minutes or more on either the performance or the set and strike times.  The plays are adjudicated according to the following percentages; Stage Presentation 15%, Direction 35%, Acting 40%, Dramatic Achievement 10%.

As a tech you never quite know what you’re going to get with a drama festival, moments of pure dramatic perfection can be followed by shambolic productions of epic ineptitude, and every point on the scale between the two.  This is probably why they’re such great fun to work on.  Some groups come to you with near military planning and ruthless efficiency, bringing you marked up scripts, cue lists for sound effects, backup copies of backup copies and most importantly of all; a clearly expressed idea of what they’re trying to achieve.  Other groups, well… let’s just say they’re not quite so well organised.  Thankfully for us there were mercifully few of the latter category this year.  The first opportunity we have to get a feel for the requirements and the temperament of the groups we’ll be working with this year is on the viewing day.  The viewing day is usually the Sunday before festival week and it’s where all the participating groups get to come and have a look at the space, walk the stage, realise their 7 metre wide replica set of Caesar’s Roman Palace won’t fit through the loading bay doors, listen to the acoustics, check out the backstage and technical facilities and communicate their entirely reasonable/somewhat unrealistic list of requirements to the techs who will be helping them run their shows.   The requirements generally fall into 3 categories, lighting, sound, and staging.

A lot of the discussions regarding lighting this year were about managing expectations of what we can do in a smaller space with fewer lights.  At the Assems we have a comparatively flexible lighting rig for a drama festival first round, we can usually offer a full stage warm wash, cold wash and 4 colour washes all comprised of front, side and back light.  Plus we set 5 generic downstage spots across the apron of the stage which are fixed for the week, plus a number of “specials” that can be focused as required for each day.  At Two Rivers we were working with a much more limited palette; it’s a great little lighting rig for a studio theatre but it hasn’t got the sheer number of channels that the Assems rig has, and that limits what you can offer.  After discussions with all the groups we decided that the best compromise and most usable rig for all concerned would consist of full stage warm and cold washes, 3 colours from the front only, and 6 specials which would have to be agreed upon, focused and fixed for the week.  Now all we had to do was whittle down the many requests for specials to 6 usable positions that everyone could work with and make sure that no-one felt their requirements were being ignored. 

Sound for drama festivals is usually a lot more straightforward than lighting, it’s mostly just pre-recorded snippets of sound referred to as SFX (i.e door bells ringing, babies crying, noises off etc) to support the narrative of the play, intro music to set the scene and outro music to close the play.  A nice touch this year was when Abbey Players ditched the pre-recorded sound effects for “Jilted Lovers Helpline” and brought in their own telephone exchange system so as to have real telephones ringing on set. 

There’s usually no live sound sources in Drama Festivals but this year Misnomer’s production of Jungle Book required that the disembodied voice of Ka the giant snake be performed from off stage into a mic in the wings which gave a really nice larger than life character to the voice. 

Once the viewings were completed and the rig plan was finalised we spent the rest of Sunday adapting the lighting rig to our needs.  Rigging lights is one of those processes that can be very quick and painless unless you hit a tripwire. A tripwire can crop up anywhere but they usually occur where there are large numbers of unlabelled patch cables and/or a software patching system that hasn’t been carefully checked to see that everything is routed where it should be.  For the uninitiated, patching is the process whereby each channel on the lighting desk communicates to a specific channel on the dimmers (via a given data protocol) which is (often but not always) physically connected by a cable to a patch panel, which is connected to the output sockets on the lighting bars into which you plug your lanterns; you can see where things might get complicated.  With only 24 channels there are a possible 13,824 permutations of the patch.  Luckily we only hit a couple of trip wires.

With the patch completed and all lighting circuits working we retired for the evening in anticipation of our “dark day” on the Monday.  A dark day is just theatre parlance for a day off before a run of shows, there’s a lot of obscure naming of things in the theatre but that’s a subject for another blog post…  

mixing desk

Each evening of the festival would see a maximum of 3 one act plays followed by an adjudication of the performances by Beverly Clark GoDA.  Adjudicators can be a funny bunch; perhaps I’m speaking out of turn but I tend to find them a stuffy bunch (sometimes it can feel like a royal visit) and I don’t always agree with their appraisals of the evening’s entertainment, Beverly Clark, however was much more down to earth than most adjudicators.  She doesn’t take herself too seriously and delivers honest and constructive criticism. 

We arrived at 4.30pm and had the theatre to ourselves for an hour to check that everything was in working order and as we’d left it on Sunday.  I’ve always enjoyed those last few moments of calm, when the stage is empty and the hall is quiet.  That calm never lasts though; soon there are companies of actors loading in their set and costumes, scoping out the stage and requesting that extra special that they’d forgotten to mention at the viewing.  Last minute changes and requests are just part and parcel of the gig so it’s best to just exude grace under pressure and get on with it.  Some techies get very upset about such things but I try my best not to be one of those.  One of my early tech mentors once advised me that “The only thing that remains constant is change; so embrace it”, this is good advice for much of life but especially when dealing with amateur dramatics. 

We got off to a great start with TACT’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” which would go on to scoop the prize for Overall Festival Winner.  TACT are one of the best small theatre companies in the UK and we should be very proud of them, having won the All England Theatre Festival in 2007.  They can give most professional theatre companies a run for their money and they didn’t disappoint with a fast paced and humorous production. 

Other highlights of the week included “Jungle Book” by Misnomer, a dark interpretation of the Rudyard Kipling classic which won the Best Original Script award; and “The Black Eyes” by Impact Senior Youth Theatre, a genuinely chilling piece by a talented youth group.  

Speaking for myself, I had a great week at Two Rivers and as ever when you take your skills into a new environment you learn a few lessons;   

  • It’s very difficult indeed to balance SFX audio levels to dialogue when you’re in a separate control room with a wall and a pane of glass between you and the performance space.  Even if you have got a show relay speaker in the box with you; it’s just fundamentally not the same as being in the same space as the audience, hearing what they’re hearing.  I’ve never been a fan of sealed off control rooms, I can understand why people use them but they’re really poor environments for balancing audio levels.  Your mileage may vary.
  • You can’t beat a good old fader for house lights.  Press and hold switches such as you would find in an office are really not the way forward and are a mistake waiting to happen if the person who used them before you didn’t complete the fade.  Especially when there are 2 circuits of house lights and one is ready to rise but the other hasn’t completed it’s out-fade.
  • If you think that the lighting desk in the theatre you’re going to is not user friendly in terms of editing on the fly during a show then you should really take your own desk with you that you’re comfortable with.  There’s nothing worse than spotting a mistake in the current lighting state during a show but not being able to do anything about it.  
  • KEEP IT SIMPLE.  Especially when you have little control of your environment.  Groups that ask for lots of tightly defined lighting areas and quick crossfades between them are asking for trouble in a festival environment.  Without a full rehearsal actors are unlikely to consistently find their light, and there’s nothing more distracting than an actor’s face in shadow, as soon as that happens the audience is no longer thinking about the amazing piece of drama they’re watching; they’re thinking “Why is that actor’s head in darkness”.  You would not believe how often this occurs. 
  • Don’t forget your flask.  It should contain strong black coffee.