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!

writing-workshop

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.

panel

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.

ending

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.

Girls centre stage: Lucy Kerbel on building a new canon of writing for young actors

Good roles for young female actors are in short supply, so Tonic Theatre set out to change that by commissioning a series of new plays with mainly or entirely female casts for schools and youth theatre groups to perform. As the first three plays in the Platform series are published by Nick Hern Books and made available for performance, Tonic’s Lucy Kerbel explains why things have to change, and how you can get involved…

Commissioning and publishing a range of new plays for young actors which put girls and their stories centre stage is something I have wanted to do for a long time and, since Tonic Theatre was formed in 2011, it is an idea I have been looking to get off the ground. Tonic exists to support UK theatre to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and its repertoires; essentially our mission is to catalyse a culture-shift in how theatre thinks and works, so that talented women are given the same levels of support and opportunity as talented men.

While it has pretty big aspirations, Tonic is a tiny organisation; we have one-and-a-bit members of staff, no core funding, and a very modest financial turnover. Because we have such limited funds and capacity, we have to use these wisely and consequently are extremely strategic about where we target our efforts. I spend much time looking to identify ‘pressure points’ – places where, with a bit of work, a far bigger ripple effect can be achieved. For this reason, much of our work to date has been focused on partnerships with some of the largest organisations in the country, because if they change, others will follow. But youth drama has always been clear to me as one of the greatest pressure points of all. It is the engine room of the theatre industry; tomorrow’s theatre-makers (not to mention audience members) are to be found today in youth-theatre groups, university drama societies and school drama clubs all over the country.

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

If we can challenge their assumptions about the role of women’s stories, voices, and ideas in drama, then change in the profession – in time – will be immeasurably easier to achieve.

Beyond this strategic interest in youth drama, I was convinced that girls were getting a raw deal and I found that troubling. Having worked previously as a youth-theatre director, I was familiar with the regular challenge of trying to find scripts that had adequate numbers of female roles for all the committed and talented girls that wanted to take part. In nearly all the various youth-drama groups I worked in across a five-year period, there were significantly more girls than boys. However, when it came to finding big-cast, age-appropriate plays for them to work on, I was constantly frustrated by how few there seemed to be that provided enough opportunity for the girls, its most loyal and committed participants. When looking at contemporary new writing for young actors to perform, one could be mistaken for thinking that youth drama was a predominantly male pursuit, rather than the other way round.

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Aside from the practicalities of matching the number of roles to the number of girls in any one drama group, the nature of writing for female characters was something I struggled to get excited about. While there were some notable examples, often the writing for female characters seemed somewhat lacklustre. They tended to be characters at the periphery of the action rather than its heart, with far less to say and do than their male counterparts, and with a tendency towards being one‑dimensional, rather than complex or vibrant, funny or surprising. Why was it that in the twenty-first century the quality as well as the quantity of roles being written for girls still seemed to lag behind those for boys so demonstrably?

Keen to check I wasn’t just imagining this imbalance, Tonic conducted a nationwide research study looking into opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. The research was written up into a report, Swimming in the shallow end, and is published on the Tonic Theatre website. Not only did the research confirm my worst fears – more depressingly, it exceeded them. While many of the research participants were vocal about the social, artistic and emotional benefits that participation in youth-drama productions can have on a young person’s life, so too were they – to quote the report – on ‘the erosion to self-esteem, confidence and aspiration when these opportunities are repeatedly held out of reach… [and] for too many girls, this is the case’.

But despite the doom and gloom of the research findings, there remained an exciting proposition; to write stories that weren’t currently being put on stage, and to foreground – rather than ignore – the experiences, achievements and world-view of young women, perhaps the group above all others in British society whose situation has altered so dramatically and excitingly over the past hundred or so years. Tonic commissioned writers I was most fascinated to see respond to the brief set to them: a large-cast play written specifically for performance by young actors, with mainly or entirely female casts and in which the female characters should be no less complex or challenging than the male characters. I asked them to write in such a way that these plays could be performed by young people anywhere in the country, and that there should be scope for every school, college and youth-theatre group performing the play to make a production their own.

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

At Tonic our hope is that the first Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – will be just the beginning of a longer trajectory of work for us. Although it entails further fundraising mountains to climb, we plan to commission and publish more plays over future years. Our aspiration is that over time Platform will become a new canon of writing for young actors and one that puts girls and their lives centre stage. I dearly hope that they will be taken up by groups all over the country and performed for many years to come.

‘Drama is an important tool for building confidence and empowering young people. Platform will give girls opportunity to access these benefits as much as their male counterparts.’ – Moira Buffini

A few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Tamara von Werthern

We’re incredibly proud and excited to be supporting Tonic Theatre’s important work in addressing gender inequality in the theatre. I’m sure these plays will be picked up and performed by youth theatres, schools and drama clubs across the country, as they really do address an urgent need for more good parts for young women. I’ve been asked so many times to recommend plays that offer young women strong roles, and it’s wonderful that now we can start licensing three new plays that fit the bill exactly. I urge everyone who works with youth theatre or teaches drama at a school to pick up these plays and give them a go!”


All three Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – are published on 11 June 2015 by Nick Hern Books.

Buying from an educational institution or youth group? You can get all three Platform plays at a special discount price – head to the Platform website for more information.

The plays are all available immediately for amateur performance. To apply for performing rights, visit the Nick Hern Books Plays to Perform website or contact our Performing Rights Department.

For more information about Tonic Theatre, visit www.tonictheatre.co.uk.

Lucy Kerbel photograph by Slav Kirichok