Does amateur dramatics have to mean amateur dramatics?
This question is prompted by the combination of a show I worked on last week and an aptly timed tweet by Brian McCann:-
I’ve worked on and seen a lot of amdram and the quality ranges from cringeworthingly embarrassing to pro-theatre standard.
It makes me wonder, what makes the difference? When it all falls under the bracket of amateur, why is some so much better than others?
I think it mostly falls down to attitudes. An amateur attitude i.e. ‘oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s just an amateur production’ will, ultimately result in a poor quality show. A show where the performers are under rehearsed, stage managers left feeling clueless and any set/props that’ll just “do” – ‘it’s not of the time period and looks completely out of place, but it’s just amdram, so it’ll do’.
Sometimes, though, these attitudes are understandable. After all, everyone is volunteering their time and, therefore, peoples paid employment has to take precedence. There is also a general lack of budget, which ultimately means more time needs to be given to the task of looking for cheap alternatives. Time being something that is hard to come by if you are trying to hold down a day job and are doing the show in your spare time; Dedicating all spare time to the production results in decline of basic needs such as eating and washing.
So, is there another level of amateur? There’s the purely amateur performer then there’s the professional amateur?! – Someone who:-
(a) doesn’t have other commitments in life and has the luxury of dedicating a lot of time to this unpaid pursuit OR
(b) does have a lot going on, but sacrifices other things (such as eating meals and having a good nights sleep) during the rehearsal period – in particular, production week.
I think most people who I would call a ‘professional amateur’ fall into the second category; Many performing arts students/ graduates hoping to make the leap to professional actor/ stage manager/ technician through building up experience. And amdram is an excellent way to build up experience. Especially if the show you’re involved in is one that ends up on the top end of the scale of quality.
The aforementioned amdram show I worked on last week was, unfortunately, one of the ones from the lower end of the scale. That’s not to say that there weren’t individual cases of excellence. The props looked amazing, but then a lot of money had been splashed out on buying them in from prop hire companies - much, much more money than most amateur companies can afford. They have no excuses about budget constraints for poor quality, then.
THE GOOD – Not just good, but outstanding, actually - Two youngsters who were the saviour of the production. Their professionalism shone out through the fog of dodgy direction and sloppy dance routines and I feel certain that this’ll lead from professional amateur to pure professional one day.
THE BAD – Most of it. Particular low lights – Lighting design too patchy and dark (to be literal), dodgy singing - out of tune and out of time, lack of information generally for crew and performers, badly choreographed dance routines.
One dance routine in particular stood out in its amateur nature. It was like watching a dance made up by 12 year olds in a school production. Some of the ‘dancers’ were actually looking to the others during the performance to check they were either (a) in time or (b) doing the right moves.
Come on guys, nothing looks more unprofessional than nervous performers looking to each other for next moves/ reassurance (cue response of ‘but we’re not professionals, we’re an amateur dramatics society’)
THE UGLY – An incident which was a result of lack of communication. On the last evening, after the bows, some semi important person was to give a speech. There was no closing of the curtains at the end, so on previous evenings the performers had simply walked offstage. However, on this evening, the information of the speech had not found its way to all the performers. The result? Some people wandering offstage, some staying put and some hovering between being on and off stage. The lights were also coming up and down in the confusion. It was all a bit of a car crash.
Anyway, I won’t name and shame the company – I went out of my way to not find out what company it was, so I wouldn’t feel tempted. I don’t think it’ll benefit theatre in general to ‘out’ them. But if anyone reading wants to give a shout out for amdram societies that are known for their professionalism, then go ahead. Just say who they are and where you can find them.
In a climate where a lot of people can’t afford to see the professional shows, amateur dramatics are an important part of keeping theatre alive and people interested. I think there’s a duty for all amdram societies to put on a show that is the best it can be. They will, by no means, be of a completely professional standard, but if we could strive for a professionally amateur show, I think that's the least to ask for.
My shout outs:-
The Sir Harry Secombe Trust – I always come away from their shows feeling like I’ve just watched a professional show and they’re all under 21. Absolutely outstanding.
Abbey Players – I work with them, so I may be a bit biased, but they have a secure ‘fan base’ and feedback is always brilliant. Singing quality is always excellent.
Both companies can be found performing at Swansea's Grand Theatre.