This week Fiona Lindsay discusses the relationship between amateur and professional theatre, reflecting that we're all in it for the love of the thing.
Recently, a colleague and I were discussing amateur dramatics and had to pause for a moment to absorb our slightly differing viewpoints. She spoke passionately about those that pursue non-professional theatre and the value of putting life in front of the art and I suppose, in turn, not putting oneself first. My response was a tad tiger-like in defence of those that make a choice to enter a very difficult profession and try their hand at sustaining a living by it and I argued that the whole point of it was to put the art first and to do that well you have to be selfish and, in turn, put yourself first. We agreed that both of us had valid points of view and that the glue was the passion and joy that individuals can derive from participation in theatre and performance - both professional and amateur.
Doing any activity for the love of it is like a taking a health tonic and, having worked in professional theatre all my adult life, I feel constantly quenched. However, I feel many other less life affirming things too. Sustaining a life in art is not for the faint hearted and I've spoken with many respected and accomplished performers who have remarked that they feel that their greatest achievement is having kept on working within the business.
There are some wonderful performers whose entry point into professional theatre work was via participation in amateur dramatics. Many of our finest elder statesmen who gave service during WW2, once demobbed went straight into shows in the West-End, having spent time treading the boards in forces theatre shows. Interesting too that the rite of passage for most successful comedians nowadays is through presenting themselves on the amateur circuit and showcasing their work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
It's a shame that such a beautiful looking word can have a sometime negative conation. It's strange that ‘amateur’ can mean not good enough, shoddy, not up to the mark, as well as meaning doing something for pleasure, without financial benefit, for the love of it.
Last Friday the TES, in association with the RSC, launched the blog My best Shakespeare Teacher. Did you have one? I did. Harry Quinn was the Head of English at George Watson's College in Edinburgh (my old school) and looked like the love child of John Lennon and Hank Marvin. He was at least 6'5, stick thin and his long spindly fingers seemed permanently crooked into a cigarette claw. He joined the school just as I was entering my 4th year and eligible to audition for the main school production. It was As You Like It. I didn't even take on board that it was by Shakespeare and that Rosalind was a huge part and that if I got it I'd have to juggle learning lines, rehearsing and O Levels. Harry Quinn took me on as Rosalind - I was 15 - and fuelled a passion for language and performance that had begun several years earlier when helping my mum learn her lines for playing Cleopatra in an amateur production of Antony and Cleopatra. Both Harry Quinn and my mum were non-professionals, but in my eyes equal in talent to many who make a living from the business. They just made a set of different choices.
We are all amateurs really. Amateurs until we can't live our lives by doing anything other than the thing that drives our passion. Harry Quinn was as brilliant a director as he was a teacher and I've often thought how similar those roles are. I was his student and became an actor directly as a result of his influence and belief in me.
This week we publish my interview with Alex Ferns. Alex began his career in the army and later joined an amateur dramatics group to take the sting out of his work-day-world. The group gave him the confidence to audition for professional training and he's been successfully exercising his performance muscles for over 22 years. Alex cites his time in amateur dramatics as a training ground like no other; he wouldn't have had it any other way. Perhaps we need to encourage many more young people to take this path - rather than feel rejected by not getting a place at an overly subscribed drama school. Doing something for the love of it is the first step surely?