The role of non-commercial theatre

AmDram: Steppingstone, community service, or just simple enjoyment?

There are many reasons people join an AmDram (amateur dramatics) group. Perhaps they simply enjoy acting. It can be a lovely way of leaving self and daily life behind. There are those who love the spotlight, the teamwork, the challenge, getting out and making friends. Some are looking to make their career break, whilst others never made it or had parents who steered them into getting a ‘real’ job but love to act. Some just love the buzz and atmosphere and are happiest painting the scenery.

Love what you’re doing

Acting can be a tough game. I love writing. In my 20’s my sister arranged for me to meet two writers, she knew to gather some info that might help me on my way. One was a woman editor of a magazine. She was bored with her work and had forgotten she once had a love of writing. The other was a bricklayer by day and writer by night, with a couple of evenings teaching writing. He was passionate about writing. Those two conversations delayed my embarkation into professional writing for quite some years, but I never stopped writing.

It’s a similar story of a man I know who loves cooking and entertaining people. He’s a brilliant host and loves doing it. One evening someone asked whether he ever considered running a guest house or hotel? He replied that he did consider it for a while, but realised it wouldn’t work for him. If it were his job, then the spark, the novelty, the impulsiveness would go. Cooking, hosting, entertaining would become routine and possibly demanding, and he wanted to continue enjoying it.

Acting is a tough business; you have to be able to take the knocks and setbacks to get on. Then you have to be able to take the long periods away from home, the bad press that inevitably accompanies the good. Some people just love the acting, but don’t want to lose that love by having to take on the hassle that accompanies the professional.

A gateway to the big time

On the other hand, AmDram can act as an entry gate for those aspiring to the professional whilst they develop and hone their skill. Many professional actors have studied at the well-known theatre training institutions such as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (London), Juilliard School (New York) or National Institute of Dramatic Art (Sydney). But there are also many actors who entered the hallowed halls of fame via the AmDram route while holding down a ‘proper’ job at the same time.

Leonard Rossiter worked in insurance, and am-dram, for years before turning professional in his late 20s. Anthony Hopkins has been quoted as saying that he found himself in an amateur dramatics class as a way of building confidence and showing bullies who made his life miserable in school what he was made of. At that point, he had no idea he would making a career of it. Brenda Blethyn worked in administration for 10 years before joining amateur dramatics. Jude Law spent his youth involved in AmDram as his parents were keen members of a local London theatre group.

There are even those who move from amateur to professional status later in life. Take Buster Merryweather, best known for playing as the elderly Uncle Albert in the BBC comedy Only Fools and Horses. He was a keen amateur actor and director before becoming a professional actor at the age of 57 after retiring from his job in a bank.

Amateur or non-commercial?

In the UK, amateur dramatics used to be viewed with contempt by professional actors. But today the lines between amateur and professional is becoming blurred, with professionals being part of an amateur group, whilst amateurs are recruited by professionals. An example of this is the Royal Shakespeare company, who, during a 2016 tour of 14 cities recruited local members of amateur companies to play some of the roles. This means that an amateur group might have a professional director, or the lead in a play might have come from the world of professional acting. The term amateur dramatics and AmDram are being therefore replaced by such terms and non-professional theatre or non-commercial theatre.

In the US this is much more distinct. Most people think of Broadway as the professional theatre and everything else as amateur. But in truth, the distinction can better be described as professional commercial theatre and professional not-for-profit theatre. About a quarter of Broadway shows are not-for-profit. Apart from a few professional theatres such as Broadway and Las Vegas, the largest majority are not-for-profit. Generally speaking, the commercial theatres rely on big flamboyant hits and long-running musicals to turn a large profit. They leave serious and exploratory theatre to the not-for-profit groups.

Mayhem and mischance

One of the distinctions between commercial and non-commercial theatre is that much more can go wrong when a show is being run by a bunch of amateurs. As an audience, we do so love a good bit of mayhem and mischance in theatre. In amateur theatre, it is so often present in oodles, and that can add to the fun.

In my own AmDram career, I was once part of a women’s theatre troop. For some reason, the costume team had decided to kit us all up in Shakespeare-esque costumes made of polyester, foam and other synthetic, heat-inducing materials. No one managed to convince our dresser that polyester didn’t exist in Shakespearean England. Seeing as we were performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream on midsummer night afternoon this was not a good idea. And yes, it was a boiling hot Midsummer afternoon.

During the dress rehearsals, we all found ourselves dripping with sweat. But on the day itself, we were swimming in it. At a certain moment, Hermia started to wobble a little bit and sat down at the moment where she wasn’t supposed to. Seeing her pale face I managed to work out that she was overcome by the heat and struggled what to do. There is a big problem with Shakespeare. On another occasion when an actor flagged, I could muster the impromptu when an actress in the wings fell on her dress and ripped it just before entering. I ad-libbed and inserted some three paragraphs into the lot before said actress managed to rearrange her ripped dress and enter the stage.

All well and good but have you ever tried ad-libbing Shakespeare to an English audience? Not only does everyone know enough of the lines to recognise if they shouldn’t be there, but it’s not that easy to muster up Shakespeare English on the spot. I had the role of the elderly Egeus, so had a stick to keep me standing. A somewhat bemused audience watched me hobbling around the stage pocking my stick behind various bush-look-alike props as if Nick Bottom might suddenly appear from behind one. When someone brought Hermia a glass of water some of the audience began to twig and started to laugh. Knowing my cover was blown I shrugged out into the stage lights and said: “The show must go on.” Laughter erupted through the audience as Hermia got back on her feet and the show did indeed go on.

Probably not the most professional response I could have made, but the best the stress of the situation could squeeze out of me. And, whist a professional costume department would have probably worked out that such outfits might not be wise in midsummer, the cast would have missed out on a lot of laughter and stick-leg-pulling.

AmDram is great for developing your flexibility! There is also less chance of being typecast and therefore you can have many different roles. I remember on one occasion I ‘channelled’ Queen Elizabeth the first of England. I had a confidence, arrogance and aplomb that would be the envy of almost anyone other than Queen Elizabeth herself. It was a fantastic feeling for a very shy teenage girl. I may not have had the acting finesse of Cate Blanchett, but I had a young Walter Raleigh – not quite Sir at this stage – on his knees quivering before the Royal We. But it would have been helpful if someone hadn’t walked off with the wooden sword he was supposed to carry for me to knight him. Perhaps his quivering had more to the fact that he wasn’t sure how what was going to happen when I got to the line asking for his sword. He just ends up getting knighted by my hand…

An amateur audience

Luckily, having limited running costs and financial overheads, means that not performing during lockdown won’t affect non-commercial theatre as badly as the professional theatres. When people are allowed to gather again, then the non-commercial theatre could be a big draw; it’s local, cheap, entertaining and reassuring.

The audience might be a mixed bag of course. To some degree, you could even say the non-commercial theatre audience tends to also be amateur. You’ll have the friends and family of the cast and support team. Perhaps parents cheering a little too much for wonderful little Tommy. Some who otherwise might not go to the theatre, which in itself is perhaps one of the great things about amateur theatre. But in the early days as lockdown is lifted, and the non-commercial theatre begins to raise its head again, so the ‘professional’ theatre audiences, deprived of their cultural kick, may also be trooping off down to the local village hall. There to join in being entertained, perhaps to think or empathies, to laugh or cry. Hopefully to enjoy.

Sarah Johnson

Sarah is a British born Communication and Media Graduate from the University of Leeds. Sarah has written for a number of publications and has an avid interest in theatre and the arts in general.

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