Recently I directed a play, which was produced and performed by non-professionals, some of them had professional training, and a few of them were experienced performers, but the production was a fully voluntary event, and the majority fell into the category of amateurs. It was a fantastic piece of original writing and musical composition, and the entire team were fully devoted to making it the best that they possibly could. It was arguably one of the most moving productions I’ve ever been involved in, and possibly the proudest I’ve ever been of a cast I’ve directed.
This was the first productions I’ve directed under the banner of Parable Arts, and I was really excited to tell my friends and colleagues in the industry. They’re all really excited about Parable, and were keen to ask questions; “Are you performing in a local theatre?” (we were). “Are the team gelling together well?” (they were). “Are you excited to be doing a big project?” (I was). When they asked me about where the actors had come from, though, two really interesting things happened: firstly I felt embarrassed to say that they were amateurs, and secondly, when I did I always got the same response; an odd mix of awkwardness and sympathy for me, as if I was doing something I should be embarrassed about. It was the strangest thing, and the two thoughts really knocked me for six. Why on earth was I embarrassed to admit I wasn’t working with professionals? And why did everyone else I know in the industry seem to think it was some kind of step down?
It’s not an attitude that’s unique to my immediate circle of friends, either; you only have to look on a few actors network message-boards or attend a workshop or class to see that it’s a common theme. I get where it comes from, as professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to raising the standard of the craft it would be negligent to consider the same standards as an amateur production acceptable; it wouldn’t be the case in any other industry, why would it be the case in the arts? I’m also willing to admit that there is a glut of poor-quality amateur theatre out there; many of us will know the horror of being dragged along to a friend or family-member’s Gilbert and Sullivan performance, and the pain of trying to come up with something positive to say at the end (oh goodness, how I hate Gilbert and Sullivan), but then I’ve seen some pretty dire professional productions in my time as well. The dividing line between a “worthy” and “unworthy” production shouldn’t be whether or not you get paid for it.
The attitude in the pro-industry, though, is far more pernicious than just a desire to excel; if you spend enough time in the industry you see non-professional productions addressed with a derision that borders on a sneer. Often it’s brandished as a threat, “If you want to do that, go back to am-dram!” is not that unusual a battle-cry within the industry, and I’ll never forget one of my acting tutors, whilst directing a community production, saying “Imagine how I feel, having to work with these amateurs!” In fairness he was a highly dramatic man, and his outbursts often landed on the diva-ish side of appropriate, but this attitude and comment stuck with me and really didn’t sit right.
The thing is none of us started out as professionals, we weren’t born on the stage (well, I’m sure someone has been, statistically, but surely that’s rare?) and we had to reach the level we’re at gradually. Contrary to the classical image of a stage-school brat, it’s relatively rare for young future-actors to be given a richly theatrical upbringing, and yet thousands of young actors pay their audition fees to drama schools every year, eager to enter the trade. They all caught the bug, they all had it nurtured, and somewhere along the way that bug became a passion, that passion became a life-dream, and that life-dream became a career. Whilst I have the utmost respect for the British school system, not all of the professional actors in the world can have had their passions awoken and nurtured within their schooling, the maths just doesn’t add up.
Recently I was on holiday in the Isle of Man visiting some friends, one of whom is very active in his local am-dram scene (no pun intended). He invited us along to see his show and we accepted, not really sure what to expect. The evening turned out to be a showcase of entrants into an island-wide amateur theatre competition, consisting of a combination of one-act plays (of which my friend’s piece was a very well deserved runner-up) and contestants for the Young Actor of Man competition. The young actor contest was a real eye-opener and reminder of my own heritage and journey into theatre. Not that I was in competitions for Young actor of the Year, but because I saw myself in so many of the young actors: the same callow precociousness, the same insecurities, the same self-conscious unwillingness to look unattractive on stage (if ever there were a lesson that every actor can’t learn fast enough, it’s the willingness to be “ugly” on stage), not to mention the fact that so many of the pieces were the same ones my contemporaries and I were using when we were their age. The fact of the matter is that many of us found nectar for our latent talents in the comforting bosom of am-dram. Be it a youth-theatre, a stage-school or a community-group the vast majority of us will have passed through the am-dram sphere at some point, and yet somewhere along our way we picked up this snobbery towards something that really helped make us who we are.
“Why should I care?”, I hear you ask. “This seems like an isolated problem within a niche community!” But the problem is more far-reaching. Theatre attendance is on the decline across our nation, less and less people are feeling drawn to the theatre for an evening’s entertainment. It’s a fact that terrifies many theatre-makers, and only seems to be exacerbated by arts funding being continually hacked at the knees and opportunities for young actors drying up left, right and centre. The time is rapidly approaching where all but the biggest theatres could be facing the axe. And so we come to the crux of the matter; inspiring people to want to attend theatre. This isn’t quite as simple as throwing out crowd-pleaser productions (which, frankly, I think most theatres are doing a great job at already), we have to rediscover a culture of theatre within the country. Far aside from the fact that Britain’s theatre-culture is highly isolated within London, sucking it out of the rest of the country, we’ve forgotten something very basic about any movement in any culture; those who feel included are most likely to participate.
Something I’ve observed is that theatre makers make great theatre audiences. We love to be inspired, we love to be challenged, we love to feel that sense of fraternity and community, and so actors, writers, directors, producers, stage-managers, technicians… pretty much anyone involved in the industry will spend their hard-earned pennies saving up for theatre-tickets and attending productions. To me, widening that net seems as simple as widening the community and welcoming people into the fraternity. The sense of snobbery surrounding what constitutes a “worthy actor” or a “worthy production” only serves to perpetuate a divide between the theatre community that is and the theatre community that might be. The more people we offer the opportunity to become part of the theatre world, the more they will grow in it and explore it for themselves, the more our community and culture grows. With opportunities for young, potential actors being stripped by lack of funding it’s never been more vital that those of us in the industry encourage and applaud any effort or to engage people in the arts.
And so we return to my experience in my latest production. I saw people in this team who, in a different life of different choices, could have been successful professional actors; I directed cast-members who had a more professional attitude and work-ethic than some of the pro’s I’ve worked with; I saw a passion for, and devotion to, the project that put to shame a lot of the attitudes I’ve been guilty of having in the past. I’m not suggesting that they were as good as those with a professional level of training, and the performance was never going to be quite as slick as if the same production had been done by full-time, highly-experienced actors, but this was a group of people I found myself proud of, and incredibly proud to work alongside. They brought the piece up to a highly polished, professional standard, and each one of them felt that they were, even for a brief time, part of the theatre world.
I actively encourage any of my colleagues out there to seize any opportunity you can to get involved in your local am-dram between paid jobs. Not only will you keep your hand in and make new friends, but you can be instrumental in raising the standard, your experience and expertise will be invaluable to every company in the country, and you can be a mentor and talent-spotter for the next generation. Above all, you can bring more people into the world you love, and given that you’ve most likely dedicated most of your life to it, you clearly think it’s a worthwhile one to join.