Jun 14, 2007

In praise of the amateur.

Sorry all - it's been a busy week and posting has been but a distant dream for most of it.

Our event in the mossy bosom of the Kent Countryside will be happening with or without the help of you (seemingly) shy, retiring internet dwellers... though a pair of shiny gold stars to the West End Whingers and one to Ben Yeoh who have all declared their willingness to spend an glorious summer afternoon jollying around in England's green and pleasant pastures. Now how about the rest of you - has rascal's literary debut, whetted his appetite for a bit of theatre to boot?

On the subject of said event myself and my co-creator spent a delightful evening on Tuesday in the company of the committee of the Shoreham Village Players amateur dramatics company, sitting on the banks of the river darent drinking wine with a collection of strangers who seemed to have fallen out of an episode of Midsummer Murders - it truly was a delight. And their willingness not just to get stuck but to be engaged in what we are attempting to create was wonderful.

As Brian Logan has recently argued in the Guardian, am-dram is that impossibly rare thing in professional theatre - an environment in which the cry is constantly going out for larger casts and grander projects. Without their involvement a project like ours would be impossible.
Chris Chamberlain is one of the five professional actors in the company. He grew up watching am-dram ("that was the West End to me") and thinks it does not get the respect it deserves. Amateur shows frequently have bigger budgets than some professional shows. They are rehearsed for months on end. And the people involved are very highly skilled, says Chamberlain. "I knew an amateur lighting designer who had done 86 productions in 20 years. He's as skilled as a West End lighting designer."
But I would go further than Logan. I think that amateur performers come into their own when they stop trying to replicate the talents that professional performers have honed over the course their career and are given free reign to what they have that the pros don't. Which is not to say they should create shows that are merely a rogues gallery of well rehearsed pub tricks, but their memories, experiences and creativity can be a revelation when they break free from the constraints of conveyor-belt London theatre.

A recent show such as Wildwork's Souterrain demonstrates that volunteer or amateur performers, brought together in the with right sense of riotous adventure, can create the kind of impossibly grand, moving theatrical event that is a thousand miles from the 3 hours of stilt-walking and fireworks that is currently injuring itself all over the Theatre Royal stage.

I'm with Gavin Stride when he says "There is an increasing appetite for participation, for saying, let's encourage people to be creative, whoever they are". And I believe that the kind of site-specific journey performance that we are creating, filled with any number of delightfully meandering and co-existent stories, is a perfect vehicle for the diverse and eccentric performers and personalities that can be dug up in every small village up and down the country.

Already we have unearthed a man in his seventies who will perform from his wheelchair and another who has developed a way of tucking his cello under his chin so that he can play as he wanders. We also have actors who have lived in the village 60 years, who tell us stories of when during the war they carried unexploded bombs to the police sergeants house. Others who will be performing in the gardens of their own houses, on the street on which they walk to school; any amount of Laban will not reproduce the relationship with space that this creates.

David Elridge
has been championing recently the quality of the performers at RADA and having seen several productions this year I would have to agree - 3 years of intensive training at the one of the most esteemed acting schools in the country produces some of the most polished performers you will see grace a stage in this country. They are sublime.

But once you abandon that stage and its conventions... well, I'll take the man with a cello tucked under his chin, please, and can you ask if he's got a brother who can play the banjo.


Statler said...

Great to read a post highlighting the role of non-professional actors. Earlier this year I was delighted by TAG and Martin McCardie's "Ice Cream Dreams" at the Citizens with a cast of two professional actors, community and youth performers including recovering addicts.

Just a shame Kent is so far away from Glasgow...

Andrew Field said...

There's some great things along those lines have come out of Scotland. If you enjoyed "Ice Cream Dreams" you should look into the work of Jeremy Weller's Grassmarket Project, an Edinburgh-based company who have done some astounding things right across the world.

And after 4 years of living in Edinburgh, I know all too well quite how far away it is!

Statler said...

Thanks for the tip - Grassmarket's work looks very interesting.