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Amateur theatre is not second best (your views, October 4)

Members of amateur group the Canterbury Players perform at the Marlowe Theatre in the Royal Shakespeare Company's touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2016. Photo: Topher McGrillis/RSC Members of amateur group the Canterbury Players perform at the Marlowe Theatre in the Royal Shakespeare Company's touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2016. Photo: Topher McGrillis/RSC
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One thing troubled me about Lyn Gardner’s column on the first Amateur Theatre Fest: the point of view is always and only that of the professional.

Gardner’s intervention is useful but the note of surprise when she says that “amateur stagings can be imaginative too” is revealing. She continues: “These amateur theatremakers are often the most avid theatregoers, regularly paying to see work created by professionals.” I was left with the feeling that the value of amateur theatre consists mainly in providing an additional income stream for professionals.

I have spent my entire career writing and directing in amateur theatre. My introduction to theatre was at the Bradford Civic Playhouse in the 1960s. Like the Questors, where the festival was hosted, the Civic was an amateur theatre that thought it was a professional rep. I auditioned at 14, was advised to join the weekly drama class and try again next year. The class was my drama school, the only formal drama training I have ever had. I auditioned again, was accepted and began playing small parts, learning from more experienced members, among them the late Gorden Kaye. Billie Whitelaw and Robert Stephens were former alumni.

Gardner’s confident assertion that there is “a well-trodden pathway from the amateur sector into the professional theatre” was true then, but is much less so now. What if drama schools did pro-bono work in schools, youth theatres and amateur drama groups? What if amateur and professional were seen as a continuum in theatre as they are in music?

Why do professional musicians support amateur music-making? Not because amateur choirs can help composers’ bank balances, but because in the music world, instead of two cultures, ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’, there is a culture common to both.

Two years ago, I teamed up with a speech therapist to write a play about stammering for an amateur drama society in Leeds. All five performances of Unspoken at the Carriageworks Theatre were sold out. I have since received requests to translate the script for performance by amateur drama groups in the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and Poland. Of course I would like the play to be performed professionally, but I have no reason to believe that audiences would get more from a performance by professional actors than from the amateurs for whom it was written.

Leeds Arts Centre, the society that play was written for, took part in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s pro-am production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream mentioned by Gardner. It was, like her article, an initiative greatly to be welcomed. I just can’t help wishing the amateurs had been cast, for example, as the young lovers, rather than the rude mechanicals.

Neil Rathmell

Censors and sensibility

Your feature on censorship (‘Victorian values vetoed: how censorship was given the boot’, September 20) brought back a vivid memory.

In 1969, I was appearing as Mr McLeavy in the Lincoln Theatre Royal production of Joe Orton’s Loot, which later toured during August and September. While on the tour we discussed whether or not to reinstate the original version of Inspector Truscott’s line: “You are bleeding nicked my old beauty.” This was printed on the back page of the Methuen edition.

After much discussion between the cast and director Philip Hedley, we decided to revert to the original line at our first performance at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.

When the handcuffs were placed on me, Ronald Hacked, playing Truscott, uttered the line: “You are fucking nicked my old beauty.”

To say there was a shocked silence would be wrong. There were audible screams from the good people of Guildford

To say there was a shocked silence would be wrong. There were audible screams from the good people of Guildford and some seats were upended and feet clattered to the exit. Those of us on stage remained utterly professional and did not corpse at all – maybe just a small smile.

After that, we cut the offending word as it was too soon for provincial theatre audiences to take – and in a way it detracted from the story we were trying to tell. Now, of course, no one even blinks at the bleeding word.

John Halstead
Email address supplied

Maintaining national identity

National Theatre Wales must reflect its home nation (News September 27). As an old man of the theatre, I have learned and experienced the great richness of Welsh history and culture, via writing by Welsh artists, poetry, song and historical storytelling.

National Theatre Wales accused of ‘not being national, theatrical or Welsh enough’

The Welsh language experiment may have failed to meet its desired mark, since young people live in a world dominated by the internet, social media and US culture. But the essence of Welshness is not only alive and kicking, it is urgently calling not only Wales, but the entire world.

When a New Zealander dreamed of conquering the Nepalese mountain of Sagarmatha, he chose Wales to begin his training, and to hone his skills on a mountain known as Yr Wyddfa. Of course, the entire world would soon learn that Edmund Hillary had conquered Everest, and previously trained on Mount Snowden.

Wales must never bury its head in the sand and seek isolationism. Neither should it insist that the old tongue be resurrected to the exclusion of English, but it should be justly proud of its heritage, its language, its history and its uniqueness in the world.

A cultural centre is a vital asset to any nation, country, principality or community. A national theatre is a combination of a temple, a museum, a university and even a clinic. It is a vital resource, not only for its immediate community, but for the entire world.

National Theatre Wales must be predominantly Welsh. Anything else would be worse than a mistake or a misjudgement; it would be laughable.

Richard Moss
Via thestage.co.uk

Quotes of the week

Billie Piper. Photo: Critics’ Circle

“There are things that you learn at stage school that are technically really helpful, but you have to unlearn loads of stuff as well. Quite often you will hear a kid act and you’ll hear adults behind them. Kids often don’t speak with that sophistication or intonation; they have a totally different vocal rhythm to adults.” – Actor Billie Piper (Times)

“You are as entitled to having conversations about your art with producers, artistic directors and programmers as anyone else is. Don’t be put off because you don’t see people like you on their stages much (or at all). If anything, this is why the art world needs you.” – Writer Luke Barnes (Twitter)

“People were so offended by the play in New York that they stormed out of the theatre. There was vitriolic hated towards it on social media and I heard that two guys had a huge argument on the street outside on the opening night.” – Playwright David Ireland on Cyprus Avenue (Guardian)

“I was a shy, under-confident kid coming out of school at 15,16. I took loads of acid and it gave me confidence, and inspired me to do the things I’m doing now. It just all depended on where you were and who you were with – I [also] had some bad trips, when you get really paranoid…don’t go to the theatre on LSD, especially sitting at the front of the circle.” – Playwright Leo Butler (Guardian)

“To the lady sat on her phone during @strictlystage tonight. We can see you. The light shines up in your face. Have some respect for the people working their arses off in front of you and watch the show you’ve paid good money to see.” – Performer Charlotte Gooch (Twitter)

“I had a huge stage accident, fell over a piece of set and smashed my arm to smithereens. But I was adamant I was going back, partly because I had fallen in love with him, but also because I thought I would never get back on stage if I didn’t.” – Rosalie Craig, on falling in love with Hadley Fraser (Evening Standard)

“Actors are like children. We want to be allowed to play but we want the parental boundaries as well to give us confidence.” – Actor Ralph Fiennes (Independent)

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk Please mark your email as ‘for publication’. The Stage reserves the right to edit letters for publication.

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