From February 16–18, the Hart House Theatre hosted 10 student-written and student-directed plays for the annual Hart House Drama Festival. The festival was adjudicated by Kwaku Okyere, a multidisciplinary theatre artist with experience at some of the most prominent theatre companies in Toronto, such as the Canadian Stage and the Tarragon Theatre. 

This U of T tradition started over 80 years ago in 1936. Since 2002, the festival has accepted only student-written plays. This year is its first year back in person since 2020, and budding theatre artists were once again able to perform in front of a live audience on the Hart House stage. 

This year’s festival saw a diversity of productions, from one-woman shows to elaborate musicals, featuring everyone from first-time directors to veteran drama students. At the end of the festival, adjudicator Okyere presented awards and offered his critiques to the eager casts and crews. 

One play that won numerous awards at the festival was God Save The Queen, written and directed by Maggie Tavares and produced by the UTM English and Drama Student Society. It received much recognition, including the Robert Gill Award for Best Direction and the President’s Award for Best Production. 

The play was inspired by the song “The Ballad of Sara Berry” from the musical 35mm, in which a sociopathic high school girl goes on a murderous rampage after her chances at winning prom queen get dashed. That fits with the synopsis of God Save the Queen, in which a charismatic and perfectly shrill Sara (Jasmine Jenkinson) spiralled into meticulously slaughtering her classmates while wearing a sparkly dress. The show’s dynamic set, dramatic lighting, and creative flourishes were all very well executed with the help of stage manager Mikaël Bennett, who took home the Janet Bessey Award for Excellence in Stage Management. 

It wasn’t the first time Tavares, a theatre and drama student in her second year, participated in the festival. Last year, Tavares wrote and directed another production, but it had to be performed online. “Theatre should be experienced with other humans,” said Tavares in an interview with The Varsity, adding that they were glad to be back in person where they can gauge the audience’s reaction. 

The Robertson Davies Playwriting Award was awarded to Luis Sanchez of the Trinity College Dramatic Society for his play The Pomodoro Technique. Sanchez’s play — the first full play he’s ever written — portrayed a friend group of relatably flawed characters that slowly unravelled over the course of an hour-long economics study session. Sanchez describes writing his play as “therapy” — a sort of introspective exercise. Each character in The Pomodoro Technique reflected anxieties he knew that he and his peers were feeling — around competitive social lives and academic pressures — but heightened these to a theatrical level where the audience could laugh at themselves and embrace these human emotions. 

Throughout high school, Sanchez would write his own TV pilots, theatre scenes, and short stories for fun. It is this writing practice, in addition to reading books and Reddit how-tos about screenwriting, that he says is crucial to any aspiring writer. “If you’ve actually written a story, it could be the crappiest story of all time. It could be put on stage and it could be laughable. But the fact that you wrote something automatically puts you ahead of 99 per cent of other people. So just write, write, write, [and] learn, learn, learn,” he said in an interview with The Varsity.

These were just two of many outstanding student productions selected to perform at the 2023 festival. The Hart House Drama Festival exemplified the power of putting your creative ambitions into action, whether you are a first-time playwright or a seasoned actor. By receiving feedback from both audiences and industry professionals while performing on a historic stage, U of T’s future theatrical talents are sharpening their skills and bringing their ideas into reality.