I am pleased that Valerie Jeffrey enjoyed her visit to the show at TAPAS recently but the comment of her friend that ‘You wouldn’t encourage your children to read badly written books so why take them to see amateur dramatics’ shows a woeful ignorance of the theatre that is available both here and when visiting English speaking communities around the world. Of course standards vary but perhaps my, fairly typical, experience as an amateur (mostly) performer can illustrate what she and her friend could be missing. I began with an amateur company in West London at a time when Arnold Wesker was encouraging professionals to be involved with communities. (I remember Simon Ward playing Hamlet in the local secondary modern school) All the teachers on the course I took came from RADA or Central. While I was at the Questors(now the largest amateur theatre company in Europe with three theatres and 3000 members) two plays written for members transferred into the West End and an important playwright (James Saunders) was discovered. Like many amateur actors I have spent many hours in workshops and short courses and I believe we all take improving our standards to be one of the reasons we continue to perform. And we don’t get cast unless we do!
Subsequently I have worked in amateur companies with young professionals who were showing off their skills to agents etc. and who wanted to make sure the rest of the cast were good enough to prevent the agent heading for the door, with older professionals who couldn’t reconcile a touring, away from base life, with family life or with actors who were honing their skills with more demanding parts than they could currently get in the theatre. On occasion the majority of the cast held equity cards. Rarely could an outsider tell which of us were which. And the equity card holder didn’t always have the leading part. There have been other occasions when plays began as an unpaid theatre work and then built to the West End. In Brighton I was one of a small audience above a pub for the beginning of the hit Musical ‘A Slice of Saturday Night’. What an amateur night that was! Also incidentally I was one of the audience when a distinguished and famous professional forgot so many lines the pre West End show was almost called off at the Theatre Royal.
Here I have performed at the Salon Varietes with actors who have appeared in the West End and on TV and with young actors setting out with high aims. The very edition of the News which had the letter from Ms.Jeffrey also had the ‘WOW’ factor final with a rave review from your editor. There were three Salon performers , one of whom won it. This year The NEWS has reported that two former performers at our theatre have done extremely well with one getting a final place on Operation Triunfo and another appearing in ‘The Tudors’ before heading off to a contract in Hollywood. Currently I am working with some very talented young people in a production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ In English at the ESAD Theatre in Malaga. The Director is heading for a Masters at RADA and the other members of the cast already cover much of their student costs with paid for professional work. I am sure I shall see some of them on TV or film one day. It has been a demanding and rewarding experience working with them.
To sum up, theatre operates on a spectrum from the great subsidized theatres via West End to local theatres then profit share , unpaid work (the London fringe has some really good stuff but they are amateur when they do it) and serious committed amateur theatre of a high standard to what I call ‘am dram’ – village hall fun productions, worthy but you know what to expect and it can still beat the telly.
I hope that Ms. Jeffrey’s friend reconsiders her unwise remark. She must have already missed so much good stuff it would be a pity to miss any more.