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The pandemic has put professional theatre in peril, with many people’s livelihoods, and buildings that we love, at serious risk. But there is another aspect to this landscape – amateur theatre. Playwright James Graham wrote recently: “If we cannot for the time being go large, then we go local.” And that’s where amateurs become the experts.
Freed from the real-life horrors of needing to make a living, amateur companies from across the UK and Europe – there is a thriving English-speaking amateur scene in Europe – have been responding to lockdown in creative ways. There have been online rehearsals, readings, workshops, discussions about plays and streamed performances. Putney Arts theatre created an online monologue series involving close to 100 actors and directors. New writing has also been at the heart of what south London’s Southside Players have presented.
“It has always been a small part of what we do, but now it’s taken centre stage,” member Hilary Jennings told me. They’ve done two Short and Sweet events, short plays written and performed by members online, with another coming up in December. “The thing about drama is that you start on your own with a book and end up with hundreds in a room sharing an experience,” says Jennings. “And you can’t replicate that [online]. But lots of stuff has been happening.”
There have been outdoor amateur productions, too. The photos from the Coolgreany Amateur Dramatic Society’s Hooked! by Gillian Grattan look magical. A clutch of wooden folding chairs on a soft green lawn surrounded by ferns and trees made for an idyllic natural setting in (mostly) great weather in Wexford, Ireland. “It felt wonderful,” says director Sally Stevens, who chose the play partly to fit with restrictions around rehearsals, and partly as a Covid tonic. She cast the village’s postmistress, a social worker and a painter. The amateur theatre festival circuit is huge in Ireland, and, she says, audiences came “from all over the country – from Mayo, Galway, County Louth, County Cork – because it was the only live theatre in Ireland in July, amateur or professional”. For autumn, Cads has practically turned itself into an institute for dramatic arts, running acting and directing courses.
People often think amateur theatre just means an annual show in the local church hall. But many amateur companies own their own buildings and, for them, no income can be a problem. Questors theatre in Ealing, which usually presents 18 full productions a year and has a 500-strong youth theatre, was in the middle of its 90th anniversary season when the pandemic struck. The company has launched a crowdfunding appeal. Artistic director Alex Marker says: “The standing costs continue to mount up regardless. Pulling the shutters down and walking away for 12 months is simply not an option if we are to survive.”
Others are cautiously optimistic about their survival. People’s theatre in Newcastle, which completed a fabulous refurbishment in 2018, has made “tentative reopening plans, and financially we’ll be OK this time next year whatever happens – more or less – thanks to reserves and many very generous donations”, according to Tony Childs, a director at the theatre. And my alma mater, Highbury Theatre Centre in Sutton Coldfield, is running film nights and forward planning a series of plays it can perform with social distancing compliance. For theatres like these, which began life before the second world war, keeping going in adversity may be in the fabric of the buildings.
One area where professionals and amateurs are on a similar footing is panto. For both sides, it serves multiple roles. It’s a great way of creating theatre habits for new audiences, it brings in big money, serves a wide community, and gives younger performers the experience of stage time. So what will people like David Simpkin, Winchester’s Grand Dame of amateur panto, do for Christmas 2020? “Maybe a cut-down 45 minutes of really lively, upbeat fun,” he says. “Whatever we can do, we will.”
All of this might sound niche or hobbyist, but it’s not. Millions of people take part in amateur theatre every year. And amateur theatres boost their local economies. If no one is buying set-building materials, hiring venues or restocking bars, that’s another lump of cash lost to a community. We need amateur theatre to continue – for the money, the spirit of localism and the joy. “I just have to keep making theatre, otherwise I’ll just feel dead inside,” Sally Stevens told me. “The creating is really important to me. If I don’t have a plan, or something to think about, I might have to think about serious things. And then where would we be?”
• Jenny Landreth’s book Break a Leg: A Memoir, Manifesto and Celebration of Amateur Theatre is published by Chatto & Windus on 1 October.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Whatever we can do, we will’: why am-dram must go on | Stage