After years of online-focused activities, DramaFest is back in the limelight, and it’s making its way to Gravenhurst Opera House for the Western Ontario regionals from April 25 to 28.
The National Theatre School of Canada has been running DramaFest, formerly known as Sears Drama Festival, since 1946. Each year, students submit 40-minute plays to a district-level competition, finalists are chosen for regionals and the top two entries from each region move on to the provincial showcase. Kelly Hamilton, theatre operations supervisor at the Opera House, said the idea to bring the festival to Gravenhurst came up last summer. She was chatting with her colleagues, one of whom was involved with the festival before, and they agreed it would be a great addition to the Opera House’s post-COVID lineup.
“We opened up March last year and have been doing very well,” Hamilton said. “The seasons have been well attended, and there’s absolutely a thirst and a desire, I think, for people to get back out and enjoy and get involved…People are definitely anxious to have fun again.”
After coordinating with the town and event organizers, they were able to secure Gravenhurst’s place in the festival. DramaFest is completely different from most productions at the Opera House, Hamilton said, because it’s intended to be a learning opportunity for the students.
Professionals who work on stage and behind the scenes help guide students through what it’s like to put together a production. Having the event at the Opera House gives the students a special opportunity to practice these skills in a setting that’s much more professional and manicured than any high school auditorium.
The festival is sure to offer a lot of variety, she said, and with support going back to the students and the theatre community, she hopes for a good turnout.
“It’ll be a very busy hub next week,” she said. “Lots of students and lots of teachers and people hanging around, so it’ll be good fun.”
Gravenhurst High School (GHS) drama teacher Earl Sacrey was involved in the festival back in his student days, and he’s been experiencing DramaFest from the teacher’s point of view since he started at GHS in 2011. Due to the break caused by COVID, they’ve done about eight productions in that time, and now they have a new set of students to contribute.
“Typically, when I take a play to this festival, it’s a bunch of kids that have done it before and then a couple of new Grade 9s, or something like that, who are involved,” Sacrey said. “But this time, there’s only been a few kids who remember what the festival was, so it’s been really exciting because it’s been about reintroducing new people to the traditions of the festival and seeing some opportunities for new angles on things.”
Most portions of the festival are held at high schools across the province, so when the Opera House came forward with the idea to host regionals, Sacrey and others involved jumped at the chance. He said he does his best with the equipment they have, but working with their four or five lights on a small school stage just isn’t the same as going to a real theatre with professional lighting, equipment and staff.
The play written and performed by the students at GHS didn’t make it to regionals, so Sacrey is glad that his students are still able to get involved, emceeing the festival and running the show behind the scenes. They’ve already spent some time preparing things backstage, but the real work won’t start until regionals begin next week.
“We’ve had just about every local theatre person you can imagine agree to run a workshop for the kids or to adjudicate the festival, so I just really appreciate the whole community coming together to support the endeavour,” Sacrey said. “It’s been a good feeling to have that unfold for us.”
The eight productions are coming from St. Peter’s Catholic Secondary School in Barrie, Collingwood Collegiate Institute, Stratford District Secondary School, St. Michael’s Catholic Secondary School in Stratford, Nottawasaga Pines Secondary School in Angus, Centre Wellington District High School in Fergus, Nelson High School in Burlington and Burlington Central High School.
Sacrey wants to thank the Opera House staff for all their work in bringing the festival to town as well as the local businesses that have offered deals to help students and their families stay for the entire event. Between the volunteer hours and the beauty of the Opera House itself, he doesn’t think the kids from other areas know what a treat they’re in for.
“We’ve had some businesses give coupons for festival participants,” Sacrey said. “We’re going to do a sort of Gravenhurst Amazing Race, so we’re just excited to show off our town, especially to show off our Opera House, which is just a fantastic, phenomenal theatre space.”
Most festival entries are written and directed by students, and the content can vary greatly from one show to the next. The students at GHS wrote a goofy comedy about friends banding together at the end of the world, Sacrey said, which was followed by an artistic movement piece with no dialogue and a serious documentary-style entry at the district competition.
The festival allows students to express their voices in such wonderfully different ways that it’s easy to forget it’s a competition, Sacrey said. The judges may choose who moves on in the festival, but there’s a genuine celebration of each piece.
Sacrey encourages locals to attend the festival because there aren’t always opportunities to hear from the next generation. At $5 a ticket, it’s a quick and cost-effective way to hear what today’s high school students are thinking about.
“I typically try to take in most nights of the festival, even when it’s not in Gravenhurst, and you just see a real variety of stuff,” he said. “It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you think, it’ll make you really excited about what the kids are up to.”
For more information on the Western Regionals of DramaFest, visit the Town of Gravenhurst’s website.
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