Isle of Man Arts Council Chairman, Geoff Corkish MBE MLC, described the inaugral TheatreFest weekend as "an historic occasion" and "a great collaboration of amateur and professional artists. TheatreFest 15 offered audiences a uniquely compelling mix of new works over two electrifying evenings at the Gaiety Theatre.
TheatreFest15, a partnership between the Isle of Man Arts Council and the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA), is a five-year project to encourage and promote new work for the theatre and a legacy outcome from the successful Island of Culture 2014 celebrations when the idea was first mooted during the National Drama Festivals Association's (NDFA) 41st British All-Winners Festival of Plays held in the Gaiety Theatre.
The weekend saw a world première of the musical comedy Jimmy Mac, the raw passion of the thought-provoking piece of devised theatre Invisible Chains and the engaging love story For Tonight. Together these productions made up a programme which entertained and challenged in equal measure and which, in the words of NODA chief executive Tony Gibbs, was "an excellent springboard for the future."
He continued: "TheatreFest15 brought about engagement with the wider community through participating in new work, including people who previously had never been on stage before. Similarly the programme attracted a wide range of theatergoers, clearly with an appetite to be part of something very new and very special.
"What was especially exciting about the whole weekend was that there was an international element which added to the excitement with For Tonight's composer Spencer T Williams having flown in from California and the show's musical director Drew Wutke from New York. Closer to home Invisible Chains' director Bev Clark had come from Merseyside to direct and of course there were visitors, cast members and musicians from England, many of whom had never been to the Isle of Man before all of which made for a heightened sense of occasion.
"Importantly there was a true sense of community, with tremendous support not only from the audiences, but also from the Gaiety Theatre, our sponsors, our media partners Manx Radio, the local press and the TheatreFest15 production team, Stage Door Entertainment."
Ahead of the TheatreFest15 weekend was a puppetry workshop delivered by professional puppeteer Corina Bona which attracted an eager young audience, while the one-act play-writing competition (deadline December 31 2015) is continuing to attract high quality entries.
"In short," said Mr Gibbs, "TheatreFest is already more than fulfilling its aims."
Isle of Man Arts Council vice-chairman Michael Lees shared Tony Gibbs' sentiments. "I thought the whole weekend exceeded expectations, with three very different productions showcasing writing and acting talent of the highest quality.
"Bev Clark's Invisible Chains was a triumph of community theatre, remarkable in that among the cast were people who'd never acted before. The ensemble came together magnificently on the night to give us a deeply moving theatrical experience about slavery and refugees that I was proud to see enacted on the stage of the Gaiety Theatre."
Invisible Chains' director Bev Clark said: "The two most important things for me as a director were that the audience engaged with the performance and it captured them in the moment and even if the subject was difficult to watch, people were drawn in and moved by it. The second thing was that the participants - some of whom had never performed before - were totally committed to the piece and enjoyed being part of the whole process. At the end of their performance the cast were ecstatic and just loved being part of this challenging drama. They gave everything they had and their performances were totally believable."
For Tonight was making its British Isles début, prompting its composer Spencer T Williams to say: "The team took an unknown and unheard musical and made magic," while Jimmy Mac had never been performed before, which moved the show's writer Stuart Brayson, who wrote From Here to Eternity with Sir Tim Rice, to comment: "Seeing a dream come alive is pretty cool."
Mr Lees continued: "Combined, these two shows gave local artists a unique opportunity to work with West End professional cast members along with directors and composers from the UK and US." He added: "Jimmy Mac was a musical in the making. It may have many rewrites and recasting before or if ever it reaches a professional stage, but the Isle of Man will always be where it began."
Among the audience was NODA president Chris Ingram who said: !I was very impressed with this first year of TheatreFest and thought it was an excellent programme with high quality performances in the most beautiful Gaiety Theatre," while local artist Michelle Jamieson, who performed in all three productions, was moved to declare: "So proud to be part of a piece of history".
Mr Gibbs continued: "Many lessons were learned that weekend about producing new work that we'll be sharing with NODA members across the UK and which will shape future TheatreFest programmes. Already we're developing plans for 2016 which might include taking TheatreFest 'on the road', using other performance spaces around the island in addition to the Gaiety Theatre.
"For 2016 the format may well change, as may the venues, but what will, I'm sure, be a constant is the Island's warmth of welcome, audiences' unfailing support for the performers willing them to do well, and the enthusiasm, dedication and collective passion to create new work for the theatre that this partnership between NODA and the Isle of Man Arts Council will continue to inspire throughout TheatreFest's five-year life span."