Reflecting on amateur theatre

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Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research In the last three years we have been inspired by amateur theatre-makers in many different contexts and settings. We have observed rehearsals, attended festivals, joined set-building and sewing groups, watched auditions, witnessed performances and listened to many intriguing, touching and amusing stories about amateur theatre. We have read histories of amateur theatre companies and searched archives in theatres, in photograph albums, in shoe-boxes and in amateur theatre-makers’ homes. We have learnt that amateur theatre-makers are experts in, custodians of, their own practices, history and heritage, and that our job is to interpret and analyse our findings. Gathered in this booklet are some brief snapshots of some of the key themes from our research. It reflects on the research undertaken in response to two grants awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space and For Love or Money? Collaboration between Amateur and Professional Theatre which began in 2016.1 As researchers in the arts and humanities (theatre studies and cultural geography) rather than social scientists, we are primarily interested in analysing and interpreting the cultural aspects of amateur theatre rather than collecting statistics. Our research has focused on the cultural values of amateur theatre, its perceived contribution to communities and place-making, the spaces of amateur creativity, the repertoire and the archive. Here, we have tried to capture in miniature some of the discussions that are informing our analysis, and we hope that it will prompt debate.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed so generously to our research. Professor Helen Nicholson, Royal Holloway, University of London Professor Nadine Holdsworth, University of Warwick Dr Jane Milling, University of Exeter Dr Molly Flynn, Royal Holloway, University of London Cara Gray, Royal Holloway, University of London Sarah Penny, University of Warwick Thanks are also due to Dr Erin Walcon, University of Exeter, researcher on Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space from 2013-2015.

Note 1 Grant Refs: AH/K001922/1 and AH/N001567/1

Cover image: Robin Sheppard in RSC Collingwood’s production of Snow White. Photograph courtesy of Pam Johns

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


The Value of Amateur Theatre Amateur theatre is a dynamic part of the landscape of live performance in the UK. With over 2,300 affiliated adult drama and musical theatre companies in England, and more than 3,000 smaller-scale youth and unaffiliated societies, staging over 10,000 productions a year, amateur theatre companies play a vital role offering opportunities to make and experience live theatre performance in all areas of the country.1 Our research is focused on understanding what makes amateur theatre different from other forms of amateur creativity, and the value of its contribution to cultural life.

Creating theatrical public spheres Making and staging amateur performance is a key way in which geographical communities represent and celebrate their communal life in the places where they live. Professional theatre is often used to promote tourism and for the economic regeneration of urban areas, for example, as well as contributing to the nation’s cultural life. One of the special qualities of amateur theatre is that it exists largely outside these imperatives and serves a specific and local public; large-scale building-based theatre groups offer their local area a season of plays or musical theatre shows, while smaller groups coalesce around a single community-centred performance, often a pantomime. Amateur theatres present a wide repertoire and range of genres enhancing the cultural life of many places where the provision of subsidized or commercial theatre is low, this is particularly obvious in rural areas and medium-sized towns. Not primarily concerned with creating ‘destination’ arts events, amateur theatre contributes to the enduring, rich local ‘structures of feeling’ – the meanings and values people attribute to their particular social and cultural experiences and relationships – that underpin the cultural life of places.2 Importantly, participating in making amateur theatre is not about watching pre-packaged commercial entertainment. Rather than celebrities or professionalized actors who are distanced from the audience by the frame of television, members of a community step out of their everyday roles and take to the stage. Amateur theatre is a space where communities represent themselves back to local audiences, taking charge of their collective symbolic life. This communal act of making theatre involves amateur theatre makers in a passionate engagement with a theatrical public sphere, where they are engaged with wider public debates as ‘part of the cultural body politic of a community.’3 Amateur theatre encourages a different kind of audience engagement – in empathetic yet critical mode – rather than the quiet admiration demanded by much professional theatre. Amateur audiences feel empowered to judge


Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

performances, and over time loyal audiences form a group of expert spectators. Amateur theatre audiences are centrally interested in the stories told and the play’s content, and retain a strong sense of the ‘theatre’s many public functions’ and social role, which theatre scholar Christopher Balme argues stands in contrast to the increased concentration on aesthetic innovation in contemporary theatre.4 Amateur theatre offers a range of opportunities for performers that is different to those found in professional theatre or broadcast media and film. Companies can stage repertoire requiring large casts and offer more intergenerational performance opportunities than any other sector of live theatre making – predominantly through pantomime, where young performers are integrated more fully than the dance school choruses of professional pantomime. There has been a long practice of womencentred playwriting – publishing for all-women casts and one-act plays by and for women – in the amateur movement, and non-exploitative roles for women are sought out more regularly than in the popular culture of film and television.5 Amateur theatre stages a diverse range of ordinary and working-class characters in play choice and creation, for example, Washington Theatre Group staged local workingclass stories such as Wearside Story (1977), Friendly Fire (1980), There was an Old Woman (1985), or South Devon Players’ Survivors of the Titanic (2015) which used documentary sources to retell the story from below decks. Similarly, older performers feature far more regularly on amateur stages, frequently playing roles written for younger characters and reminding us that there are alternative modes of performance beyond the relentless hyper-realism of television. The range of older performers on the amateur stage more closely represents the country’s demographic than does popular culture.6 Where amateur theatre currently does not reflect Britain’s demographics is in the black, Asian and minority ethnic membership of groups.7 An area where the amateur theatre could extend its role would be in building stronger links to diverse groups within their geographical community. There are some powerful examples of this in amateur theatre’s current work: for example, in Rugby Theatre’s Polish-English Romeo and Juliet

Rehearsal PTUK, Photograph: Erin Walcon

(RSC Open Stages 2012), or Doncaster Little Theatre’s link with a local black writer and members of the local British-Afro-Caribbean community for a production of a Trinidadian Cinderella (2001), or in the multiple connections made between brass bands and amateur theatre groups for productions of Brassed Off, such as Alnwick Theatre Club and Ellington Colliery Brass Band (2015). The creative vibrancy of our local communities is greatly enhanced where there is this dialogue with other amateur creative arts and other community and identity groups.

Shaping the shared repertoire Perhaps surprisingly, it is amateur venues that stage new writing in areas that are not reached by play premieres in metropolitan centres. Amateur theatres support new writing from professional playwrights, ensuring royalties and licensing rights support playwrights long after short professional runs of their work has ceased. The British Theatre Repertoire report found that in London and mainstream theatre venues 46% of amateur theatre produced at these venues was new writing. Around ten amateur companies a year commission new plays from professional writers, for example, the Playgoers Society of Dartington Hall has commissioned Nick Stimson, with Arts Council funding, to produce a play about the Dartington estate and legacy, Inventing Utopia (2016).

There is a vibrant practice of new writing from amateurs themselves. Writing for live performance is encouraged at a variety of scales, from one act or 10 minute play competitions, rehearsed readings or evenings of short plays, workshops with youth groups, to writing opportunities that cross over into the subsided theatre. Bolton Amateur Theatre Society ran a writing competition with the Bolton Octagon, for a new full-length play from a local writer for production in 2015. The many groups that stage an annual pantomime frequently write their own, and all adapt and customise scripts to celebrate a communal understanding of their localities for audiences. In this dynamic way amateur theatre companies contribute to creating vibrant localities, and enhance the unique qualities of the places where they live for audiences.

A different kind of creative life Amateur theatre making involves a wide range of kinds of creative participation and is dependent upon different individuals using diverse abilities to make up the full backstage and onstage team for every production. Collaborative, creative work requires more diversity of role-taking and skills than sports teams or many other ‘leisure’ activities. Given the contemporary rise of the creative and cultural industries, some have argued that the value of amateur creativity is found in its intensive engagement with hobbies

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


Yet, amateur theatre is not just a training for the profession or the world of work.8 While amateurs value the cultural education that being a member of a company provides – ‘It was our university’9 – amateur theatre’s real value ‘is separate from the economic imperative’, as Claire Cochrane has pointed out.10 The imaginatively distinctive activity of amateur theatre offers an opportunity to rethink the very idea of the cultural economy itself, and to recognise creative activity as valuable beyond the realm of market economics. Amateur theatre’s collective creative expression is an important, independent space for debate and is part of a shared, social imaginary of the theatrical public sphere.11 Notes 1 F. Dodd, A.Graves, K.Taws, Our Creative Talent: The Voluntary and Amateur Arts in England (London: DCMS, 2008) estimates 5380 active groups in England, staging 92,000 performances a year, reaching a total yearly audience of over 21 million people. (32) 2 Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (London: Penguin, 1971), pp 64-65. Abigail Gilmore ‘Cold spots, crap towns and cultural deserts: the role of place and geography in cultural participation and creative placemaking’, Cultural Trends 22.2 (2013), 86-96. 3 Christopher B. Balme, The Theatrical Public Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 45. 4 Balme, The Theatrical Public Sphere, p.27.

Llanymech Amateur Dramatic Society Rehearsal for Twelfth Night, courtesy of the company

5 H. F. W. Deane and Sons, Kenyon House Press and the Village Drama Society have all published collected all-female one act plays since the 1920s. Michelene Wandor, Carry on Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics (London: Routledge, 1986) p.86 notes that although rarely explicitly part of the feminist theatre movement, the amateur sector was significant in supporting women writers and plays with multiple roles for women. Amanda Whittington’s remarkable success in the amateur sector is a contemporary example of the focus on strong, non-stereotypical roles for women. 6 Websites such as Playstage Senior specifically cater for older casts.

that prepare individuals for the world of work (the idea of ‘serious leisure’), or that it encourages people to be creative innovators in the cultural industries. Amateur theatre making undoubtedly does offer skills and opportunities to adults and young people - numerous actors attribute their start in the theatre to amateur companies, including Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Kenneth Branagh (past and present patrons of the Little Theatre Guild) or David Jason (who recently presented a Sky television series on the amateur theatre sector). Director Deborah Edgington developed through Chesil Theatre to professional freelance directing, and authors like James Saunders owed his first break to a playwriting competition at The Questors.


Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

7 Noda’s advice sheet ‘It isn’t always Black and White’ reminds groups of the significance of the Race Relations Act (2000). 8 Robert Stebbins, Leisure and the Motive to Volunteer: Theories of Serious, Casual and Project-Based Leisure (London: Palgrave 2015); Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller, The Pro-Am Revolution: How Enthusiasts are Changing our Economy and Society (London: Demos, 2004 ). 9 A member of Teddington Theatre Club commented on performing in the 1960s, when a BBC television series Making a Play (broadcast 1966) followed Teddington Theatre Club’s staging of André Obey’s Noah. 10 Claire Cochrane ‘The Pervasiveness of the Commonplace: The Historian and Amateur Theatre’, Theatre Research International 26.3 (2001) 233-42; 235. 11 J.K. Gibson-Graham ‘Diverse Economies’ Progress in Human Geography, 32.5 (2008), 613-632; Charles Taylor, ‘Modern Social Imaginaries’ Public Culture 14.1 (2002), 91-124.

Amateurs in the Archive Documenting the longevity and development of amateur theatre across the 20th and 21st century has involved extensive archival research to uncover the written, visual, and aural material evidence of this practice. Locating the amateur theatre archive itself, however, has been the first key challenge tackled by the research team. Material that solely relates to amateur theatre companies is rarely held in formal theatre archives in the major national institutions such as the V&A Theatre and Performance Archives. This is partly due to acquisition policies established in the 20th century, but librarians and archivists also consider the wider aims of their organisation as well as the spatial and financial implications that maintaining and preserving materials entails. Unless documents and objects relating to amateur theatre have a distinguished provenance, a record of ownership that lists a famous actor or writer, for example, they are unlikely to be acquired by specialist theatre archives. This has meant that mapping the history of amateur theatre is particularly challenging. Consequently, we have consulted a variety of formal and informal archive holdings at national institutions that do not have theatre as their major focus, local museums and libraries, amateur theatre buildings, the archives of amateur theatre companies and even at the homes of individual amateur company members. Alongside this research process we have devised creative research methods such as guided tours of theatre buildings, reading ‘lost’ plays found in archives and attending local Royal Navy Theatre branch meetings.1 These approaches to historical research have uncovered not just the history of amateur theatre catalogued in archives but also the personal narratives of amateur theatre making embedded in the homes, memories and bodies of amateur theatre practitioners. One strand of this research project examines the development of amateur theatre practices in the Royal Navy on ships and naval bases in the 20th and 21st century. Tracing this valued part of the navy’s social and cultural heritage has involved analysis of materials from formal archive holdings in, for example, the Imperial War Museum and British Library in London, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth. Throughout the archival research process, we have uncovered a variety of audio and visual material. Personal and private accounts of amateur theatre activities are captured in letters, on postcards and in diaries. Log and Commissioning Books published to commemorate a ship’s commission officially document shipboard activities including the performance practices and rituals that take place at sea such as ‘Crossing the Line’, a ceremony carried out when a ship crosses the equator. Song sheets, publicity materials, programmes, photographs, and newspaper cuttings are collated in scrapbooks and boxes that document the life of a particular person and the amateur dramatics they participated in and observed. A scrapbook compiled by Captain Rory O’Conor covering

the 1933-1936 commission of HMS Hood battlecruiser, for example, comprises in all over 400 items including press cuttings, programmes, letters, poems and photographs.2 Objects like this have not only be gleaned for their records of theatrical events but their ability to shed light on the emotions of their creators. As Arlette Farge observes, ‘When unveiling a drama, the archival record occupies an ambiguous position in which the words of these ensnared actors contain perhaps more intensity than truth.3 As uncensored objects that are not subject to the scrutiny of the military censor, scrapbooks and diaries have given us valuable insight in to the intentions, opinions and emotions of amateur theatre practitioners. By observing amateur theatre practices and performances and inviting companies to our events and workshops, we have built relationships with people who have let us view their informal archives at home. The collections in lofts, the objects on bookshelves, the materials in plastic boxes stored away under beds, and databases on desktop computers have made the home a vital site of digital and physical archival material. In 2015 we ran a series of a workshops called ‘Evocative Objects’ where we invited people to bring an object about their lives in amateur theatre that was special for them. Ramon Teňoso stated that all known material relating to his company, Philippine Theatre UK (PTUK), was kept in the homes of its members: ‘I think I am one of the few people that has memorabilia and souvenir items since we started. We keep them at home.’4 Conducting semi-structured interviews and informal discussions at events like the Evocative Objects workshops, have enabled the oral testimonies of amateur theatremakers to come to the surface and memories about their participation to be shared and recorded. Ethnographic encounters, working with practitioners in specific places or buildings, have also been affective strategies in gaining access to knowledge that individuals

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


Pages of scrapbook compiled by Captain Rory O’Conor. Photograph courtesy of the Library at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (RNM 1993/54/1).

and groups hold. Set building with the Settlement Players of Letchworth Garden City, for instance, has helped us to gain knowledge of a craft which, over time, has been transmitted from person to person through the observation and practice of bodily gestures and actions. These encounters have prompted us to reconsider the body, not only as a vessel that transmits social memory but, as Rebecca Schneider asserts, as a site of tension between archive and repertoire, between what remains after a performance and its reappearance, where an engagement with the past can occur.5 Schneider follows Diana Taylor’s assertion that archives are not just captured in written and visual materials but the body is as an archival repository as well. She argues that performances not only ‘function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity’ but also function ‘as an epistemology [ . . . ] a way of knowing’.6 Discussion around the efficacy of embodied practices as an epistemology are part of a much wider, ongoing debate regarding scholarship’s “affective turn.”7 Vanessa Agnew for example, questions the capacity re-enactment has to further historical understanding, which, according to her argument, collapses temporalities, emphasises affect and privileges individual experience over historical event and structure.8 Nevertheless, forms of


Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

ethnographic and reminiscence work have been powerful tools in order for us to grapple with and learn about amateur theatre practices of the past. They work not simply through reason but through emotion, the body and memory and they have allowed us to fill in the gaps with limited certainty when other documents fail to provide the evidence. Notes 1 Royal Naval Association. 2 National Museum of the Royal Navy Archive. (RNM 1993/54/1). 3 Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives trans. Thomas Scott- Railton (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013). p.27. 4 Edited transcript from video footage of Ramon Castillanes Teňoso of Philippine Theatre UK (PTUK). The recording was produced on the 16th of June 2015 at The Questors Theatre during a workshop called ‘Evocative Objects’. 5 Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactments (Routledge: London and New York: Routledge, 2011). 6 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003). p.2-3. 7 See Patricia Clough, The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). 8 Vanessa Agnew, ‘History’s Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and Its Work in the Present,’ in Rethinking History 11, no.3, 2007. p.299-312.

Amateur Theatre and Cultural Heritage Cultural heritage refers to the tangible materiality of things: buildings, monuments and artefacts, in addition to the intangible knowledge and skills that communities and groups do, practice and pass on from generation to generation as part of a living cultural heritage, which contributes, according to Laurajane Smith, to ‘the construction and reconstruction of cultural identity, memory, sense of place and belonging’.1 Throughout our research we have been thinking about the status of amateur theatre as cultural heritage, as well as asking questions about what the tangible and intangible heritage of amateur theatre constitutes and how this relates to the politics, histories, activities and cultural processes we have encountered. In its range and scope it’s clear that the amateur theatre movement is a vital part of the nation’s cultural heritage but, rather than being seen and valued as part of a wider social history of creative cultural practice, it has traditionally flown under the radar of national archives and museums. This highlights the precarious and somewhat marginalised place of the amateur in relation to ‘official heritage’ that relies on the classification and promotion of particular sites, artefacts and activities as worth selecting and preserving as national heritage and, instead, can be understood in terms of what Rodney Harrison describes as ‘the “bottom up” relationship between people, objects, places and memories which forms the basis for the creation of unofficial forms of heritage (usually) at the local level’2. The stress on the local can be seen in the fact that reviews of amateur theatre productions or national amateur theatre festivals are invariably relegated to local rather than national media coverage, if they feature at all. The twentieth and twenty-first century cultural heritage of amateur theatre occupies many sites and situations from amateur performances to aid convalescence and keep up morale at Wrest Park Hospital in Bedfordshire during the First World War, to a theatre created by troops in a converted Victorian gun emplacement on Hurst Castle in the Solent during World War Two, to Titchfield Festival Theatre’s current use of one of Europe’s largest surviving medieval Great Barns. Amateur theatre companies often contribute to sustaining local cultural heritage through their restoration and custodianship of key buildings as documented in 150 Years of a Hartshill Institution (2009), which charts the evolution of The Hartshill Workingmen’s Institution via The Hartshill Church Institute into the home of the Newcastle Players Theatre Workshop, which attained Grade II Listed Building status in 19933. They may help disseminate and celebrate important local narratives, histories or cultural figures as when the local council approached the Market Harborough Drama Society to stage Shakespeare’s Richard III on Bosworth Field in 1985 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field that ended the War of the Roses4. Amateur theatre also contributes to local heritage trails such as Wakefield Council’s ‘Twixt Aire and Calder initiative, which highlights

examples of outdoor mystery plays, home theatricals and amateur productions in town halls as part of its promotion of theatre across the region5. National organisations and amateur companies equally demonstrate a deep awareness of and attentiveness to celebrating their histories, inventing and preserving traditions and generating tangible markers of their cultural heritage. NODA long service medals are proudly worn by its dedicated recipients; company names and logos can be traced back over decades and each production harnesses more tangible artefacts such as posters, programmes, designs, photographs, logoed t-shirts and special markers such as the tie pin of witches hats distributed to members of RSC Collingwood’s production of Terry Prachett’s Carpe Jugulum in 2007. Many amateur theatre companies have also proved adept at researching and documenting their own unique trajectories and contributions to local cultural

‘Poster for a coronation year production of The Country Girl by The Research Establishments Theatrical Society in Malvern’ permission and copyright Tim White

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


heritage through published histories, films, websites and picture galleries, as well as carefully maintained archives. Three volumes of So Far as I Can Remember (2013) by Tony Nicholls charts the evolution of Theatre West Four in Chiswick and A History of Winchester Dramatic Society was published in 2014 as part of the company’s 150th Anniversary celebrations6. Increasingly digital culture is also facilitating the preservation of valuable cultural heritage as companies are able to scan materials that pre-date the digital age and use digital technologies to capture histories, activities and stories. These processes and the resulting materials serve as ‘prompts for recalling and authenticating [the] cultural and social experiences’ at the heart of amateur theatre making and ensure that they are available for the next generation7. In terms of intangible heritage, we have been thinking about the ways that amateur theatre making is conducted as a lived social practice during which people share ideas and pass on the traditions that define their approach to production or re-purpose available resources. The two-sizes too large 1970s check trousers that Jon Manley of TOADS has worn for numerous shows or the leather doctor’s bag used by Harriet Parsonage’s paternal grandfather and donated to The Questers in Ealing that ‘has been in numerous plays varying from 1600-early 1900s’ are testament to how bits of set, costumes and props reappear in different shows and become part of the folklore and heritage of a company8. By conducting oral histories and workshops we have been finding ways to access the undocumented heritage that resides in individual and collective memories and anecdotes that Rebecca Schneider refers to as ‘embodied archives’9. Whilst observing amateur rehearsals, productions, competitions and attending events such as Little Theatre Guild Annual General Meeting and the NODA Summer Schools, we have also been alert to

‘The Royal Navy Theatre Association 2012 production of Much Ado About Nothing in front of HMS Victory’ permission and copyright Pam Johns

the different cultures of practice and traditions maintained by organisations. This includes the invitation to stand for the National Anthem by Royal Navy amateur theatre groups, or the ways in which the British Airways Cabin Crew Entertainment Society stand in costume collecting money for charity at the end of the pantomime, or the ritual of sharing food at Philippine Theatre UK’s rehearsals. All these performative gestures and traditions are ‘used to construct, reconstruct and negotiate a range of identities and social and cultural values and meanings in the present’10. Notes 1 L aurajane Smith, ‘The ‘doing’ of heritage’, in Anthony Jackson and Jenny Kidd, eds. Performing Heritage (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), p. 80. 2 R odney Harrison, ‘What is heritage?’ in Rodney Harrison, ed. Understanding the Politics of Heritage (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), p. 8. 3 G eoff Price, 150 Years of a Hartshill Institution (Newcastle, Staffordshire: Geoffrey H. Price, 2009) 4 H enry Arthur Jones, Stage by Stage: 75 Years of Theatre in Market Harborough (Leicester: Matador, 1993) p. 58. 5 S ee Celebration%20of%20theatre accessed 4 August 2016. 6 T ony Nicholls, Theatre West Four: So Far As I Can Remember, three volumes (London: Into Print, 2013) and Winchester Dramatic Society, A History of the Winchester Dramatic Society (Winchester: Sarsen Press, 2014). 7 Laurajane Smith, ‘The ‘doing’ of heritage’, p. 69. 8 H arriet Parsonage, ‘Evocative Objects’ workshop, Questors Theatre, Ealing, 16th June 2015 and Jon Manley, ‘Evocative Objects’ workshop, Worcester Swan Theatre, 27 June 2015. See 9 S ee Rebecca Schneider, ‘Archives: Performance Remains’, Performance Research, Vol. 6, No 2 (2001), pp. 100-108.

‘Home Theatricals at Walton Hall, Wakefield’ permission and copyright Wakefield Council Libraries Photographic Collection


Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

10 Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2006) p. 3

Amateur Theatre and Place-making In March 2016 the Conservative government published the first White Paper on the Arts and Culture since Jennie Lee’s A Policy For the Arts: The First Steps in 1965. The Culture White Paper was authorised by Ed Vaisey MP, Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy at the time. There are many differences between the two White Papers, but they both seek to extend the benefits of cultural activity to a wider geographical area (particularly outside London and major metropolitan centres) and social demographic. They recognise that participating in the arts and attending local cultural events create a sense of belonging, and they both aim to extend this advantage to people living in many different places and communities. In short, cultural participation is integral to place-making. In 1965, Jennie Lee noted the role of the arts in new towns and garden cities as part of her vision to cultivate a ‘new social as well as artistic climate’1. By 2016, Ed Vaisey integrated the social with the economic, noting that cultural activity contributes to urban regeneration, wellbeing and prosperity. ‘Cultural place-making can shape the fortunes of our regions, cities towns and villages’ the report states,2 suggesting that this might be achieved in partnership with local government, universities, the police, health and care commissioners. At the bottom of the list there is ‘the local voluntary and community sector, including trusts and foundations’, but amateurs are conspicuously absent.3 So what is place-making and how does amateur theatre contribute to it? The geographer Tim Cresswell describes place as ‘the raw material for the creative production of identity’,4 and emphasises that the social meanings of places are not fixed and permanent, but constantly re-made and re-imagined as we go about our everyday lives. Translated into policy terms, place-making asks how urban design encourages sociability, and how placed-based community assets create an environment in which people might enjoy living. It is this link between place, creativity and identity that shows that amateur theatre has such an important role to play in place-making. Amateur theatre was integral to place-makers in the early part of the twentieth century, and quickly became an important part of life in the industrial model villages such as Port Sunlight and Bourneville, and in the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn; by the 1930s amateur theatre was also thriving in the newly built London suburbs of Pinner and Ruislip. The period of post-war reconstruction led to the development of new towns, and amateur theatre was successfully established in Stevenage, Harlow and other new towns designated in the Abercrombie Plan of 1944.5 For some pioneering companies, such as The Questors in Ealing, amateur theatre had an international outlook; Alfred Emmet at The Questors promoted new plays from the European modernist repertoire and forged links with amateur theatres across the world. Emmet was not alone in making connections between the local and the global, and festivals encouraged international co-operation.6 The enduring

appeal of amateur theatre indicates that there is further potential to re-define its relationship to place in the twentyfirst century. Places have become increasingly culturally and socially diverse, particularly in cities; Birmingham is host to the LGBT group Acting Out, and in London Philippine Theatre UK stage original work that reflects the interest of the diasporic Philippine community. In our research we have encountered many amateur theatre companies with an unbroken history of creative activity for nearly 100 years, often serving towns and villages where there is little formal arts provision. The Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City, for example, stages eleven plays each year to near capacity houses, and when the programme is revealed on their annual ‘directors’ night’, the 140-seat theatre fills with people keen to participate. Village companies work on a different scale; the Bourne End Forum Players in Buckinghamshire, for example, mounts an annual pantomime in the community centre and sometimes a revue or play in early summer. Yet in common with many other companies, the show is only part of the Forum Player’s contribution to place-making; fund-raising events such as quiz nights and dances generate local sociability and opportunities for the kind of shared encounter that policy-makers might describe

The Evans Room, The Settlement, Letchworth Garden City. Photographer: Cara Gray

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


The Props store, The Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City. Photographer: Cara Gray

as an ‘intangible sense of place’.7 This sense comes more tangible where amateur companies have their own theatre buildings, where memories of past productions are integral to their affective power, the biography of generations of amateur creativity etched in the walls. Perhaps this is most obvious where lists of past productions and photographs are displayed on the walls, but stories of past productions are also found in props cupboards and costume stores, in workshops and projection boxes. Although the repertoire of many companies may be similar as the rights for new plays are released, the process of making amateur theatre is an intensely local experience. Local amateur craftspeople such as costume-makers regularly work alongside each other in rehearsal, in shared costume-making, and set builders get up early and stay up late to build or strike a set. Many companies write or adapt their own pantomimes to include local references and injokes, and using the opportunity for comedy to lampoon local issues. The liveness of the performance echoes Tim Cresswell’s suggestion that place not fixed but an ‘event’, where local teachers, vicars, electricians, politians and plumbers are recognised on stage but seen in a different guise, where being someone else – playing a role – is integral to imagining a different sense of self. For the audience, the felt experience of being together, sharing the aesthetic


Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

double-ness of seeing people you know on stage, is close to Cresswell’s view that places are continually re-imagined through everyday encounters.8 Amateur theatre is integral to a sense of place; as a home-grown, locally sourced and sustainable cultural practice, it has enabled generations to imagine what places are, and what they might become. Notes 1

ttp://, h p. 5 [accessed 24.7.16]

2 data/file/510798/DCMS_The_Culture_White_Paper__3_.pdf, p. 30 [accessed 24.7.16] 3 Ibid, p. 34 4 T im Cresswell, Place: A short Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 39 5 A very interesting account of the relationship between post war new towns and amateur theatre is given by Anthony Alexander (2009) Britain’s New Towns: Garden Cities to Sustainable Communities London: Routledge 6 M any amateur theatre companies have written their own histories, documenting the ways in which they related to their local communities. See also Meacham, Standish Regaining Paradise: Englishness and the Early Garden City Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press), Webster, Roger (ed.) Expanding Suburbia (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000) 7 See, for example, 8 Cresswell, p. 39

Amateur Theatre and Communities of Care Those who participate in amateur theatre often employ the rhetoric and emotional register of ‘family’ when they talk about their involvement. Joe Allan who, now in his twenties, has been a regular member of two Royal Navy amateur theatre companies since he was thirteen, described how ‘they become like a second family…you build this family’ and other interviewees have referred to their ‘theatre family’ as distinct from their immediate family rooted in ties of kinship.1 That said, many groups have extended family dynasties within them and family often provides the route in - Stephen Johns traced his twenty-year participation with RSC Collingwood via dropping off his five young children who ‘needed an outlet’2. In addition, the relationships within amateur companies often echo the complex inter-personal dynamics of extended family life – the hierarchies, varying roles, allegiances and squabbles. Families fall-out, members can be or feel ostracised and this certainly happens in amateur companies but, above all, the term ‘family’ in this context is used to suggest the often deep and lasting bonds, as well as the wider social networks that are forged as people work collectively to make theatre. Indeed, during our research we have uncovered persistent evidence of amateur theatre groups fostering close-knit ‘communities of care’, a term derived from healthcare, which promotes a ‘collaborative model of care’ that rejects transactional models and favours strong relationships and relational communities3. As people rehearse, build sets, design and make costumes and props together they often embark on a range of social exchanges from witty banter, sharing stories, off-loading everyday grievances and debating local and national issues.

In so doing they build the foundations for and reinforce social bonds that can be understood in terms of Robert Putnam’s work on how engagement in community groups helps forge networks of reciprocal social relations that help build trust, cooperation and solidarity with others4. Formal and informal conversations have revealed what this has meant for individuals, families and communities. One elderly couple explained how their ‘main hobby’ has sustained them over sixty years of marriage5. A middleaged man spoke about how his group helped him through a difficult divorce and a meeting with Kevin Fraser of Titchfield Festival Theatre followed his visit to one of his company’s long-standing members and trustees at a local hospice. Amateur theatre’s ability to facilitate an active and supportive relational community has helped people navigate a number of difficult pivotal moments in their lives including illness, redundancy, divorce and bereavement. Interestingly, the amateur repertoire often reflects preoccupations with friendship and support networks as seen in the popularity of productions such as Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias (1987), Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls (2009) and most recently Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose (2015).

Acting Out Birmingham Pride

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


Being a member of a company and embarking on shared creative endeavour has the potential to unleash a sense of group identity, affiliation and loyalty. Backstage, the regular journal of the Market Harborough Drama Society encourages this by including sections welcoming new members and celebrating returning members, as well as obituaries of former members. Companies promote and embed belonging through traditions such as common logoed show t-shirts, Facebook groups and social events. Feeling part of something goes a long way to explain the strong volunteer ethos that drives people to turn up, even when they’re not involved in a production, to man the box-office, do front-of-house duties and serve refreshments - they are demonstrating their investment in, their belonging to, a community of care. We have also detected, however, evidence that this ethos is coming under strain. Committee roles are often hard to fill and NODA’s Chairman of Trustees, Fred Piggford, has found that the culture of talent shows is instilling a more individualistic and competitive agenda whereby younger members, in particular, are much more likely to move from company to company searching for the best role6. In the 1950s, the anthropologist Erving Goffman wrote persuasively about how we all play different roles in our various social interactions and amateur theatre often provides a safe space for people to explore and perform different dimensions of their identities that may be a world away from their roles in school, work or the home environment7. Jon Beglin referred to his elaborate costume making as being ‘something to do with who I am’ and Robin Sheppard, a landscape designer by trade, spoke about his passion for performing outrageous pantomime dames and sometimes surprising his clients8. There are also a number of companies that form around communities of interest in order to stage cultural narratives and/or strengthen wider networks of support structured around specific communal identities. The Birmingham-based LGBT company Acting Out regularly hold events as part of Birmingham Pride, producing a rehearsed reading of their reworked narrative The Importance of Reading…Ernest in 2016. Whilst Londonbased Philippine Theatre UK (PTUK) focus on works, such as their adaptation and production of the Filipino folktale


Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

Enchanted Bird (Ibong Adarna) in 2014, that reflect the culture and experience of the diasporic Filipino community. PTUK’s decision to donate 10% of the proceeds from ticket sales from Enchanted Bird (Ibong Adarna) to the Helen Thomson Memorial Fund, which raises funds to support the Philippines following the devastation caused by Thyphoon Haiyan in 2013, is also indicative of a wider application of communities of care. There is a long history of amateur theatre groups participating in fund-raising initiatives whereby collections, raffles and gala nights are held to support a range of local and national charities championed by members or, in some cases, allied to the repertoire. Each year the British Airways Cabin Crew Entertainment Society (BACCES) donate several thousand pounds to charity after their annual pantomime; by 2014 they had donated over £175,000 to a wide range of local charities in their 40 year history. There was also notable large-scale mobilisation around Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research that accompanied productions of Calendar Girls when the amateur rights were released for a limited period from 1st September 2012 to 31st August 20139. Notes 1 Interview with Joe Allan, HMS Collingwood, 3 February 2014. 2 Interview with Stephen Johns, HMS Collingwood, 3 February 2014. 3 S ee NHS Alliance, Think Big, Act Now: Creating a Community of Care, 4 R obert Putnam, Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000). 5 Interview with Viv and Alan Window, Market Harborough, 11 January 2016. 6 C onversation with Fred Piggford, NODA Summer School, University of Warwick, 3 August 2016. 7 S ee E Goffman, The presentation of Self In Everyday Life (London: Penguin Books, 1969). 8 J on Beglin cited in ‘Evocative Objects’ report available at and interview with Robin Sheppard, Portsmouth, 5 December 2014. 9 F or details on BACCES charities see html and for Calendar Girls see the Amateur Theatre Forum on

Spaces of Amateur Creativity One aim of this research project has been to analyse amateur theatre as craft and creative practice. Some amateur theatre companies have access to their own theatre buildings in which to prepare and perform, with varying degrees of facilities such as dressing rooms, set building workshops, costume and prop stores and studio spaces. Other companies utilise multi-purpose buildings, for example community, church and school halls, meaning that space is shared with other societies and groups. By paying particular attention to the role and significance of space within amateur theatre, we have sought out the spaces of the amateur theatre-makers’ creativity, investigating where they learn, practice and pass on craft knowledge. All this means that access to space is a significant factor determining where and when amateur theatre-makers ‘make’ theatre. It is clear that making amateur theatre does not just take place in the theatre building itself or in the place of performance. Two areas of considerable interest have been the backstage spaces and the home of the amateur theatremaker. We have been welcomed into many amateur theatre companies, allowing us a privileged access into their private worlds and the spaces in which they make. We have looked to people involved in backstage roles such as set builders, set designers, technicians, costumers and the people who make and source the props. By working with these amateur theatre-makers, we have been able to experience first hand where sets, costumes and props are made, remade and carefully stored, whilst investigating the relationships and intersecting embodied narratives that weave throughout. For example Stephen Charles, an actor, director and set builder with the Settlement Players, told us, ‘the [Settlement] building and how we use it make[s] it an interesting place… it certainly isn’t just a building’.1 Tracing the spaces and processes of the amateur theatremaker has involved extensive observations and interviews, as well as ethnographic research. Observations have included sitting in on sewing mornings whilst talking to the amateurs who give their time to mend, alter and create costumes for productions. At The Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City, for example, a loyal group of amateur theatremakers spend some weekday mornings making costumes, tending to the archive, building sets and maintaining the building. Many members of this group have been involved in the theatre for decades, bringing a deep knowledge of the building as well as an affection for it. Judith Claxton, a long serving member of The Barn Theatre described her involvement in the theatre as ‘the heart of your life’.2 Ethnographic research was conducted through joining the weekly Sunday set building sessions with the Settlement Players of Letchworth Garden City. This allowed us to experience the material, cognitive and technical dimensions of the amateur theatre-makers’ creative processes.

Graham, Helen and Stephen set building in the carpark of the Settlement, Letchworth Garden City.

These processes showed us how craft knowledge is learned and passed on through bodily gesture as well as illuminating the amateur theatre-makers’ sheer resourcefulness - reusing, recycling and repurposing almost every material (even down to the screws and nails) that goes into the construction of a set. By implementing these methodologies, we also became witnesses to the manifold uses of space created by amateur theatre-makers. For example, we found community halls transformed into theatres through stackable chairs and collapsible tables, dressing rooms temporarily used as set builders’ tearooms and car parks acting as set building workshops. When construction started to take place on the Settlement Players’ festival play set, alongside the set for their upcoming play at the Settlement, the fire exit doors backstage were opened creating a new workshop in the car park. Folding worktables were brought out, surrounding shrubbery was used as a makeshift worktop and the exterior walls used to prop up flats.

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


John from the Settlement Players in his living room where he likes to draw sets. He described the light coming through his patio windows as inspirational.

We found that many amateur theatre-makers also fashion workspaces within their homes to work on aspects of a play, away from the performance space. Examples of this varied from people altering costumes on mannequins set up in their living rooms, to others designing and drawing sets on their kitchen tables. One amateur theatre-maker told us that he prefers to design sets on a clipboard in his living room, where he finds the light from the patio windows inspirational. Jennifer Gosling, a costumer who regularly makes costume alterations at her academic work desk, explained that the constant presence of her sewing machine acts a reminder of her amateur dramatic identity. We have found this in many companies: amateur theatre-makers who alter clothes, make props and design sets in their homes, feel that in doing so, they create a space in which they can perform their creative identities, outside of the theatre space.


Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

People involved in amateur theatre have the capacity to transform mundane, everyday spaces through the process of their creative ‘doings’. Our investigations showed us how amateur theatre-makers’ identities are performed and relationships are made and remade both in and with these often illusive, imaginative, improvised and sometimes unpredictable work spaces, which are crafted through the process of their creative activities. Notes 1 Stephen Charles, interviewed on 18 January 2016 2 Judith Claxton, interviewed on 14 April 2015

Labour of Love: Amateur theatre and Work It would appear that, almost by definition, taking part in amateur theatre is different from other forms of work. Yet divisions between work and leisure are often rather blurred in amateur theatre. For many people amateur theatre becomes a life-long interest, woven into the daily rhythms of everyday life. It also shapes the years through the annual cycle of productions, and the seasons are marked through the pattern of the repertoire. This depth of engagement suggests that amateur theatre cannot be fully understood as a ‘leisure’ activity, nor as a pastime that can be entirely compartmentalised from other areas of life. Amateur theatre is a passion for many, in which people contribute to their communities by making theatre as a labour of love. The complex relationship between work time and amateur time has meant that our research in this area has been focused around three major questions. First, what is the relationship between work undertaken elsewhere (whether at home or in paid work) and labour spent in amateur theatre? Second, how has that relationship changed over time? And third, why do people find the time to participate in amateur theatre? In addressing these questions we have necessarily confronted distinctions between work and leisure, between volunteering and amateur labour – and how these terms have been understood. Patterns of labour are woven through the history of amateur theatre in England, and it is significant that the practices of amateur theatre are changing in response to changing employment patterns in the twenty-first century. This research begins at the turn of the twentieth century. Of course there is evidence of amateur theatre well before that, both in the grand houses of the aristocracy and, at the other end of the social scale, in the workhouses where the poor

British Airways Cabin Crew Entertainment Society (BACCES), Dress Rehearsal for Sleeping Beauty 2016

and destitute were exhorted to perform plays considered morally improving.1 By the beginning of the twentieth century the social effects of industrial capitalism were clear, and enlightened industrialists and town planners turned their attention to the conditions in which people lived. George Cadbury, Joseph Rowntree and William Hesketh Lever created communities in which their factory workers lived in relatively healthy environments, and all recognised the communitarian value of amateur theatre as part of their project of social reform.2 Their approach to community life, inspired by William Morris, was quickly adopted in the Garden City movement, with amateur theatre enthusiastically promoted by C.B.Purdom, a pioneer in both Letchworth and Welwyn Garden cities. In his biography, Life Over Again, Purdom describes his commitment to amateur dramatics as one way to erode class division, and he imagined that the garden cities would be ‘served by artists who also worked in the town’s factories’ 3. Certainly some factory workers took up the challenge; the corset factory in Letchworth, Spirella, had a thriving amateur theatre company who performed their own suffrage play, When Eve Reigns, when their American bosses visited in 1913.4 In the jobs-for-life economy that dominated much of the twentieth century, major local employers in the manufacturing industries regularly provided subsidised social and leisure activities for their employees. One of these was amateur theatre, an activity that required different skills from those used at work, but yet it was undertaken with work colleagues. In our research we have encountered leading members of companies today whose interest in amateur theatre was ignited in factories such as Kodak, ICI and Shredded Wheat in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Other workplaces also founded dramatic societies, many of which were designed to bring people together and encourage a sense of loyalty and community. The Infirmary Dramatic Operatic and Literary Society (The IDOLS), founded in 1955 by a consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Leicester Royal Infirmary who aimed to bring doctors, nurses, administrators and maintenance staff together, and The Lewis Partnership Dramatic Society was founded in 1929 with employees of the John Lewis department stores. Some workplace

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


dramatic societies are still thriving, but many factories have now closed and work patterns are changing. This is bringing new challenges to amateur theatre. The shift from jobs-for-life industrial economies to a knowledge and service economy, and the more precarious culture of self-employment in the twenty-first century, is realigning distinctions professional and amateur labour and their boundaries are increasingly porous. For some, amateur theatre provides a welcome alternative to the routine of working life, offering creative opportunities as directors and performers, set-builders, lighting designers and costumemakers. As one member of the backstage crew for Harefield Dramatic Association in Greater London said: ‘This is my time, this is for my creativity’.5 For others, however, the lines between professional and amateur lives are less distinct. Rob and Lou Wallace are much-valued members of The Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City, and both have professional interests in the arts. Rob gives his professional skills in sound and acoustic design to the theatre, and Lou, a drama teacher, regularly directs plays. Both regard their

contribution to amateur theatre as an important extension of their professional lives, allowing them to experiment as artists outside their work environments.6 For those working in the service economy, amateur performers recognise that their skills are transferable. Members of the British Airways Cabin Crew Entertainment Society observed that their ability to connect quickly with audiences on stage was indebted to their in-flight work, where they are expected to engage with passengers quickly and solve unexpected problems without anyone noticing. Arlie Russell Hochschild describes this ability as ‘emotional labour’, a term she uses to describe the emotional demands on people in the service industries and caring professions.7 Increasingly precarious workplace conditions and funding constraints in the cultural sector are bringing distinctions between amateur and volunteer labour into relief. Some cultural organisations are increasingly reliant on what they describe as volunteers, sometimes undertaking unpaid roles that might otherwise have gone to paid professionals.8 An amateur is, however, very different from a volunteer; amateurs often sustain a life-long passion for an interest that is locally generated, whereas volunteering suggests willing service, often to an organisation that is professionally managed. The distinction between head and heart is captured in the language; the word volunteer derives from the Latin voluntārius – of free will, whereas amateur famously stems from amātōr- to love. In researching the distinctions between different forms of labour, this definition marks an important boundary. Notes 1 Judith Hawley and Mary Isbell, (eds) 2011, ‘Amateur Theatre Studies’ Nineteenth Century Theatre, vol 38, no. 2., and Jenny Hughes, ‘A Prehistory of applied theatre: work, house, perform’, in Jenny Hughes and Helen Nicholson, (eds) Critical Perspectives on Applied Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 40-60 2 S ee, for example, Tristram Hunt Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (London: Phoenix, 2004); P Hall and C Ward Sociable Cities: The Legacy of Ebenezer Howard (Chichester: Wiley Press, 1998); Anthony Alexander Britain’s New Town : Garden Cities to Sustainable Communities (London: Routledge, 2009) 3 C.B. Purdom (1951) Life Over Again (London: J.M. Dent and Sons), p. 169 4 Script available at Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation Archive 5 Workshop on amateur theatre, Harefield Library, 14 November 2015 6 Interview with Rob and Lou Wallace, Hitchin, 28 May 2015. 7 R ussell Hochschild, A. The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

The Props Store, The Oast Theatre


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8 T his practice has sparked controversy. See, for example, comments on You Me Bum Bum Train (2012, 2015): arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/you-me-bum-bum-trainthe-latest-journey-into-challenging-immersive-theatre-10511552.html [accessed 25 July 2016]

For Love or Money? Collaboration between Amateur and Professional Theatre The newest strand of our research explores the relationship between amateur and professional theatre making. The boundaries between amateur and professional theatre are more porous than might be assumed, and we have found that assumptions that amateurs make theatre for love and highly-trained professionals work for money are misinformed. This research asks how professional expertise and amateur knowledge are differentiated, and what happens when amateur and professional theatremakers work together. This project will break new ground by analysing the asymmetrical relationships between amateur and professional theatres, identifying potential for future collaborations between the two sectors. There are three lines of inquiry in this research: 1) The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages Programme. 2) Professional theatre-makers employed by amateur theatre companies, including professional musicians, musical directors and choreographers who contribute to amateur productions; playwrights are sustained by selling rights for amateur productions and adjudicators who to judge competitive festivals. 3) Amateur theatre companies who run theatre buildings as successful commercial enterprises, and professional theatres that depend on amateur performances for revenue.

The RSC’s amateur partners have a wide range of training and experience. For some participants, the Open Stages ‘skills exchanges’ constituted their first encounter with the kind of physical, vocal, and performance techniques commonly taught in professional theatre training programmes. Meanwhile, other participants already had significant experience in formal theatre training before their involvement with the RSC either in college, university, or through private studio workshops. Despite these disparities in training histories and in practical experience, there was one remarkably consistent pattern that arose out of our conversations with the amateurs of Open Stages. More than the workshops as a whole and more than the individual exercises taught, it was the fact of their association with the RSC that appears to have had the biggest impact on the majority of respondents included

Our first point of entry along this line of inquiry is an exploration of the impact of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages initiative and it is on this project that we focus here. The most ambitious example of a subsidized-professional theatre company collaborating with amateur theatre makers, Open Stages began in 2011. Throughout the past five years, the programme has engaged close to 300 amateur companies and over 10,000 amateur participants in workshops, master classes, and mentoring schemes taught by leading industry professionals. Our study traces the efficacy of the RSC’s involvement in the amateur theatre scene from 2011 – 2016. Inspired, in part, by Gay McAuley’s book Not Magic But Work: An ethnographic account of a rehearsal process, our research adopts an ethnographic approach to its consideration of Open Stages.1 Drawing on rehearsal and performance observations, as well as a series of semi-structured interviews with the artists at the heart of the initiative, we inquire into how Open Stages has or has not shifted the way its amateur and professional participants rehearse, perform, and conceptualize their own theatre practice.

Llanymech Amateur Dramatic Society Rehearsal for Twelfth Night, courtesy of the company

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


Since Open Stages began, the RSC has produced two full scale productions featuring amateur actors in leading roles, Pericles in 2012 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation in 2016. These high-profile projects in conjunction with Open Stages have initiated an essential dialogue within the industry about the value of both amateur and professional theatre in our culture.2

The Tempest at Shakespeare at the George in Huntingdon. Photographer: Antonia Brown

our study. Almost every one of the amateur artists we encountered in our field work reported experiencing a sense of increased confidence as a result of their participation in the programme. This increase in confidence inspired some respondents to take new creative risks and embrace elements of the unknown in their production processes. For example, Rob Sloan of Rugby Theatre reports that since participating in Open Stages he no longer blocks his productions but instead encourages his actors to discover their own motivations for moving through the space throughout the rehearsal process. Still other Open Stages participants have established new outreach initiatives bringing drama and Shakespeare to community spaces around the country. As a result of the confidence and skills she gained during her work in Open Stages, director Pam Johnson from the Llanymynech Amateur Dramatics Society, for example, has begun giving free talks on Shakespeare’s plays at her local library’s ‘Learning at Lunchtime Programme’. Similarly inspired by their involvement with Open Stages, numerous participants from the Cardiff-based group Everyman have started offering workshops to students in the area and are currently developing a more formal curriculum to bring to local schools. Participation in Open Stages has also had a profound effect on the professionals employed by the programme. The teachers and directors included in this study claim the experience of working with amateurs offered them fresh perspective on the value of theatre in community and new insight into their own creative capacity as teachers and as artists. Some of the professionals employed on the programme have been hired to teach additional workshops for the amateurs companies involved while others have since begun collaborative projects with Open Stages artists outside of the RSC framework.


Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

Our research into the collaborative relationship between professional and amateur theatres is still on-going. Though many of the questions raised in these debates are yet to be answered, the fact that the conversation has begun is one of the most significant results of the Open Stages initiative. As our research suggests, Open Stages has brought the value of amateur theatre into public discourse. There are other, less publicly visible collaborations, such as the amateur company that hires a professional band for a musical production, or the lighting technician hired to generate special effects for a local pantomime. Some professional theatre-makers, whether actors, musicians or technicians, have chosen to keep their collaborations with amateurs quiet, fearing that it would adversely affect their careers. By shedding light on the artistic quality and potential of amateur theatre in this way, the RSC has served as an important affirmation and acknowledgement of something everybody involved in the programme already knew – that amateur theatre matters. Notes 1 Gay McAuley, Not Magic But Work: An ethnographic account of a rehearsal process (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012). 2 See, for example, Lyn Gardner’s June 2013 entry on the Guardian’s Theatre Blog, ‘Amateur theatre should be celebrated not derided’, <> accessed 27 July, 2016; and Michael Billington’s review of Midsummer Night’s Dream: A play for the nation, published on the same site in May, 2016, < stage/theatreblog/2016/may/23/midsummer-nights-dream-play-forthe-nation-rsc> accessed 27 July, 2016>.

RSC Open Stages Coach, Michael Corbidge

Organising Amateur Theatre Organisations like the British Drama League, NODA and the Little Theatre Guild stimulated and developed the rise of the amateur theatre movement in Britain from the turn of the twentieth century. The organisations of amateur theatre continue to play an important role in developing an overarching vision for the social, educational and cultural role of amateur theatre-making, and their advocacy can continue to situate amateur theatre-making alongside the commercial and subsidised theatre, as an integral part of the wider theatre and performance ecology of England.

Serving the Nation Working together, and in partnership with the commercial and subsidized sectors, amateur theatre organisations were central to the establishment of the National Theatre. Geoffrey Whitworth and the British Drama League reenergised the campaign for a National Theatre after the First World War, including running a competition for architectural designs in Country Life in 1924. Alongside their counterparts the Scottish Community Drama Association, Drama Association Wales, and Association of Ulster Drama Festivals, the English amateur theatre organisations built, sustained and enhanced the theatrical infrastructure of the regions.1 Many regional civic theatres developed out of amateur activity, and continue to be supported financially by amateur hires and cross-subsidy. Leeds Carriageworks offers a remarkable example of a collaborative space which houses amateur, community and specialist arts and theatre companies, under the auspices of the Leeds Civic Arts Guild.2 Amateur groups have sustained historic and otherwise neglected theatre buildings and many Little Theatres have been successful in winning Heritage Lottery or Arts Council England funding to upgrade their disabled access, seating or technical equipment, because they are recognised as key community assets. Working together amateur and subsidised sectors have supported a national infrastructure of associational spaces for theatre-making that continues today.3 Amateur theatre organisations were key to the development of drama in adult education in Britain, working with local government and the Carnegie UK Trust in the 1930s, to appoint County Drama Committees and Advisors who, with groups like the Workers’ Educational Association, worked to demonstrate the educational value of amateur theatre, develop the rise of drama education in schools and militated for Drama as a subject of study in Further and Higher Education.4 Amateur theatre organisations have facilitated, and given voice to, the integral role of amateur theatre in the evolution of live theatre production and learning in Britain today.

Building the networks of amateur performance In an age of unparalleled opportunity for personalised entertainment inside the home, drawing participants and audiences to actively contribute and challenge themselves in crafting a communal creative life can be difficult. Yet, most amateur theatre groups report their memberships are healthy, with interest sustained by the active making of performance. At a time when traditional ideas of aesthetic value are loosening and live theatre may risk being seen as too high-brow, or part of waning culture, amateur theatre making has maintained its attraction because of the opportunities it offers participants to be actively creative. Working alongside subsidised and commercial theatres, many amateur groups offer youth theatre opportunities that enhance provision for young people in increasingly straitened times for subsidised regional theatres. A recent example of collaboration between theatre groups was Leeds Lads (2016), a commemorative project about the First World War produced by the amateur Leeds Civic Arts Guild with community activist arts group Red Ladder, as part of an ongoing collaboration between these groups that extended the work of the amateur groups into a large professionallyfacilitated community event.5 Both in the remarkable number of productions staged by amateur theatres each year, and in the occasional collaborations with the community or subsidized sector, amateur theatre groups form a dynamic network of live performance-making that strengthens the whole theatrical ecology, in an era when mediatised cultural opportunities have expanded and diversified. Wider advocacy on behalf of the amateur theatre movement as a whole remains essential in an era of ‘distributed aesthetics’, where distributive digital technologies are altering how we connect socially and how we engage with, and create, art. The rise of social media and digital platforms has changed the way in which groups are able to keep in touch with their own memberships and audiences, and both amateur theatre organisations and the commercial support services for the amateur theatre sector, now predominantly publish, advertise and operate online.6 While individual groups may be well networked with

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research


other theatre companies locally, a few coordinate ad hoc exchanges internationally, or publicise and maintain links with groups across the world. Advocacy from the amateur theatre organisations could help amateur groups gain a broader presence across diverse media from the live stage, social media, online archives, and into today’s public cultural debates.7 Building connections and networks across the subsidised, commercial and local government sectors will continue to be a vital element of what amateur theatre organisations can offer. Despite Arts Council England (ACE) and policy makers’ neglect of amateur theatre in funding and policy terms, ACE’s recent initiative Creative People and Places, which seeks to revitalise poorly served areas of England by forging networks across the voluntary, amateur and professional sectors, has been an opportunity to recognise amateur theatre as an integral part of live performance making, for example in Made in Corby’s Danny Hero (October 2016) which teams Corby Amateur Theatre Society with professional musical theatre group Pitch Perfect for a community production. Implicitly the amateur world is treated as an integral element of the theatrical landscape in terms of theatre audience attendance - ACE’s national survey Taking Part does not differentiate between amateur or professional theatre-going as it takes the pulse of national trends of cultural participation. Even in the context of an increasingly networked cultural world, lively

amateur theatre organisations will continue to be important in making the value of amateur theatre visible to policy makers, local government, funders, charities and the wider national and international communities of theatre makers. Notes 1 Claire Cochrane outlines this trajectory in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, which lie outside the remit of our study, in Twentieth-Century British Theatre: Industry, Art, Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). 2 Examples might be The Manor Pavilion, Sidmouth; Northcott Theatre, Exeter. 3 The Theatre’s Trust, Conference 14 Report: Community Theatres (2014) captures some of the current shared spirit of care for community theatre buildings. This has a long history through the British Drama League and Little Theatre Guild’s advocacy. assets/0000/3970/Conf14_report_updated_AW.pdf 4 Mick Wallis ‘Drama in the villages: three pioneers’ in P.Brassley, J.Burchardt, L.Thompson (eds.) The English Countryside 1918-39: Regeneration or Decline? (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2006). Alfred Emmet’s history of amateur theatre briefly recounts this history in The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London: Continuum, 2002). 5 Only one example of very many is The Barn at Welwyn’s vibrant youth theatre linked to the adult company’s work: http://www.barntheatre. Amateur youth theatres like the remarkable Kids R Us company (St Ives) are beyond the remit of our research but are a vibrant area of amateur theatre making. 6 Sardines and Amateur Stage magazine, and have found digital publishing more fruitful than print. 7 Christopher B. Balme, The Theatrical Public Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 178.

The Tempest at Shakespeare at The George, Huntingdon. Courtesy of photographer Antonia Brown


Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research

We can be reached via our website, www.amateurdramaresearch or by twitter @amateurdrama.