Theatre is shaken up dramatically with ISDA 2021

Anastasia Fedosova chats with the creators of this year’s Irish Student Drama Awards festival

“You just have to keep going!”, says Sophie Coote, a recent Trinity graduate and Director of the Irish Student Drama Awards (ISDA) 2021. “So many things have been taken away from people”, continues Sophie, “But you can still make work.” Indeed, we have all learnt how to eat-pray-love in this new reality, however artists specifically have had no choice but to keep creating. ISDA have been a key aspect of the student theatre community for over 70 years now. It is an annual festival, where various colleges from across Ireland get a chance to present their work to the general audience and a judging panel of experts from the industry, to compete for awards, much like the Oscars, but student, Irish, and dramatic. This year, Trinity has been honoured to host ISDA, which will present productions from six colleges from April 7 to 17.

Little did Sophie know, when she was asked to coordinate the festival back in the good old pre-pandemic times, that it would take place on a very different stage. Retaining a glimpse of hope that ISDA will take place in person, the festival committee had to stay rational. In August 2020, three plans were established: A for an in-person event, going ahead at Trinity, B for a mix of the live and the virtual, and C for a totally online event. Guess which letter won. 

Although this year the festival is taking place completely online, it still retains its status and grandeur. ISDA will last for eleven days, seeing sixteen performances from six different colleges. That is a lot of numbers, so let me break it down for you. The groups participating are DU Players, Maynooth Roscian Players, NUI Galway DramSoc, Queen’s University Players, UCC Drama, and UCD DramSoc. Each can submit up to three productions, all performances are pre-recorded and will be uploaded on the ISDA website for 24 hours. The time limit was put in place partially because of copyright and to replicate a conventional event. The shows will be available at 1pm and 7:30pm, varying in theme and format. The timetable, as well as the free tickets can be accessed on the website, but to give you a taste of what to expect; Match/Stick is a queer love story (DU Players), Stages of Grief explores the loss of friendship (MU Roscian Players), Transcend, is about gender euphoria (DU Players), and That Sleep of Death is an epilogue to Hamlet’(UCD DramSoc). 

Another major component of ISDA introduced this year is the Gallery. Notably, it does not limit itself to the aforementioned colleges. Anyone who is aged 17-25 or is a university student can submit their work. That can be visual art, an installation, a short film, or prose and poetry – anything, “even if you’ve written it on a corner of a napkin”, says Sophie, as long as it responds to this year’s theme, What Theatre Means to Me. The Gallery submissions are open until 8th April so get those works in, It is never too late! 

“It’s important to reinforce that it’s a ten-day experience, like any other festival.”

Various live events will be held throughout the course of ISDA. “It’s important to reinforce that it’s a ten-day experience, like any other festival”, says Abi Mulcahy O’Connell, the Social Media Rep. Fringed by the opening and closing ceremonies, there will be coffee mornings, workshops, and talks with both the creators of the productions, guest-speakers, and professionals from the Theatre realm. The Maker’s Panel will take place on Thursdays each week of the festival, having the fellow creators of the shows converse about their experience of making virtual theatre. The final panel ‘The Future of Irish Theatre’, on the last day of the festival, will host Kathrine Murphy (Playography Editor from the Irish Theatre Institute), Claire O’Reilly (Theatre Director from Malaprop), and Mark O’Brien (Artistic Director of the Axis, Ballymun) in conversation with past chair of DU Players, Ultan Pringle. All events will be live through zoom, on the website, and will be available to anyone interested. It is a fantastic chance for those studying drama or doing theatre as a hobby, to meet with like-minded people, share ideas, and get inspired. Even if interested, many of us lack courage or the right community to get started. ISDA is providing a chance to look behind the curtain of student theatre-making, to learn from experts working in well-known companies, and to see the work done by people no different from yourselves, that might intrigue a theatre lover. And who knows, maybe next year, you could be one of the ISDA creators.

The festival will be concluded with an awards ceremony. All of the shows will be viewed by the judging panel, this year represented by Áine O’Hara (Multidisciplinary Artist, Theatre Maker and Designer), Jim Culleton (Artistic Director of Fishamble: The New Play Company), and Hannah Mullan (Creative Producer). Importantly, this year there are gender-neutral categories, alongside categories adapted to the virtual format of the festival, for example One Shot and Multishot Pieces. The Festival Director, however, notes: “We don’t really like to think of it as a competition. Especially this year, it is a platform for student work to be showcased.” 

“When we go back to more traditional theatre -things need to be way more accessible, because they weren’t before.”

The pandemic has made it challenging for Creative Arts students to carry out their work. Theatre in particular has been affected dramatically. But believe it or not, there are benefits to ISDA being held virtually. Connor Carp, Festival Volunteer Coordinator, highlights the accessibility of it; previous years not every creator got a chance to see the show, and the audience was limited to mainly the students of the one chosen college. This year, “ISDA is much more accessible”, says Connor, and people can watch every single show if they wish, at a time of their convenience. Virtual format will allow the festival to reach a wider audience and permit the students’ creative work to be seen by people from every remote corner of Ireland, and hopefully beyond the country. Sophie also adds that the ISDA committee “wanted to make sure that every show has captions and that the access information is put up in advance”. The live-streamed events like the Opening Ceremony and the Awards Evening will be captioned as well. The shows have content warnings where necessary, that are available upon purchasing the tickets. “I think this year made us more aware”, emphasises Abi, “of – you know, when we go back to more traditional theatre – things need to be way more accessible, because they weren’t before.”

“It teaches people, especially students, to persevere. When you come into a situation where your idea cannot be copied the way you wanted to, you can adjust, and it can be equally as mind-blowing.”

The ISDA creators also highlight that the virtual format of the festival fostered the students’ creativity, innovation and encouraged them to come up with new forms of theatre. Thus, the shows will include radio plays, zoom plays, film-style pieces, etc. “It teaches people, especially students, to persevere. When you come into a situation where your idea cannot be copied the way you wanted to, you can adjust, and it can be equally as mind-blowing”, says Abi. Tellingly, the current pandemic didn’t stop ISDA from achieving its goal of showcasing student creativity and bringing like-minded people together, while also securing an entertaining and engaging space for the audience. The festival atmosphere has been preserved despite the situation. “We had pre-production meetings with all the colleges, and it was so lovely”, recalls Sophie. “Everyone was so excited and it was so nice to feel that sense of community, that we are all in the same boat. All young people, all emerging artists.” Whether you are a first- or third-year student, or have just graduated, ISDA constitutes a space where you can achieve what you have had in mind. “If anything, I think it’s exciting that we’ve had to make work in this way”, says Sophie with confidence, adding that this year encouraged us all to “shake up the way we think about theatre”.