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Christopher Haydon: If you only value paid performers, you don’t understand acting

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – A Play for the Nation featured amateur performers as the Mechanicals, including Chris Clarke as Bottom, alongside professionals including Ayesha Dharker. Photo: Tristram Kenton The Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – A Play for the Nation featured amateur performers as the Mechanicals, including Chris Clarke as Bottom, alongside professionals including Ayesha Dharker. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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What is Michael Billington’s problem with amateur performers? In a recent blog for the Guardian, he lauds the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which features different amateur companies from around the country playing the Mechanicals. Paradoxically, he immediately adds that he hopes this kind of amateur/professional mix doesn’t become the norm. Doing so, Billington says, risks undermining “the status of the dedicated professional”.

There are two key problems with this argument. Firstly, he fails to explain in any detail why or how a show like this undermines the status of the professional performer. Secondly, he doesn’t seem to understand that the boundary between amateur and professional is, itself, often much more porous than one might initially think.

After all, how do you define a ‘professional’? The most obvious way might be to say that it is someone who gets paid to do what they do. That makes sense to a degree – and it was partly on this basis that Equity argued successfully for the amateurs in the RSC show to be paid minimum wage for their work. But it’s hardly an adequate definition. Otherwise, each of those amateur performers would have suddenly become professional simply by virtue of those newfound wages landing in their bank accounts.

Yet, evidently, this is not the case. When the various Bottoms, Quinces and Flutes from across the country have finished their performances, they will return to their full-time jobs as teachers, nurses, accountants and so on. So how else might we define a ‘professional’ actor? Someone who has been to drama school? Surely not. That would preclude the huge number of actors who received no formal training but nonetheless make a living plying their craft (not to mention the thousands who do train and then never work).

Indeed, two of the finest actors I have worked with – Lucy Ellinson and Shannon Tarbet – had no formal training. Shannon was discovered by the Royal Court when she was 18 and worked in a bookies in Brighton. Lucy began making work with fellow students at Leeds University – something they kept doing around paid employment until eventually they could raise enough cash to begin paying themselves. Both were remarkable artists without training and whether or not they were being paid for it.

As artistic director at the Gate Theatre and as a selector of the National Student Drama Festival, I frequently mentor emerging artists and student companies. These theatremakers create work for little or no money, in a context where they are, rightly, judged, by audiences and critics alike, alongside artists with far more funding and experience. Whether you define them as amateurs or professionals is beside the point – if the work is good, that is what counts.

Of course, beyond this grey area are plenty of performers who can be clearly defined as either amateurs of professionals. But it is still not clear why Billington should have such a problem with these two groups mixing.

One of the most joyful aspects of the RSC’s Dream was seeing quite how brilliant the amateur performers were. They more than held their own alongside the professionals. Rather than this undermining the work of those fully paid members of the company, it acted as a clear demonstration of how great art does not have any boundaries – a seasoned pro, or a teacher from Hackney, can both find pathos, humanity and truth in the words they are speaking.

The presence of amateurs in a professional cast brings many other benefits, too. Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians – which I directed last year – is set in a US megachurch, and the script requires the onstage presence of a 25-strong community choir. Hnath was very clear that these singers had to be an amateur and not a professional group, because the play deals with what happens when a tight-knit community is shattered. Dramaturgically, the presence of people who, in real life, were bound to each by a shared love of singing was vital to create this sense of a community on the brink.

Artistry doesn’t lie in a pay-check; talent doesn’t reside in an employment contract

Equally, the RSC made a very clear decision to cast the amateur companies as the Mechanicals – characters who, in the world of the play, are also amateur performers. Equity’s challenge to all of this was at its most misguided when it tried to doubt that the RSC had genuine artistic reasons for doing this. The creative logic for this decision seems clear to me.

Besides, it could hardly be considered to be a money-saving exercise by the company. The logistical costs of organising 600 amateurs across the country would, no doubt, outstrip the cost of hiring a handful of extra actors. (If they really wanted to save money they could have done the show with the 18 actors they had already employed and just doubled the parts – a practice so common that Equity would probably not even have noticed.)

Amateur performers can bring more to a show than just dramaturgical and conceptual clarity. Lucy Ellinson – who performed in The Christians for me and plays Puck in the RSC’s Dream – talks enthusiastically of the positive creative influence that they have had on the professionals. “I’ve learnt a lot from my amateur colleagues,” she says, adding that this kind of collaboration has been “an important reaffirmation for me that when we tour the country with our work we’re not simply offering the local community something – we are making each and every performance with them.”

Indeed, I found working with our choir to be truly invigorating. Seeing the process through their eyes gave me a perspective on the show that was entirely fresh. And our relationship with those individuals did not end on the last night of the show. For many of them, participating in it was the first time they had ever visited the Gate, but they have returned on many occasions since to see our other work. It’s a genuine delight to spot them in the foyer each time and to know that they have become part of the Gate’s extended family.

None of this should be surprising to anyone with any serious interest in the creative process. The arts are replete with examples of extraordinarily fruitful collaborations like this. They include the National Theatre of Wales’ epic production of The Passion in Port Talbot, performed by Michael Sheen and a cast of thousands of locals, as well as Paul Greengrass’ remarkable film United 93. The latter recreated the horrific events of the September 11 attacks through a combination of professional actors and individuals such as Ben Sliney, who was one of the actual air-traffic controllers that day and who plays himself to great effect in the film.

It should go without saying that proper payment for those with the skill and stamina to dedicate their lives to their art is vital. Indeed, the Gate is fiercely committed to paying artists fairly and increasing fees whenever possible.

But theatre is, at heart, a communal experience and to deny, as Equity has, that there can be real artistic value in the collaboration between professional and community performers is wrongheaded. To assume, like Billington, that there is some sort of irreducible difference between the performance of a talented professional and that of a talented amateur is fundamentally to misunderstand what acting is. Artistry doesn’t lie in a pay-check; talent doesn’t reside in an employment contract. If we recognise this, we may just take a crucial step in opening access to the arts for everyone.

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