|Hurrah for am-dram – why it's time to applaud amateur actors|
|Life & Entertainment - Performing Arts|
|Written by news desk - guardian.co.uk|
Forget the idea of pensioners performing in draughty village halls: amateurs and pros are closer in ability than you might think
A stage-struck school friend who once told his careers teacher that he wanted to take up acting professionally received a stinging response. "Don't do it," said his mentor. "You'll end up a lonely middle-aged man in a flat with no carpet reading back copies of the Stage."
Brutal it might have been, but it still crystallises the trajectory of many actors' lives – at least those with nothing else to fall back on. Which is exactly why many wannabe thesps prefer to do it in their spare time, and preserve both their savings and their sanity.
Despite a rich heritage and some fabulous examples scattered throughout the UK – many of which will be on show this year and next as part of the RSC-led Open Stages project – the popular notion of am-dram is still one of pensioners with too much eyeliner performing plays by Francis Durbridge in draughty church halls. And it's undoubtedly true that a majority of amateur companies stick to well-trodden scenarios – thrillers, "uproarious comedies", and plays that still involve exchanges such as "Cigarette?", "Thanks."
The gulf can be horrendous between those who dabble and those who take it seriously. One rarely performed Terence Rattigan play I went to see last year staged by a "semi-professional" company in north London was so execrably acted (and with such unutterable smugness) that I had to invent a scenario – which I tell myself was rather better-performed – involving my wife phoning to say she'd locked herself out of our house in order to leave the play at the interval.
Nonetheless, the defining difference between pros and amateurs is not one of ability, but one of commitment. Woody Allen once said: "Showbusiness is not so much 'dog eats dog' as 'dog doesn't return other dog's phone calls'," and the fact is that professionals are prepared to stake everything in pursuit of their dream. Most amateurs, however talented, just don't fancy the uncertainty of never knowing where the next wage packet is coming from. And who can blame them?
One lesson I've learned through bitter experience is never to make the mistake of accepting invitations to speak at amateur society dinners. However interested they might profess themselves to be in your life story, each dropped name, each fresh anecdote about your time at the National or your spell in Doctors reminds them of the choice they might have made and, for whatever reason, didn't. My advice is: wish them a very happy next 50 years, propose the toast and sit hurriedly back down.
Having been an actor for three decades, my only experience of working with amateurs was in 1985 when I appeared in Noël Coward's jingoistic musical epic, Cavalcade, at Chichester Festival Theatre. Directed by David Gilmore, the show hadn't been staged for many years, and no wonder – what with scenes featuring the sinking of the Titanic, trench warfare in Flanders and a grand finale involving an entire village singing Jerusalem, it would have bankrupted Andrew Lloyd Webber himself.
Chichester circumvented ruination by augmenting the cast of 20 pros with 150 amateurs, culled from local societies in West Sussex. The Cavalcaders, as they became known, filled the stage with party guests, soldiers, nurses, drowning passengers and rustic villagers. What's more, both sides of the divide rubbed along splendidly, enjoying mutual parties, picnics, and, if memory serves, even one or two illicit affairs.
During one performance, one of my pro colleagues entered the stage as usual for the ballroom scene that concluded the first act, in which rows of crinolined ladies and men in gleaming tuxedos waltzed in dizzying patterns round the stage. This particular night Robert was somewhat taken aback to find himself grabbed by an utter stranger wearing the identical costume to his normal partner. "Don't worry, dear," whispered the woman as she manoeuvred him coolly around the stage. "Maureen has to take her dog to the vet's. I'm her next-door neighbour – we went through the moves in her kitchen this afternoon …" Who says amateur has to mean amateurish?