It was a year ago today that a small group of us set off from Bath to take the brand new musical Pencoweth down to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall. I’ve seen lots of posts on Facebook today from people reminiscing about the experience and I’ve been feeling fairly emotional about it all myself. The whole experience was completely overwhelming. It was, without a doubt the most bonkers 48 hours of my life but also the most magical. My personal favourite moment was about 2am in the morning. We had just finished focusing all of the lights, we powered everything down and the Minack was in complete darkness. We stood there and looked out to sea and took everything in for a moment. All you could see were endless stars twinkling as far as the eye could see and the faint flash of a lighthouse cutting through the infinite darkness. Everything was completely silent and still except for the gentle sound of the sea breeze and the almost melodic sound of the waves breaking over the rocks below us. Sometimes you have defining moments in life and this was definitely one of mine. It was a completely perfect moment and I would have happily stayed sat in the Minack all night gazing out to sea.
What we all achieved over those few days was amazing. There were so many challenges that you just wouldn’t experience anywhere else and it drew us all closer as a team as we worked to solve the problems and make the production happen.
The team was made up of a mixture of people from different backgrounds and experiences. It wasn’t a professional company – just a group of incredibly talented and passionate people.
So what is it about amateur theatre & companies that gets so under your skin?
The word amateur comes from the Latin “amare” which means “to love”. It’s a good starting place. Everyone involved with amateur theatre has a love of theatre and performing.
It’s far too easy for people to have negative connotations about amateur productions. The word can be used as a derogatory term to describe something that isn’t as good as a professional production. I think it’s time to reclaim the word and the positive associations that it can have.
Certainly in Bath we have a thriving amateur theatre community, more so than a professional one. There are numerous groups who all stage productions locally. Some in small village halls, some in school theatres and some in professional venues. What connects them all is a passion for performing.
Amateur theatre draws people closer together than any other group can. People create friendships that last a lifetime and have a genuine feeling that they are immersed in something special. It can feel more like being part of a big, (if slightly insane), family. The bonds that are made are close and long lasting and often spur generations of the same family.
Many professional actors now perform in amateur productions. By professional I mean people who have undergone drama training at drama school or university. The reason… well put simply, in amateur companies you get the opportunity to perform roles that you never would in a professional production. In an amateur production you could play Hamlet or Lady MacBeth. Sometimes it’s better to have the experience of performing a role than never getting that opportunity professionally. Statistically 92% of actors are out of work at any one time and you could argue its always the same small percentage who get all the good roles. So why not perform in an amateur company and get the opportunity? It certainly has a positive effect on amateur shows.
There can be a lot of bad press about the quality of amateur productions, (hence some of the negative connotations of the word). But I would argue does it really matter how good the show is? Is that what it really all comes down to? Obviously we all want our productions to be the best they can be but you are dealing with groups of people with differing abilities. For me, it’s more important that people are given the opportunity rather than be “professional” in standard. Of course we should have high expectations and set high goals but actually what is more important is the involvement and the journey that individuals make from the start to the end of the production. It’s as much about what they learn as the people that they meet and friendships that are forged. It’s easy to forget this.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with a lot of the amateur companies in this area. In the past as a performer or crew member and recently professionally. Without the involvement I had from a young age with our local amateur theatre company, the Bathford Players, I wouldn’t be where I am today. My passion for theatre and my drive is deeply rooted in amateur theatre. It’s always a weird feeling being a professional coming in to work with these groups. The majority of them welcome you in with open arms and make you feel part of the company and production. That is one of the biggest highlights of amateur theatre for me. You do feel involved and part of the company in a way that you don’t if you’re just crewing a touring production.
Some people do choose to make theatre a career (most of us are probably a tiny bit mad!), but for a lot of people it truly is just the love of it, the social element and the unmatched adrenaline and buzz you get when performing to a live audience. Nothing else comes close to that feeling.
I invited Jill Bennett (who was until recently the Theatre Royal Bath Engage Programme coordinator) to talk at our theatre conference last year on the rather loaded question of “Is Amateur A Dirty Word?”, and I strongly believe that it isn’t and it shouldn’t be. It’s time to reclaim the word and re-highlight its importance and its value. We should continue to support, champion and celebrate amateur theatre and all those who give up their time to make it happen. And as Jill quite rightly stated at the end of her speech… “If amateur is a dirty word, then I’m going to talk dirty for the rest of my life!”