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Lyn Gardner: Community theatre may not be glamorous, but it changes lives

George Caple and Elliott Kingsley in Romeo and Juliet at Everyman Theatre, Liverpool. Photo: Gary Calton Nick Bagnall’s revival of Romeo and Juliet performed by Liverpool's Young Everyman Playhouse company. Photo: Gary Calton
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In early career interviews with the wonderful Juliet Stevenson, the tale was often regurgitated of how she was working with a children’s theatre company when the call came from the Royal Shakespeare Company asking her to replace an injured fairy in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her talent was spotted, the parts at the RSC got bigger and Stevenson went on to become one of the most brilliant and exciting classical actors of the last 30 years.

But what if that other RSC actor hadn’t injured herself? What if Stevenson had stayed working in children’s theatre? We might never have known her name, but it’s not to say that her talent and skill set would have been any less impressive. Or her under-the-radar career might not have been of significant value and immensely satisfying, if substantially less well remunerated.

But would it have been as respected or feted by the industry? Probably not. After all, children’s theatre, even when it has produced some of our greatest contemporary theatre companies, including Oily Cart and Theatre-rites, remains largely ignored. We still have far too many theatres where those engaged in community and participatory projects and those making main-stage shows are entirely different people in entirely different parts of the building. But they are all artists.

There is often an assumption made, particularly by those not involved in the industry, but sometimes by those who are too, that everyone involved in theatre must have ambitions to play the Olivier stage of the National Theatre or direct or write a play for the West End. Even those of us supporting the case for continued or better arts funding often find ourselves making arguments that the importance of supporting the grassroots and the independent sector is that these are the training grounds where the future War Horses or the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are seeded. That somehow winning an Olivier represents the peak of success.

It’s the same argument that is often used in theatre around the value of community work and participation and youth groups: these are important because they are the places that spawn the future Maxine Peakes or David Morrisseys. Indeed, they often do, and that’s fantastic. But the value of such projects resides not in their potential to inspire people to join an already over-crowded profession or create more theatremakers, but the chance that they give people of all ages to learn new skills and discover and explore their own creativity.

Just as the worth of children’s theatre lies in the quality of the show itself and not in its potential to turn youngsters into future theatregoers, so the value of community theatre lies in what it is and offers those involved in the here and now. Not in its potential as a stepping stone into the profession.

One of the pleasures of watching Nick Bagnall’s revival of Romeo and Juliet, currently in rep at Liverpool Everyman, is seeing a young play peopled by so many young actors from the Young Everyman Playhouse company. Many of them will never step foot on a stage again, but the experience of having taken part, and the quality of that experience, will stay with them in whatever they do.

Oddly, the amateur sector is often far more comfortable with this notion than professional theatre. Professional theatre might sometimes look down on non-professional work and of course that delightful hit, The Play That Goes Wrong, is fashioned from the tongue-in-cheek assumption that amateur means incompetent.

It’s a myth, but what is true is that the millions of people who regularly take part in amateur theatre do it for the love of it and not because it represents another rung on the career ladder. We talk a lot about excellence in the theatre, but perhaps we talk too little about excellence of experience.

Creating the conditions in which excellence of experience can thrive is both a skill and an art, and one that we should recognise and applaud as much as a great performance in the Olivier or a West End transfer. Just as the NHS needs brilliant radiographers and nurses and physiotherapists as much as it needs first-rate brain surgeons or oncologists, so theatre needs the widest range of talented and skilled people working across many disciplines and in many areas. Not all of them remotely glamorous.

Because the truth is that while those who have highly successful careers on the big stages can be important and inspiring role models who bring undoubted pleasure to many theatregoers, it is the invisible in our theatre culture – those who work tirelessly delivering community and participatory projects or who work in children’s theatre – who are its under-sung heroes.

They are the ones who daily demonstrate how art touches and changes lives.

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