I have been thinking about the importance of amateur theatre since I saw the City of Glasgow College’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, which ended not with the cast taking their bows and exiting the stage, but simply breaking character and milling into the audience to chat to their friends and family. My shock at this forced me to confront the question of whether I am a theatre snob, or if this is a step too far, even for an amateur production.
I like to think that I am very much for amateur theatre, having enjoyed performing in a lot of it, including dance, musical theatre and 'classic' theatre. However, thinking back on my experiences, at least with performing, I have been in relatively professional atmospheres for amateur theatre. I went a school with a reputation for high standards of theatre and music, and super keen drama and music teachers who took the productions they put on very seriously. My experience of various dance and drama schools has involved high expectations on students to behave and perform like professionals in showcases. I have a sneaking suspicion that I have absorbed these high standards without thinking about it, so that when I see an amateur production that deviates from professional protocols, I am unreasonably outraged. I have to admit, having been let loose to direct a student dance company show while at university, the standards I expected of the cast were very much professional.
However, I’m not sure that my issue here is as simple as being a bit of a theatre snob. One of the things I love about going to the theatre is the rituals. The formality of being shown to your seat, the drawing of heavy, luxurious curtains, the suspension of reality for the duration of the show, often an interval, and of course, curtain calls and applause. I would be very surprised if I am alone in enjoying the long-established routines of the theatre, and to my mind these are traditional elements that are easy to create, regardless of whether the production is amateur or professional, and can be seen as connecting all theatre.
Yes, I will admit that I find poor acting, singing or dancing disappointing in the theatre, regardless of whether it is a professional or amateur production. Maybe that makes me a snob. However, this doesn’t stop me from enjoying going to see amateur theatre, because I know how much fun it is to perform to an audience. If you have the stage bug, there’s nothing like it, and, to me, the whole point of amateur theatre is enjoyment. Amateur performers are not there to make money; they are there because they want to be. The key difference between professionals and amateurs is that professionals provide a service to their audience, while, for the most part, the audience of an amateur production is there to support the performers.
With this in mind, you might think that it doesn’t matter whether amateur productions strive for a professional atmosphere, but I would argue that actually, it does. To me, there are two main reasons why amateur theatre is important. The first is that it is generally accepted that being involved in performing arts boosts confidence and creativity. From my personal experience, I have transformed from a painfully shy, hypersensitive kid, to a (reasonably) functioning adult, mainly through amateur theatre. I still find dancing and acting the best form of stress relief, because being absorbed in character and music is the perfect escape from reality. However, you simply don’t get the same suspension of reality if you are not striving for perfection and professionalism. Using all of your concentration to make your performance the best it can possibly be lets you switch off from any worries – there isn’t room in your head to think about anything else.
The second main reason I believe amateur theatre is important is that, as a general rule of thumb, professional artists and performers start out as amateurs. Whilst the majority of amateur performers do not have a hope of becoming professional, and are involved in performing arts for their personal pleasure, for a select few, amateur theatre is an insight into what could be their career. Amateur theatre, as well as promoting enjoyment and personal development, should also recognise that it has the potential to introduce the next stage star to their profession, and for this reason, should aim to be as professional as possible, at the very least by maintaining professional theatre practices. A level of professionalism in amateur theatre by extension supports professional theatre.
And so, whether it makes me a theatre snob or not, I maintain that a show, regardless of professional level, should finish with a curtain call. As an audience member, it allows you to show your appreciation for a few hours’ escape from reality, and as a performer, taking your bow makes you part of a long standing theatrical tradition. Please, for the sake of sanity, and I suspect many fellow theatre-lovers’ too, take your bow.