What We Did For Love: Why Amateur Theatre Isn’t a Dirty Word

The cast of A Chorus Line at Geoids Musical Theatre. Photo: Stephen Russell.

When you hear the words amateur theatre, the first things that spring to mind for many people are dusty church halls, creaky sets, wooden performances and over-inflated egos. Most people grow up aware of amateur theatre from their community centres and even school or university groups and their ability to provide extra-curricular care to those who band together under the umbrella of “theatre,” a broad church that celebrates interests and skills that unite rather than divide.

In London, the cultural epicentre of the UK, where on any given evening potential audiences have their pick of literally hundreds of different live performances, the term “am-dram” has quite different connotations. Rather than confined to the aforementioned venues, there is a vibrant and exciting network of companies stuffed full with talented people both on and off the stage who spend their free time, resources and often money to create quite special theatre. Whilst the terms “fringe” and “off-West End” have exploded to take on a whole different set of connotations, London amateur theatre continues to blur the line between what it really means to be amateur, creating a sort of sub-category of its own that shakes off these ideas of what the genre really means.

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The National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) boasts upwards of 2,500 amateur theatre groups in the UK, with London literally offering dozens of opportunities for people to get involved in different ways. In any season, you could audition to star in the fringe premiere of Jennifer Haley’s provocative play The Nether, a revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls or one of countless productions of new musicals, such as 9 to 5 or Legally Blonde. Opportunities extend far beyond the traditional roles of “backstage” to intricate roles in sound and video design, marketing and fundraising. Whatever your skill, amateur theatre offers a community where it will be welcomed with open arms.

For the most precious among the thousands of individuals in these communities, “semi-professional” is used interchangeably with “am-dram” to avoid negative connotations that evoke a general unease. It’s the unease that sends some audiences into a tailspin at the prospect of sitting through a non-racially-sensitive production of The King and I or a creaky meander through one of Noel Coward’s lesser-known comedies. Whilst “semi-professional,” as a term, helps elevate prestige to some extent, it doesn’t celebrate the success of the form for being exactly what it is: amateur. The very fact that actors, directors, producers, designers and stage managers commit their time without pay, slotted in between work and life commitments, all adds to the success of each production and should be celebrated rather than shied away from. With the London fringe theatre economy now relying on a profit-share model in which contributors aren’t paid a salary, the lines between voluntary amateur theatre and voluntary professional work are increasingly hazy. Adding to this confusion is the fact that the output of many “amateur” companies is significantly higher and sometimes perhaps more “professional” than many productions that operate with a professional license.

I approach this subject having recently directed an amateur production of A Chorus Line that played for seven performances in London’s Bridewell Theatre — a venue historically associated with high-profile UK premieres but is now almost exclusively a venue for resident amateur theatre. A Chorus Line places demands on all the performers, yet, as a show, it’s one of the most performed musicals in amateur, stock and community theatre across both the US and UK. What I found during auditions was that there were very few people who hadn’t come across the musical in some form; most people’s memories were of seeing an amateur, school or university production rather than the revival that ran for six months at the London Palladium in 2013. Auditioning just shy of 100 applicants with a 70/30 split of females to males (a figure familiar to anyone attempting to find a cast across London and beyond), I was primarily struck by the deep connections that people felt to the legendary show, which opened on Broadway 42 years ago last week.

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In his 2002 book The Haunted Stage: Theatre as a Memory Machine, critic and academic Marvin A. Carlson raises the idea of all theatre, no matter what the form, being obsessed with “ghosts.” Much like the spectral kind of ghosts, haunted figures surround productions, properties and performances, thanks to their deep association with what has gone before them, and to the unshakeable memories they create for both participants in the shows and their audiences. There’s perhaps no piece of musical theatre quite as haunted as A Chorus Line, which arguably changed both the genre and the industry forever. Not only did it perpetuate and fully realize the commercialization of the “concept” musical, it catapulted director-choreographer Michael Bennett to international stardom.

In preparing for the production, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting the original Cassie, Donna McKechnie, who shared with me her own ghost of A Chorus Line being like an albatross around her neck. Indeed, the show’s legacy has been felt by all those who have produced, directed, choreographed or starred in it across the decades. From the repeated vamp that becomes the showstopper “One” to the iconic gold top hat and tails, the musical takes on a life of its own in terms of audience and cast expectations. It prompts a significant challenge to those who come to the show hoping to leave their mark on it. If one could argue that A Chorus Line isn’t a perfect musical, one could also argue that it achieves perfection in its own form and construction; any attempt to undermine or unravel this notion is foolish. Anyone who mounts a production is handed down the legacy of what the show means and what it represents to dancers, or “gypsies,” around the world — the idea of being given the chance to step out of the ensemble to share their story individually, away from the uniformed collective.

Our production remained faithful to Bennett’s style and vision. It was designed not to be a reimagining or rediscovery, but instead a loving, respectful remounting that placed the onus on the performers to bring their own style to the roles. In working with rather than against theatrical ghosts, the creative team let the performers and performances find lives of their own within a wider framework that both respected and celebrated the material.

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In amateur theatre, these ghosts in fact represented another layer of excitement for the audience who recognised their friends, flatmates, work colleagues and even teachers who brought their roles to life. The show’s overall message, its celebration of the skill, commitment and dedication of the collective ensemble, is one that resonates with any amateur theatre company that relies on a community coming together to do what they love. In other words: a true ensemble musical, I cherished the fact that each of our 17 performers got their individual moments to shine before coming together to impress by dancing and performing in complete unison.

At the final performance of A Chorus Line on Broadway in 1990, producer Joseph Papp spoke aloud the words that Bennett, who died in 1987, had placed within the playbill for the show back in 1975:

This show is dedicated to anyone who has ever danced in a chorus or marched in step anywhere.

As much as the themes of the show resonate with professional performers and dancers, it takes on a new level of connection for amateur performers who connect with its sentiments: For them, “What I Did For Love” means something wholly different and unique. Am-dram relies on love from every side; the hunger to be involved should be enjoyed and appreciated. With companies such as Geoids, SEDOS, Tower Theatre and Centre Stage regularly pushing boundaries in London, amateur theatre here has long since bypassed its once-shaky reputation. It is a sector of the industry we should be proud of.