Don’t underestimate amateur theatre as a source of training
I recently interviewed Arts Ed-trained Nathan Wright, a young actor who’s doing well and has just come out of an eighteen month stint in BBC’s Doctors. In passing he told me that he had cut his teeth and firmly established his determination to be an actor by taking part in amateur drama alongside his grandfather in Dudley where he comes from. And that set me thinking, not exactly for the first time, about the training power, strength and potential of amateur drama which is usually undervalued or even sneered at.
If you’re young and single-minded, as Wright was, then you need to take part in as much theatre as you can. That includes school plays, youth theatre and anything which is going on in your community such as amateur drama, including musical theatre.
Most of the groups I know and see in action now hold open auditions. That means that actors from all walks of life, experience and ability are often attracted from quite a distance – which helps to keep a non-pro company’s work fresh and lively. More often than not, these days that includes professionally trained actors and singers because far too many of these have no paid work and are happy to perform with amateur groups simply to keep their theatrical muscles in trim – it’s better to be on stage than not. From a community point of view it’s a real gain because it raises the game of the non-professionals in the group as everyone learns from each other.
Companies often import and pay a professional director too and that makes sure that the work is done along the same lines as it would be in pro group even though it takes place in the evenings after the day job. Chris Cuming, who trained at Central and works as a professional mentor there, for example, is directing Cambridge Operatic Society’s Oklahoma in November, having also done the company’s South Pacific last year. Also in Cambridge, Pied Pipers recently presented a fine account of Guys and Dolls at ADC Theatre in the city. Only last month I saw, in London, the Geoids production of Little Shop of Horrors directed by Italia Conti-trained agent, James Foster. And I’m looking forward to Gillingham Drama Society’s Hairspray at Hazlitt Maidstone in the autumn. Their shows are directed in a very accomplished and professional way too. And the upshot of all this from a training point of view is that some of the professional training rubs off on those who haven’t had it directly.
“Amateur” theatre has a quaint and outdated image and that connotation-laden moniker “AmDram” sums it up. There is some fine work going on in many of these companies and a great deal of collaborative learning so it’s a real training environment, not least because the boundaries between amateur and professional have become so blurred in recent years. Let’s just remember that at base the only real difference is that amateurs do it, literally, for the love of it and professionals are paid – or should be. I prefer to refer to it as non-commercial theatre, actually.
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