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Taking the Inter University Musical Theatre Festival online

It’s clear when looking at my university extra-curricular activities, that my interests are firmly centred around musical theatre. From my first production of ‘RENT’ in November 2017, to securing positions on multiple theatre committees, it seemed impossible to step away from the thriving theatre and music scene in Durham.

Building on last year’s success

Last year, whilst on the committee for Durham University Light Opera Group (DULOG), we were asked to attend a musical theatre competition hosted by the University of York. I was immediately drawn to this idea, having seen limited events designed to engage with other university societies and their like-minded students, so after chatting to the DULOG committee we agreed I would manage taking a team to York. After creating a set list, recruiting ten individuals to compete, and returning to Durham as the winning team – the first Inter University Musical Theatre Festival (IUMTF) was born!

The idea of bringing the festival up to Durham was a really exciting concept that I was determined to make as successful as York had been. Unfortunately, in March 2020, it became clear that the plans weren’t possible and it was time to come up with a new online IUMTF 2020. The new plan was to recruit universities to create ‘video performances’ of musical theatre songs with a winner chosen by public voting. The most amazing part about this was, due to the lack of expenses involved in travelling nationally, the involvement increased from four universities in 2019 to eleven in 2020!

Creating the Durham entry first involved choosing the perfect song. I decided to recruit one of my good friends and extremely talented musical directors Honor Halford Macleod, someone who’s musical theatre knowledge goes beyond anything I would know! Together we settled on ‘The Song of Purple Summer’ from Spring Awakening, a song that contains both technically impressive harmonies and a powerful message about coming together, appropriate for the isolation period we are all facing.

Working remotely

Whilst Honor worked on putting together the audio, I worked on the visual aspects. Having made a few video edits before, I was keen to explore creating this one. Due to the nature of the song and unexpected ending of the university term, I decided to theme the video around footage I had from rehearsals and shows that took place this year to create a lovely memory montage for all involved. The involvement of the band in the video also meant we could portray the sense of community the Durham musical theatre scene has. We wanted to keep the concept for each performer fairly simple when filming, as it would be hard to arrange specific choreography, etc. from the restrictions of everyone’s homes. Luckily, the discovery of Zoom allowed Honor to lead virtual rehearsals, where people were able to sing along to her accompaniment (whilst on mute themselves!). Mixing these sounds together was definitely a difficult task for Honor, as not being able to hear all the parts can affect timings and intonations for each individual. After receiving all the videos and several days of editing on a software that often gives up on me due to the age of my laptop (!!), I was really proud to release what we were able to create.

You can watch the final DULOG entry here

Reflecting on the competition, I am proud to have put together something that seemed impossible with COVID-19. The challenges that came with moving a festival designed to bring people together in person where interesting to navigate. In a way, having the event online allowed for more involvement from those who may not have taken part before, for example our online voting forum saw over 3,000 people have their say in the winners. On top of this, seeing other university submissions and learning about the differences between our societies was so insightful. I’m excited to see what the future holds for the festival and I hope that DULOG and musical theatre at Durham will continue to take part next year as it moves to Bristol, this year’s winners.

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Isla Brendon

Hi, I'm Isla – a third year Education and Psychology student at Collingwood College. Over my time at Durham I have been heavily involved in the student theatre and music scene – often combining the two due to my passion for musical theatre. Whilst I love to perform on the stage in choirs and productions, I have also developed my interest in producing last year after discovering my strengths in event organisation. Working on multiple student executive committees including Durham University Light Opera Group has really made my time at university so special!
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