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The Story Behind DunsPlayFest!

DunsPlayFest Blog Posts


24th Jan 24

John McEwan

“How did DunsPlayFest begin?” This is a question we are often asked. It’s not that easy to answer. Things happened rather haphazardly, way back then, back in the Autumn of 2018…

Apart from sheer chance, the main contributors were assorted theatricals of the Borders and the talent and determination of Duns! The festival received a grant from the Creative Scotland Open Project Fund and at the end of April 2019 and DunsPlayFest opened its doors for the first time. Weathering lockdowns and online iterations, growing year on year, getting more and more ambitious and focused, DunsPlayFest has never looked back.

It all began when Duns Players heard about a writing workshop “Page to Stage” set up and run by Ellie Zeegan and Janet Coulson of Firebrand Theatre Company in Hawick. Aspiring playwright and Chair of Duns Players, John McEwen, attended the workshop series regularly and was mightily inspired to be among so many talented writers from the Borders.

Soon after the workshops ended it was announced that Playwrights Studio Scotland would be running an outreach programme in the Borders. This was to be run by the award-winning Hawick playwright Jules Horne. This series of workshops proved an entirely rewarding and stimulating experience for all ten apprentice playwrights as they learned from Jules the basics of playwriting. Her main lesson? Not a word must be wasted!

With all the playwrights creating and honing 45-minute plays, McEwen wondered whether it might be possible for some of them to be staged. Duns Players had a week booked at the Volunteer Hall, Duns, for the beginning of May and so McEwen suggested to the Duns Players that they take three of the newly-written plays and stage them that week.

The three chosen were Better at the Strath by Campbell Hutchison, Somethin for Nothin by Thomas Clark and Margarets by, ahem, John McEwen.

In considering how to present what was first going to be called “The New Writing Week”, the Duns Players committee suggested writing workshops, children’s theatre and story-telling sessions. The plan was formed to try to bring in professional theatre-makers troupes as well as local community troupes. The festival was becoming a thing.

The successful application to the Creative Scotland Open Project Fund made all the difference and all of a sudden DunsPlayFest was launched.

The final crucial element was provided by the brilliant creative cell which is Allanbank Arts. They were commissioned to transform the cavernous space of the Volunteer Hall, Duns, into a delightful and welcoming and art-friendly arena, and this they did. Over the years, their contribution has proved vital with members of the public immediately feeling that something special is going on, as soon as they enter the Hall.

The first year of the festival was a success! With 900 people through the door in the course of the week and a wide-range of performances and workshops. The festival team looked forward to next year's event and the planning for DunsPlayFest 2020 commenced! The programme for this was almost complete when, in March ’20, lockdown happened. DunsPlayFest was put on pause.

In 2021, as the uncertainty continued, the decision was made to hold the festival online. This went well with theatricals excited to discover and explore the new art-form, the Play on Zoom!

In 2022, the festival took place in the Volunteer Hall and online. That year, the whole operation was much enhanced and made more professional by the input of Lucy Vaughan who, having moved to the area from Edinburgh just before lockdown, brought a wealth of experience to Duns.

At the beginning of 2023, DunsPlayFest became a SCIO and acquired a brilliant and experienced Chair, Genny Dixon. Sara Best was also brought on board, as the Festival Co-Ordinator and the fantastic team made DunsPlayFest 23' the busiest and brightest DunsPlayFest yet! With constant activity in the Hall, hot food at tea-time, a well-stocked bar, top-class musicians playing in between the drama and an atmosphere of buzzing creativity and considerable joy.

The ambition was always to grow, to get bigger and better, year on year, and this has been achieved with professionals such as Firebrand, Northumberland Theatre Company, Tom Murray and Clare Prenton now festival regulars. The aim is to become an essential part of the Scottish theatrical year and an important contributor to the development of new drama in Scotland.

DunsPlayFest is continually helping young people to find their way in the world of professional theatre, or just to enjoy participating in theatre which, DunsPlayFest firmly believes, is a good thing which matters! Nurturing new talent is at the heart of the festival.

As DunsPlayFest 2024 fast approaches (it will run from 26th April to 4th May) the festival team and our partners are busy planning what will be the biggest and best DunsPlayFest to date! With a wide range of performances and workshops, we are excited to bring the magic of theatre and the arts to the Scottish Borders; providing a space for both emerging and existing artists to perform and to continue to supporting new talent.

Please come along to DunsPlayFest 2024 - Tickets are available now!

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