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.

The listeners: Slung Low’s Knowledge Emporium in Jaywick

by Alan Lane

By many measures Jaywick is Britain’s poorest town. A collection of bungalows south of Clacton, it is, regardless of whichever measure you use, an area of some deprivation. Old amusements stand burnt down, many of the streets aren’t really streets in any modern sense and there are few of the contemporary touches of affluence that one might expect. Which is my way of saying that the nearest Costa coffee was 3.4 miles away.

There’s also a defiant air about the place, an almost punch-drunk sense of independence. The last time I was in Jaywick [on one of two research visits to the area, which began Slung Low’s relationship with NTiYN], a confederate flag flew high in a yard above a pile of old boat engines and land rovers. The pile remains the same but now the flag is rainbow, an equally contentious statement in UKIP central.

This narrative, of a town lost and desperate, has been captured by a recent TV documentary. I didn’t see it but it’s the first thing I hear when I arrive and the constant snare drum through our week:

“Are you with the Tele? They can fuck off! They just showed the bullshit. Lying bastards they are, they told us they were doing one thing and then did another.”

There isn’t one person we meet that doesn’t mention it. The television company is hated. They got their easy narrative and scarpered.

I don’t know. I haven’t seen the show. But, beyond any morality, I do know that if you make a film about a community and you end up this hated by your subjects then it’s a pretty short-sighted view of community engagement and documentary making. A slash and burn approach. But maybe that’s the point. The betting is that these places will be burned in the not so distant future and there’s no real risk in being hated by the people who live in Jaywick. Maybe they’re right. Personally I think they should make the same team do a follow up doc in a year’s time but then there’s a reason why I’m not in charge of commissioning at Channel 5.

Whatever your opinion on emotionally manipulative, social vulture, class sneering poverty porn documentaries – and there have to be some folks who like these things because they’re always getting made – we can all agree that they got their narrative and buggered off.

And then, about a month after it aired, Slung Low arrived.

A silver airstream caravan parked up in the centre of the town. In bow ties and candy-striped waistcoats, four of us stood outside. If anyone approaches and asks what we are about then we explain that we are a sweet shop that accepts no money: we trade our sweets (a whole bag of your selection) for your knowledge which you enter – unobserved – in our Great Big Book of Everything That We Know.

Suspicion and open disdain always disappears in the face of actual sweets. Once it’s been ascertained that there is no catch and this is no cruel trick, most people get involved. Most came back day after day with new knowledge for more sweets. A deal is a deal.

That’s the easy part of the Knowledge Emporium. It’s easy because it’s simple and it works. Sweets for knowledge. Everyone loves sweets.

The rest of the week was harder in Jaywick. We struggled. Stood in a candy striped waistcoat, it’s not easy to hide. There was a man who stood in the car park in the town centre shouting, to no one specifically, that the police had come and taken his little son. Again. We ended up talking to him for a while that day – there was no one else about, the town abandoned during the day – but for all the talking I never found anything useful to say to him.

There was the man who came to explain to us that Iceland had sold him mouldy meat and he was going to take it back for a refund. It became clear as we stared at him in confusion that we were as close to authority figures (if your idea of an authority figure wears bowling shoes) that there was around and this rehearsal of his story an important boast of confidence before he got on the bus to argue his case with the supermarket (he got a refund and vouchers).

There was the unbelievably friendly older woman who kept returning day after day. Her pride in her new husband and his various achievements (endlessly told in winding anecdotes) sharpened by the sight of the actual man in front of us withering with Parkinson’s. That she had found someone new to tell all those old stories to had a clear, profound effect on her: a little, rare new audience for her memories. The two of them isolated by his disease, we were – only for a moment, but still – vital.

But it was tough. Not just emotionally draining. We expended a lot of energy combating the various and frequent attempts to steal Alfie the Airstream caravan, and there is a limit to how much aggression that even a neon candy-striped waistcoat can defuse. For all the light and shade we found, Jaywick is the hardest place we’ve ever taken the Knowledge Emporium.

At the end of a residency, we perform a reading of a town’s knowledge. We type up all the knowledge, placing each piece on a scrap of paper, which is then drawn at random from a box and read to an audience. The show is timed according to how long it takes for a member of the audience to cook a tortilla. In Jaywick the reading took place at a village fete thrown to mark the anniversary of one of the Martello Towers opening as a museum and art space. The reading was competing with a local community African drumming band, a very hard working acrobat show and a woman set up just behind the reading who was singing plaintive covers of the hits of the Cranberries. If art can ever be a competition then we lost with this one. The African drums overlay everything, the departing acrobat audience walked right through ours without a second glance and the mournful rendering of already mournful songs still echo in my ears: “LiiiiiiiinGARRRR”. This was not Slung Low’s finest moment.

But that’s OK. The realisation that the Emporium does its real work long before the reading is many years old. The vast majority of people who came to the caravan weren’t at the fete. That’s not a criticism of the fete, nor of the caravan. Wild horses wouldn’t have dragged some of those people to the fete. But regardless, the Emporium had done its work, and performed its important function by simply standing and listening. In a town so full of loneliness and the tangible sense that no is listening and no one cares, the simple act of standing and remaining available was the most useful thing we could have done.

And in standing and listening, what was overwhelming in nearly every conversation we had was how very proud people were of the Jaywick they live in. Not the “we don’t care if other folk hate us” of some towns (Leeds, I’m looking at you), nor the “We’re glorious” (side eyes Manchester), but: “It’s so wonderful here, the people are so kind, we don’t understand why everyone else can’t see it.” If we had read out every comment that talked about how wonderful the sense of community in Jaywick was, the reading would have been a week long.

Jaywick’s knowledge turned out to be made up primarily of how great it is to live there.
As we were reading out the knowledge, I found myself facing directly the area’s councillor who had turned up on a Saturday morning. If we only had one audience (and we weren’t far off at times), then this was the one that made it worth the effort.

Slung Low talks a lot publicly (and certainly within the press) about our large, explosive shows full of fire and politics and vainglory and noise. I cannot express the importance within that context that we give to still doing the Knowledge Emporium: which, if it goes well, doesn’t involve setting fire to anything. The simple usefulness of going to a place, offering a fair trade and listening.

It’s normally reliant on piggybacking on an existing structure: a street festival, a theatre with a progressive marketing budget, Christmas light switch on. Jaywick doesn’t have any of those. Without Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, there is no way that the Emporium could have gone to Jaywick. As challenging a time as it was, there was a clear sense and understanding that the ground had been prepared for us. Relationships made by Fuel with key people in the community to ensure that there was room for us to stand, hold space and listen. You can’t rock up to a village and look to make any sort of positive impact without real relationships. And Fuel created those relationships and created the space for us to be able to place the Emporium.

Maybe that’s what the TV people were missing. Someone like Fuel, who had taken the time to make the relationships needed to REALLY see what Jaywick is like and who lives there.

Alan Lane is the artistic director of Slung Low.