And the lessons of am-dram

By Maddy Costa

In the introduction to my essay looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN, I mentioned a few things that I had to leave out for the sake of stopping the pamphlet from turning into a small book. Most of them have now appeared on this blog, in the series of full(ish) transcripts of interviews with Vicky Featherstone, Stella Duffy, Anna Reading and Nicola Shaughnessy. Only one subject remains, and that’s amateur theatre – and my failure to include it in that series is basically typical of a “professional” theatre person’s approach to am-dram. We know it’s there, we believe it’s a good thing, but we ignore it in favour of the work being made by “professional” artists.

“It should not be necessary to preface a book about an amateur theatre company with an explanation of its nature and purpose. Unfortunately, the arts world has become mired in ways of writing about its practice that are as misconceived as they are unproductive. Ever-increasing pressure to ‘prove’ worth in a public culture that struggles to distinguish value from price has produced a narrow emphasis on evaluation among those who distribute and depend on public subsidy.” So wrote the formidably brilliant Francois Matarasso in the opening pages of Where We Dream, the first of his Regular Marvels projects looking at “alternative ways of understanding people’s experience of art”. Where We Dream focuses on the West Bromwich Opera Society: a company that sells tickets in the thousands, has a loyal local following, and regularly takes risks in what it chooses to programme – and all this, as Matarasso points out, in an area of the country that, according to government statistics, has “low engagement in the arts”. The same sense of hierarchy that keeps WBOS little-known and under-celebrated in the wider arts ecology also works to the detriment of making theatre (especially contemporary theatre, like that Fuel produces) feel or look accessible to all.

Two of the academics I spoke to for the NTiYN precedences essay held up amateur theatre as a potentially useful model for rethinking audience engagement. Nadine Holdsworth, professor of theatre and performance at University of Warwick, is currently collaborating on a funded research project looking at “the classic am-dram groups”, in particular “how they work with their audiences”. She suggests that the am-dram audience come less for the “actual product” and more for “the community gathering”: whether that means supporting a friend or family member in the cast, supporting the venue that is staging the event, or simply coming along to support the idea of theatre happening at all. As a result, theatre-going is “a more social activity than it is in the professional realm”, and more “celebratory” to boot.

Helen Freshwater, reader in theatre and performance at Newcastle University, and author of the terrific book Theatre & Audience, which (among other things) contemplates the lack of documentation of audience experience, and what that means for our understanding of theatre and its potential impacts, is similarly enthused by the “different models” of amateur theatre. Here, she says, “the company becomes the community: it’s not an expression of another community, it is the community itself”. Anxieties commonly expressed as barriers to theatre are eliminated and swapped for “an excess of engagement”: “any of the concerns you might have about going along and feeling completely isolated for the whole evening, and then leaving at the end not having spoken to anyone, are completely swept away”, along with the notion of “buying a certain quality of experience”, to be replaced by “a relationship between audiences and makers that can be so invested and so intimate that it completely transforms the experience”.

My relationship with theatre didn’t begin properly until I was in my early 20s, so even as a student I didn’t see much amateur work. However, I’ve been thinking about this post at the same time as Christmas productions have been happening at my children’s school, and something clicked for me watching my six-year-old son and his classmates perform their show. It began with the story of the Great Fire of London, told through documentation of a trip to Pudding Lane and the Monument, video of them setting fire to a cardboard Tudor city, songs and storytelling and (be still my heart) a ballet vignette in which several children dressed in red and orange flickered and leapt like flames – and then, in the middle, was rudely disrupted by characters from Roald Dahl’s The Twits, which the kids had loved too much to leave out, and so they presented the nasty couple arguing with each other, eating worms and then, in a triumph of stagecraft, being chased off the stage by a gaggle of little monkeys bouncing off an indoors trampoline. If my local community can watch an amateur show that smashes narrative and form with such aplomb, what’s stopping them going to the nearby Battersea Arts Centre, or Young Vic, to watch “professional” theatre-makers do the same?

The answer, of course, is that they don’t feel the same emotional attachment to these places as I do: many of them don’t even know they exist. This is in no way intended to denigrate the outreach work at either of those buildings – particularly the Young Vic, whose Two Boroughs participation project (co-led by Lily Einhorn) has taught me almost all of what little I know about audience engagement. It’s my echo of a call made by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian a couple of years ago, for amateur and professional theatre to work together better.

A rethink is needed from critics here, too. One of my favourite pieces ever written about theatre is this one by Megan Vaughan, on the experience of attending an am-dram show, because it captures beautifully the overwhelming love I feel really often going to the theatre – a love that has little outlet, except in occasional posts on my blog. In her most recent column for the Stage, Megan urged readers to go to a local panto:

“And I mean local. Pure amdram. None of that ACE-funded shit. I want you go to a panto where the dame is also a quantity surveyor and interval drinks are served from the Girl Guides’ tea urn. Then I want you to applaud. Applaud until your hands bleed. I want you to put a fiver in the charity tin, go home, get pissed, kiss your loved ones goodnight and sleep soundly.”

and reading it, I wanted to cheer. Amateur theatre doesn’t need the approval of critics: but we do need to create a new narrative that includes it, acknowledges what it does triumphantly, and celebrates the relationships it makes possible.

Incidentally, that “fiver in the tin” reminds me of how Slung Low’s Hub works. It’s a venue that presents “professional” theatre to a loyal local community, invites them to pay what they decide at the end, gives them cheap drinks and often food as well: a venue, in other words, that merges the best of both worlds to perfection. There’s a lot that professional theatre can learn from amateur – and the total rethink of values it requires might benefit not just the industry, but the society that holds it as well.

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