Amateur Dramatics – survival at its best

by | Oct 11, 2023 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Jenny Landreth in her book Break A Leg opens our eyes to amateur-dramatics and shows us a vibrant world that is a crucial part of our culture. 

In Britain today there are hundreds of thousands of people involved in Am Dram from classic productions to panto to modern plays. 

Without it you could say there would be no professional theatre, no Judi Dench or Kenneth Branagh. 

This book is a rallying cry, a call to appreciate how amateur theatre enriches communities and many people’s lives and how if we joined in, it might just do the same for us. 

So, where does the word Amateur come from? It’s of latin origin and even in Italian and French means ‘from the heart’. 

Today, when someone is called an amateur it might come across as insulting or offensive and even the term am dram tends to be rejected and comes across as demeaning. 

The minute someone hears the word ‘amateur’ it’s ‘ah, that wouldn’t be worth going to see, it’s only amateur.’ But an awful lot of actors, people like Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Gabriel Byrne, they all started out in am dram and moved on.

But, amateur serves more than just a non professional or community theatre. And this book relays the history about its people, plays and buildings that helped shape them and saved them. 

In amateur theatre there are people with a range of experiences and stories. People from factories and universities, people who work in offices or on assembly lines. A community which shares a goal – the show. 

As far back as one can remember theatre was amateur. From the moment humans began telling stories, there would have been some form of acting from the caves of the neanderthals to the clayed huts of the villagers. 

The first examples of theatre happened in church. In the middle ages. Bible stories were brought to life by members of the clergy and the only problem was that the villain got all the best lines. 

Eventually the play travelled beyond the church boundaries and the clergy no longer had a monopoly on performance. 

Plays, whether mystery, miracle or morality were performed in cycles all over the country. And some would still get huge crowds. 

Free from the restrictions of the church, things could be a bit more of a laugh. These plays were accessible to the poorly educated audiences. The church didn’t really like these biblical adaptations but the audience love of jokes won out – as it always has. 

Henry VIII surpassed religious drama and in his court all the best lords owned troupes of actors. Secular drama began to grow and dominate with the first officially designated playhouses appearing in the 1570’s. 

These were not exclusive places; people of all social classes went. The modern Globe Theatre, recreated on the south bank of the River Thames, with its space for standing, reflects the cheap and uncomfortable ‘groundling’ experience, though it now discourages the throwing of rotten veg. 

And alongside official playhouses, the first examples of ‘pub theatre’ now a thriving part of the fringe scene, were appearing. 

Shakespearean plays have been performed by amateurs around the world for hundreds of years, in acts of entertainment, education and colonialism. 

Performance as a way of displaying wealth created the next big boom in amateur theatre. It happened in Georgian households up and down the land, in private. The reason being is because of the licensing Act which had been brought in to censor theatre. 

Back then there needed to be control that no seditious messages were spread about the government or royalty and that public morality was kept on a very tight leash. The act has power to veto new plays and theatre owners could be prosecuted for staging plays without prior approval. 

The only way around censorship was to create performances that were not open to the public. It wasn’t necessarily that 18th century aristocrats wanted to perform dodgy or irreligious material but having private spaces allowed them to do what they wanted, escape any kind of censure and retain the element of exclusivity. 

This love of posh private theatrics started around mid seventeen hundreds and at its peak hundreds of houses across Britain had their own performance spaces. The rural theatres were partly about relieving the boredom after the London season ended, enlivening things among dull country neighbours. 

As well as giving rich people something to do, private theatricals were a great way of displaying wealth. And as a bonus they were a way for families to show off their brilliant offspring. 

But amateur theatre wasn’t just exclusively for the wealthy and noble and the rich. 

The first recorded amateur dramatic society the Pic Nic Club was founded in London in 1801. It was a combination of amateur theatre and potluck supper club, with an exclusive soiree type of clientele. 

While the rich were up and royally in fabulous surroundings, the aspiring classes were doing their best to emulate that and ordinary people began to put on plays too. Trickling much further down the social scale, things were bawdier, dirtier and caused more outrage. 

These Spouting clubs, popular from the mid 18th century, where a kind of theatrical karaoke, where working men gathered to recite or spout, chunks of plays, usually Shakespeare. 

This radical heritage was amateur theatre that was private but not exclusive, made by lower – and middle class young people – clerks, shop boys and law students. They created unlicensed theatre in shop cellars, playing to audiences made up of their friends. 

The notion of being involved in a show that some could barley focus on their real work might’ve seemed despicable but for these individuals, life outside work, where theatre was exciting and fun. A community which was sociable and full of meaning. 

The atmosphere in the unlicensed shop cellar theatres would have been mostly male, but hiring actresses was costly, so women were finally encouraged to join the ranks almost as equals. 

All the spouting, reading and acting, whether it was in nice drawing rooms or noisy pub bars was laying the foundations for today’s amateur theatre. It wasn’t royal or world changing but it should be remembered for what it did to enhance the lives of ordinary people. 

At the start of the 20th century there were plenty of theatres that are still going strong to this day. Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich; the Stockport Garrick Theatre, the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond. 

The theatres back then had the education being the motivator. In those days a desire was not for frivolity but for intellectual aspiration, improving the minds of the working class. 

There was a great need for an energetic society who’s aim was to be mainly educational that is to perform the best plays by the most capable amateur actors and with the finest scenic effects and whose efforts should be directed to fostering and furthering the highest forms of dramatic art and literature.

A chap by the name of Geoffrey Whitworth sought to promote amateur theatre as the nations salvation. He founded the British Drama League in 1919 with the aim to assist the development of the Art of the Theatre and its right relationship with the life of the community. 

He believed that millions would find release and delight, not only by watching plays but by trying to express themselves in the doing of them… acting, which had previously been the pastime of a few leisured rich, could become the recreation of the many. 

The image of working men and women stepping away from their dirty noisy machinery to indulge in being creative, going from being physical and wordless to philosophical and expressive; 

moving from reality to imagination, from Labour to dreams. Where machines had robbed people  of their personal connections theatre gave it all back. Drama came to the rescue as a release. 

Some blamed the am dram decline on the rise of television which had a broader range of programmes on offer. And gradually the old notions of community became fractured. The amateur theatre is still ongoing which surprises many, except of course for the people who are actually going to it, doing it and loving it. 

As Am dram declined, the future of professional theatre was looking very bright. In 1960 the Royal Shakespeare company was founded, then the National Theatre. Fringe theatre companies were beginning to appear, and maybe they were occupying the space that had belonged to the amateur. The actors would certainly have often been paid the same – nothing. 

Women were largely absent from the drawing rooms and spouting clubs, and even as we moved on into the formation of amateur companies, individual outlier women had taken on the burden of being role models. 

Then Unity came along, described as a unique left wing theatre that changed the face of British theatre. From Unity one can trace the roots of the rise of political fringe theatre companies and the careers of renowned professional practitioners. Unity’s players became the leaders in agitprop theatre where agitation meets propaganda. Some unity actors like Bob Hoskins and Warren Mitchell went on to have huge professional careers where they became unlikely members of that star culture. 

The Unity theatre really paved the groundwork for the modern English Drama; modern for the 1960s means writers like John Osborne, Lionel Bart and Harold Pinter. 

There are countless actors who started in Am Dram; Glenda Jackson finished school at sixteen and got involved with amateur theatre in her home town of Hoylake in Cheshire – usually playing maids. 

Ben Kingsley was a lab technician when he started with the Salford Players and describes being transported by the thrill of the audience response when he performed. 

Tom Bateman loved the Am Dram days recalling Brenda Bleythn working as a secretary for British Rail when she got her first role with the Euston Players. While Charles Laughton was an amateur in Scarborough were he experienced the happiest and most creative days of his life. 

Professional actors get plenty of space to talk about their journeys and their roots, how it all started and who they’d like to thank. It seems right, then, that amateurs take centre stage here. 

Amateur theatre is so bonding because it’s one of the few times in life where everybody involved has adrenaline. Amateur should be held with pride. Professional stuff is all well and good but take away the monetary reason for doing it and amateur seems more pure. It seems to go back to the classic greek version, being about the joy. 

Actors who join are doing it for pleasure and there’s a sense of belonging to a family, a community which is important. It’s a community spirit and there’s the fantastic feeling of seeing something happening that people enjoy and knowing you played a role in it. 

Amateur dramatics also allows one to come out of their shell. One becomes somebody and the things one does on stage, one wouldn’t dare to do offstage. It builds confidence. There is a sense of encouragement, to learn, to enjoy art, and to improve oneself. 

It is also a constant learning process both about the play and about oneself. It’s going onstage in a costume and showing vulnerability. Sitting with this vulnerability and pushing the moment as far as one can is exciting and has an exhilarating feeling. 

Even authors, playwrights and their agents see how valuable the amateur market can be and have worked closely with Am Dram theatres to have their works available and licensed to the amateur market. 

Being the backbone of theatre in the country, amateur theatre brings in income that many of the leading playwrights get from royalties paid by the theatre. The amateur sector plays a significant role in this interwoven texture of playwright support through the repetition and reproduction of plays. It can also be a career starter for many up and coming playwrights who want to show their craft on stage. 

People often make assumptions about am dram based on misconceptions that it’s all ‘old plays by old people.’ Alongside the classics that are performed amateur theatre is packed with modern people, addressing modern ideas, some of it even political. 

Amateur theatre brings people together from across ages. It’s like an apprenticeship: layers of exercise passed on from generation to generation that give people a sense of identity and belonging.

In a survey about British theatre repertoire they found that 42 per cent of plays were written by women which is a much higher proportion than in the professional theatre. If we didn’t have the amateur community clamouring for good female roles there is no doubt the landscape would be different. 

To keep coming back to rehearsal, learning ones lines, being nervous – it’s fun. Adapt, adopt and improve is a phrase that’s perfectly suited to the world of amateur theatre, where there is never any money, never the right actor for the parts and nothing is ever quite how it should be. If one can’t learn to work with what one has, if one can’t pretend that a cheap plastic stage vase is finest china, if one can’t accept that a 50 year old man is perfect to play the young male lead then amateur theatre isn’t a place for the individual. 

there’s this thriving amateur culture which is the backbone of our country and we need to accept that it is part of our national identity. Am Dram provides an avenue for self expression. It’s about finding a space for communal, shared expression which is intrinsic to being human. A sharing of stories. 

When you think about the hundreds of thousands of people who, year in, year out, put on amateur productions without any government support, and no cultural recognition, they manage to do it and create a sense of purpose for themselves, a sense of identity, of joy. And without professionals going in to transform and empower them.

Creating space and telling stories – that’s what it’s all about. The needs for call and response, for communicating together, for ritual and community. 

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