Inside Durham Drama Festival

By Charlie Barnett, Imogen Marchant, Esalan Gates, and

This year’s Durham Drama Festival was unlike any other. The festival is a fixture in the heart of our student scene and a much-anticipated event. When Zoom auditions were taking place in November the appetite for live theatre was ferocious.

Anxious auditionees practicing monologues in the hope of standing on a real stage, writers redrafting with the promise of seeing their words performed to an enraptured audience.

When Lateral Flow Testing was introduced everybody held their breath in the hopes that come Epiphany term, we would be bustling into AR once more. Of course, this was not to be. Suddenly, production teams had to rethink everything. A virtual DDF? Zoom rehearsals? Youtube premieres? The organisers behind DDF and each production team responded to change admirably.

Plays morphed into audio dramas, short films, and tantalising previews of fresh writing. This week, Stage turns to those involved to see what their experience of 2021’s DDF looked like.  

The actor’s view

Coming to Alone at the Edge of the Universe was daunting for many reasons. One: I had a week and a half to learn it. Two: I was performing by myself. Three: I had to self-tape the entire thing. The cardinal rule of acting is never look at yourself doing it. Essentially, all of this was incredibly intimidating; even without the emotionally challenging script, I have never had so many hurdles thrown at me all at once.

Still, it’s lockdown, so – we move. Once I took a deep breath, though, and with the help of my wonderful directors, I found the experience so liberating. It was challenging, yes, but also deeply freeing. I found a level of new connection; a connection with myself, to the words, to the character, in ways that I think are unique to solo performances but also to lockdown theatre.

It’s a curious thing, going through the process of getting into character, warming up and learning lines by yourself. Coupled with having to be the camera-woman, lighting technician and sound expert at the same time as the actor made for an experience that forced me to think deeply about every part of making theatre. It helps, of course, that the play was about being alone and isolated and confused.

Being shut in the spare room in my house for eight hours while I tried to film a 30-minute piece certainly made me feel like the world was going mad. That said, I’ve come away with a renewed appreciation for every aspect of how performance works. I’m very excited to get back to in-person, live theatre, yes – but I’ll always treasure how fun it was to be able to do what I love the most when the whole world isn’t set up for it.

the most unique thing I have ever done with DST

Being able to do Degenerate in as close as could have been hoped to the original production plan was truly rewarding. None of the team would have thought that it could have been pulled off as it was, and it is testament to the admirable perseverance of Alex Cohen and the DDF Exec that all of the amazing plays were able to take place. The play was executed virtually in its entirety: I never actually met Harry, Saniya or Jennifer in person at any point and yet rehearsals were never hampered by this.

Harry’s resonant understanding of his character made the process very light work for me and despite the challenge of a full hours uninterrupted monologue with very little that ‘happens’ in simple terms, the groundwork for an intimate audience relationship that grows and sustains, gave me confidence in the ability to carry the hour in front of me.

The whole production; of set (my attic with a tarpaulin draped at the back of it), tech (an iPhone on a tripod, some bright lights and a Bluetooth speaker), and costume (an easily purchased and graffitied white jumpsuit) was all so easily tailored to facilitate an atmospheric rendition of a dystopian prison cell. The fact that the whole thing barely cost a penny really goes to show that with a bit of resourcefulness, there is great potential for creative endeavour even in lockdown. 

Performing for an hour straight to nothing but a  camera with no one but two of my family members (to whom I am very grateful) was something I had never done anything of the kind before. Everything from trying to tread the line between film and play, to sustaining attention and energy for an uncut one take filmed performance was the most unique thing I have ever done with DST, but it speaks volumes to the passion of all involved with this festival that such things can happen against a hell of a lot of odds.

I look forward to hopefully doing more with Degenerate in the summer ahead, and massive congratulations to Harry for winning one of the two best writing prizes, who should be very proud. I only hope I did his play some justice and that it is not the end for a master work of a one person show.

As a writer/director

Usually, I approach rehearsals with a mixture of creative intent and practicality, as rehearsal schedules are very much contingent on the availability of the cast and the time constraints of simultaneously doing a degree.

I like to block shows quickly; if it’s a two-hour show I will usually have a “rough draft” after a fortnight of rehearsing, which means I can go back in to refine and do full runs in preparation for production week (normally the first time we are in the venue). It also means that actors rapidly gain a sense of the play as a whole, which can sometimes be lacking when you are so reliant on the whims of a student timetable.

With DDF, we had two weeks to rehearse, record, and edit together a radio play before the hand-in deadline. Realistically, this meant that we needed to have it all recorded after the first week, so I had time to learn how to use Garageband before the deadline.

Directing for radio is a clear departure from directing for the stage; I had to force myself not to on facial expression or physicality as we rehearsed, and focus instead on the fact that it is the timbre of the voice that will elucidate character.

We are all used to putting together shows inordinately quickly, but this remained a real challenge given the time pressures combined with the fact I have not met half of the cast in-person. It was surprising how quickly we gelled as a team, and it just proves that rehearsals can still be fulfilling and extremely entertaining despite the enormous obstacles lined up before us.

They brought their own voices.

‘Grace’ was a project unlike anything I imagined (as you can imagine). Zoom rehearsals (always a vibe), communicating during auditions via emojis, editing the footage hundreds of miles from where it was being kept. It became a tech project as much as an acting one; we asked the actors to send in ‘first takes’ so we could analyse camera angles alongside character interpretations.

I drew framing diagrams (yep, I’m still not sure exactly what I was doing either), and we sent costumes to cast members via Amazon Prime. Including one to Guernsey. However, despite the fact the circumstances were…unusual, it was an absolute BALL. I still can’t believe that people learnt lines that I wrote, nor the fact that we haven’t all met in real life – I don’t know if half the cast have legs, but I do know what their cats look like.

Zoom is a wild world. For me, the biggest challenge was the time frame – two weeks to rehearse, film, edit, and publicise was a test of time management and efficiency (and required many, MANY snacks!). The greatest reward was the cast. They were all so on board and committed. I think there’s something about Zoom rehearsals in a living room or by a plant-infested windowsill that allows you into someone’s life in a way Elvet rehearsals would not allow.

It was so exciting to hear all of their ideas (which were usually much better than mine!) that really brought the characters to life. They brought their own voices. Most of all, they were so much fun to hang out with (I’m sure they would say the same about the prod team…) and we laughed a lot.

The biggest thing I learnt? To go for it.

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