Amateur theatre: A vital contribution to UK theatre

Tamara von WerthernEarlier this month, a large group of academics, writers, theatre-makers and individuals passionate about amateur theatre gathered at Royal Holloway University in London. They were there to discuss the findings of a 3-year-long research project into amateur theatre, Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research, led by Royal Holloway and the Universities of Warwick and Exeter. Our own Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern, was there to participate in panel discussions, and to report back on what she discovered about the state of amateur theatre today…

I have been involved in amateur theatre for a long time now. In my capacity as Performing Rights Manager at Nick Hern Books, I license amateur performances of a huge number of plays, and my daily work is advising amateur groups on how to select a play to perform, and how to apply for the rights. So I thought I had the measure of the amateur theatre community.

And yet despite this, I was taken aback recently when I spent the day at Royal Holloway, talking to people for whom amateur theatre is a vocation. The sheer passion and enthusiasm on display, and the commitment to artistic excellence that was consistently demonstrated, left me feeling inspired and overawed.

It was a real honour to have been invited to speak on a panel, and it was wonderful to meet so many of our regulars face-to-face, finally, after many years of being in contact solely by phone and email!

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The theme of the day was to explore and celebrate the role of amateur theatre culturally and its wider impact on the community. It was truly eye-opening and inspiring to reflect together on the differences between professional and amateur theatre, and how they can interlink and support each other.

From Ian Wainwright we learnt about the ‘RSC Open Stages effect‘ on professional actors as well as amateur actors, and how it has deepened the respect both groups have for each other. Jill Cole from the Castle Players spoke very movingly about how the local drama group gave her a reason to stay on in Darlington ‘for another year’ – twenty years later she is still there and now also works for the Arts Council. Lyn Gardner, writer and Guardian theatre critic (see her article about amateur theatre published earlier this year), spoke about the nature of being an artist, which doesn’t depend on being paid or trained, but consists simply in ‘artisting’, in making art. She encouraged amateur theatre-makers to be more confident in thinking of themselves as artists.

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What struck me in our debates was that the ‘value’ of amateur theatre has to be measured by a different yardstick from the one we use to measure the ‘value’ of professional theatre. Whilst professional theatre’s success is often measured in monetary terms, to promote tourism and the economic regeneration of urban areas, amateur theatre exists outside these imperatives. The value it has for its members, for the community within which it works and which it binds, the connections it forges and the enjoyment it brings to its audiences – all of this goes largely under the radar. It is important to recognise these benefits and the value of the work purely for its own sake.

Amateur theatre is a space where communities reflect themselves back to local audiences, many of whom know the people on stage personally and are therefore more invested in the success of the performance – another thing that Ian Wainwright could confirm. He spoke about how the professional actors in the RSC Open Stages project had never before experienced such a warmth from their audience as when they acted alongside amateur performers.

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We also spoke about how the requirements of amateur theatre productions when it comes to staging a piece of new writing are very different from those of professional productions, and how theatre publishing has a crucial role to play in supporting the needs of amateur theatre. Amateur companies often look for large-cast plays, all-women casts, or at least good, substantial parts for women, and intergenerational performance opportunities. In professional theatre, the current trend amongst companies and venues that stage new writing is to move towards small-cast plays suitable for studio spaces. So amateur theatre has a huge role to play in preserving the diversity and vitality of theatre culture at large.

Nick Hern Books is unique in being the only trade publishers who also routinely handle performing rights, and we have a large following interested in new plays. (Something I learned at Royal Holloway is that 46% of amateur theatre in London and mainstream theatre venues consists of new writing.) So our job is to publish the plays that you want to put on, and to make them easily accessible to you. We do that via the Playfinder on our website, which allows you to search for plays by categories including ‘good roles for women’, ‘large casts’ and ‘good roles for older performers’, amongst many others. We’re also available via phone or email to give you personal recommendations if you have more specific requirements.

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan – one of the Platform plays from Nick Hern Books and Tonic Theatre

We’re always looking for ways to publish plays that will serve the amateur theatre community. We recently teamed up with Tonic Theatre for a project called Platform, an initiative to commission and publish new plays that put young women centre stage, and to give each woman on stage a role which shapes the story. The idea is to instil confidence in women early on, while they are performing at school, in their youth group or at drama school. It was suggested at the event at Holloway that a similar initiative catering for women between the ages of 50 and 80 would be welcomed by theatre-makers across the UK, and this is something Nick Hern Books is now thinking about for the future.

One of the challenges that groups face is that many younger members, with their increasing workloads and 24/7 expectations from their employers, find it hard to commit to regular rehearsals and participate in community drama. This seems a wider problem with our society today. It also turns out that many groups who do have committed youth members, and a loyal core group of older members, are finding it difficult to recruit and retain members of working and child-rearing age. It seems to me that this could be addressed if the benefits on health, well-being and community spirit could be communicated more widely in workplaces. Many progressive employers have already recognised these benefits – and some even have their own in-house theatre companies! But there’s still a long way to go.

Another challenge facing amateur theatre-makers who work in smaller communities is the lack of group members from other cultural backgrounds, and it was heartening to see that so many of you are striving to make your groups more culturally inclusive.

Please do join in the debate and let us know what challenges your group is facing, what kind of plays you are looking for and what could be done to support you.

The day at Holloway ended with a brilliant performance from the British Airways Cabin Crew Entertainment Society, which turned the air blue as we sipped our champagne – a suitably decadent ending to a brilliant day.


tamara-marceloFor details of our plays for performance, visit our website at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/plays-to-perform, where you can also sign up for our regular Plays to Perform Newsletter.

See the full report, Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research, published by Royal Holloway, the University of Warwick and the University of Exeter, available to read for free here.

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Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 2: The Reckoning

1143114837LOGO_ORANGE[1]The Edinburgh Fringe is over for another year, but how did our intrepid amateur companies get on performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books? We hear from four of them as they recount the highs – and the lows – of mounting a production on the Fringe. (If you missed the first instalment, it’s available here).

BURYING_YOUR_BROTHER_EHSBurying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne
Eagle House School

 Our Edinburgh experience was incredible!  That’s the only way to describe being a part of this amazing festival.

We performed at the Space Triplex Big and each day we got a good number of audience members. The response was very positive with several people describing the show as the best one they had seen at the Fringe.  We had a great reaction from Glenn Chandler, the original creator of Taggart, who tweeted  ‘MUST SEE is Burying Your Brother in the Pavement. Grief, love + gayness all handled by 13 year olds. Astonishing. 5★’

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Alex Nash as Tight and Hugo Williamson as Tom in Burying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne

Taking young actors to the Fringe was a complete delight and the company worked extraordinarily hard to make the show something special.  As each performance went by, the actors became stronger and it is a credit to Jack Thorne’s writing that they so easily fell into the story, tackling sensitive and emotional ideas with honesty and confidence.

Promoting the show on the Royal Mile is always rather a bun fight but we worked out that a tableau of actors all gathered around a body lying on the street was good for getting attention.  We even had a policeman take a picture of the scene on his phone!

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The Eagle House School cast promoting the show on the Royal Mile

We saw loads of shows and enjoyed the variety of performances on offer.

Being able to take a show that was new to many and one that pushed all of the actors was a very fulfilling experience. Exposing young actors to tough drama requires maturity and talent and I am happy to say our company had this in spoonfuls.

We’re already planning for the Fringe in 2017!

– Matthew Edwards, Head of Drama, Eagle House School


Holes poster with bleedHoles by Tom Basden
Lyons Productions

After making a full recovery from the craziness that is the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s safe to say that we couldn’t be more delighted with our fringe experience!

Over 500 people came to see Holes during its seven-day run at C Venues. We even secured three sold-out performances with large standing ovations which left us grinning from ear to ear. To see such vast and thrilled audiences was a definite highlight for us, putting to rest our anxiety about the large auditorium – much bigger than our venue last year.

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The cast of Holes by Tom Basden, performed by Lyons Productions

Tom Basden’s writing is a big draw, and flyering became an easy feat as soon as his name was mentioned. So we owe a lot to Basden’s talent and reputation – but we’d like to think that the enthusiasm we received from audiences indicates that we did his work justice.

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Flyering in the inevitable rain!

One challenge we had to overcome  was when we realised in our tech rehearsal that the piles of shredded newspaper we’d prepared for the set to represent sand (the play is set on a beach) was simply going to take too long to clear in a five-minute get-out. So the team had to get to work right away, ripping pages of newspaper into larger pieces by hand. And yes, it was as ridiculously laborious as it sounds!

Other glamorous fringe activities included flyering in the rain and lugging the set across the city. But hard work and the occasional hiccup is exactly what the fringe is all about we wouldn’t change one bit of it!

– Talia Winn, Producer, Lyons Productions


HowieHowie the Rookie by Mark O’Rowe
Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society

With the Fringe coming to a close and the curtain falling for the last time, the team has had a chance to reflect on the brilliant experience that was performing Howie the Rookie at the festival. It has been some adventure.

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Tom Taplin as the Howie Lee in Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie

Tom Taplin (cast member, the Howie Lee): ‘Performing Howie the Rookie at the Fringe this year has been the most ambitious theatrical project I’ve ever been involved with as an actor. The form of Mark O’Rowe’s play is so unique, and having 40 minutes worth of monologue to play with every night was simultaneously daunting and liberating. The way the script engages with the audience and breaks the fourth wall meant that each performance could be really fresh as it adapts to the way the audience react.

‘The Fringe really is an incredible experience. I was so proud to be part of a festival celebrating the arts in so many different forms on such a huge scale; there is nothing else like it. It provides so many opportunities for such a diverse range of people, and I think it’s something we, as a creative industry, should all be extremely thankful for.’

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Ed Limb as the Rookie Lee

Ed Limb (cast member, the Rookie Lee): ‘The pace of life at the Edinburgh Fringe makes it hard to take stock. A week on, I’m still exhausted by the carousel of shows, fliers, crowds and drinks. Exhausted, but satisfied. I was thrilled the variety of performances, and the refreshing attitude to theatre as something spontaneous and inclusive.

‘With Howie the Rookie, I was initially frustrated by the difficulty of selling tickets in so busy a market, but quickly embraced the challenge, and focused on my own work. The script rewarded my efforts, proving consistently surprising and demanding as my character, the Rookie Lee, navigates a disturbing plot with wit and vulnerability. Ultimately, there are few places I’d rather be in August than at the Fringe.’

Rebecca Vaa (producer): ‘Being at the Fringe was an incredible experience unlike any other, and getting to be there with a show like Howie the Rookie was such a privilege. Not only is it great material to work with creatively, but being such a small team we were given the chance to get really close and to work very intimately together – which I really value from a personal point of view. There was a real sense of teamwork throughout the whole process, and even though flyering in the rain and performing to audiences of five people was tough, as a whole experience I think we each gained so much and learned a lot, while having the time of our lives.’


HANG A5 Flyerhang by debbie tucker green
Yellow Jacket Productions

A play about finding a suitable punishment for an unspeakable crime isn’t the easiest sell on the Royal Mile, no matter how bright your artwork is. So it was great to have some really positive audience reviews to help get the word out about our production.

Still, there was an agonising wait for our first press review. When it finally came through, after two nail-biting weeks, it was well worth the wait: One4Review gave us five stars, ‘a fantastic and gripping hour of drama… Highly recommended!’

That got the ball rolling and others soon followed, including from Three Weeks (‘Dark, intense and personal, this play is utterly absorbing from the outset’) and Broadway Baby (‘The acting is excellent… they are able to navigate scenes of incredible emotional complexity and pain that many other actors would stumble over’).

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The cast of hang by debbie tucker green (L-R: Jessica Flood, Tiannah Viechweg, Kim Christie)

The Traverse Theatre invited us to attend the James Tait Black Awards Ceremony as hang had been shortlisted for the drama prize, awarded at the Traverse during the Fringe. We were extremely proud to represent the play at the ceremony, though in the event it lost out to Gary Owen’s play, Iphigenia in Splott.

Word about our production spread pretty quickly, and we were invited to appear in Mervyn Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe Show, a selection of the best shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.

hang_3Very much to our delight our production of hang won two Derek Awards (Best Drama and Best Individual Performance), the perfect way to wrap up our Fringe.

We loved taking hang to the Fringe and we have great hopes that the production will have a future life.

– Tiannah Viechweg, cast member


tamara-marceloLooking for a show to take to Edinburgh next year? Take a look at our dedicated Plays to Perform site, where you can search for plays by genre, theme and/or cast size, and sign up for our Plays to Perform newsletter.

Or get in touch with our Performing Rights team – they’re always happy to help you find the perfect play to perform. Call us on 020 8749 4953, or email PerformingRights@nickhernbooks.co.uk.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, @NHBPerforming.