The personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics…

Fear not. All amateurs are not the same,

Some Little Theatres higher standards claim

And hold with fervour nigh obsessional

That amateurs are better than professional

– Michael Green – ‘The Art of Coarse Acting’

It’s not always the case that a play’s plot is summed up by the title alone, but A Bunch of Amateurs is exactly that: the story of an amateur theatre group in their quest to stage a production of King Lear, the lead role of which has been given to a fading Hollywood star. Whilst most of the Stratford Players are thrilled to be treading the boards with a celebrity, the star in question is initially dismayed to discover that, contrary to his expectations, he has not joined the cast of a well-known professional outfit.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s script takes a comical look at the personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics. As many involved in am-dram would admit, it’s easy to poke fun at the subject – both the types of individuals you come across and the mini disasters that are liable to raise their heads when you have neither the luxury of paid professionals or owning your own theatre. Whether it’s star-struck Mary fawning over her Hollywood idol, pomposity-exuding Nigel fuming over losing out on a lead role that he believes should be his by rights, or director Dorothy’s flustered attempts to keep her cast in order, the drama involved in staging a show is laid bare.

Michael Green’s book on ‘coarse acting’.

Affectionate mockery of amateur theatre is commonplace, with one of the funniest takes on the matter being Michael Green’s 1964 publication of The Art of Coarse Acting (Or How to Wreck an Amateur Dramatic Society). Green, himself an amateur performer of many years, based the title on his experiences with Northampton Drama Club and the Questors Theatre, exposing the mishaps and mistakes which the public holds as stereotypical of the field. A coarse actor, Green explains, “is an actor who can remember his lines but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down.” How to tell when we have fallen victim to the scourge of course acting? Green informs us – “one of the infallible signs that Coarse Drama is going on is the fact that the traditional roles of actor and audience are reversed. The actor is being himself while the audience are playing a part, heavily pretending to enjoy the show, struggling to laugh at unfunny jokes and so on.”

But it is inaccurate to conclude that Hislop and Newman’s play is purely a facile lampoon of amateur acting. Much of what makes the story so endearing is that, suffused amongst the laughter and ridicule, is obvious affection for am-dram and its virtues. Whatever their failings, the characters are quite sincere in both their passion for theatre and determination to keep their small but dedicated group in business. As well as drawing humour from the follies of the non-professional performing world, A Bunch of Amateurs reflects the less well-known truths of amateur dramatics; that such groups often draw enthusiastic, talented and dedicated individuals whose commitment to upholding the arts in their communities is to be admired.

Burt Reynolds in the 2008 movie A Bunch of Amateurs, with Imelda Staunton, Alistair Petrie & Derek Jacobi.

Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki summarised the importance of all art in a passage from Kusamakura. “If this best of worlds proves a hard one for you, you must simply do your best to settle in and relax as you can, and make this short life of ours, if only briefly, an easier place in which to make your home. Herein lies the poet’s true calling, the artist’s vocation. We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

In an age in which significant reductions have been made to public spending on the arts, the presence of amateur performers is perhaps more keenly felt than ever. While we laugh at the antics inside the drama society of Stratford-St-John, we are simultaneously reminded of the cultural blessings such outlets provide, and the hard work, vigour and diligence of all those who come together to ensure their communities can enjoy the gift of artistic exhibitions.

By Michelle Gibson (this piece will also appear in the programme for A Bunch of Amateurs)

AUDITIONS | A Bunch Of Amateurs

Auditions for our Autumn 2018 play A Bunch Of Amateurs will take place on July 16th from 7.30pm at Tesco Community Room, Huntingdon. Visit our Auditions page for full details!

Ruth Ellis

Sunday 10th April 1955 – Easter Sunday to be precise. Bleary-eyed Britons were wakened by the peal of church bells. Christians reflected upon the resurrection. Slavering children avariciously attacked their hordes of Easter eggs. And in South Hall Park, Hampstead, a woman armed with a 38. Calibre Smith and Wesson revolver fired four successive bullets into her lover.

The woman was Ruth Ellis, the lover David Blakely. Ellis had a chequered history, beginning with her childhood experience of rape at the hands of her father. Thus, the first Ellis ever knew of sexual relationships not only took place at a hideously inappropriate age, but was informed by domination, pain and abuse. This unhappy pattern was to continue into her adult life, resulting in a short-lived marriage to an aggressive alcoholic.

Ruth with her lover David Blakeley at the Little Club in 1955

It was in 1953 that Fate would entwine the lives of Ellis and Blakely, leading to the two-year courtship which would end in tragedy. From its inception, their relationship was beset with problems, a dangerous mixture of passion and jealousy. Both possessed powerful feelings for the other, but neither seemed able to commit. They continued to see other people and their own relationship increasingly descended into patterns of envy and physical violence – one such interaction leading to Ruth suffering a miscarriage after David had punched her in the stomach. And so went the unhealthy cycle, until – on that unsuspecting Easter evening – there came the dramatic denouement, when Ruth Ellis approached David Blakely outside a pub and shot him dead.

At this point, capital punishment was still the sentence passed down for murder. There is an understandable, if cold, logic to this train of thought; the idea that intentionally taking a life – and the grief this causes for many – should be met with the forfeiture of the culprit’s own life. But its history goes farther than that; capital punishment had in the past been the sentence for other crimes, some much more minor by comparison, to the extent that the term “Bloody Code” is a modern term for Britain’s legal system as it stood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1800, there were no fewer than 220 crimes which could be punished by death, including the act of being in the company of gypsies for a month and the theft of goods valued at as little as 12 pence – roughly £12.60 in today’s currency.

Unsurprisingly, the harshness of the system brought calls for reform, beginning in 1808 when Sir Samuel Romilly had the death sentence abolished for minor offences such as pickpocketing. From this, a series of further changes spurred; in 1861 the number of offences liable to result in capital punishment stood at just five, treason and murder being amongst them.

At the time of Ruth Ellis’ trial, the death penalty for murder was still more than a decade away from being abolished. However, there was discussion amongst the media and the public over whether her case warranted such punishment, or even whether she should have been charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter. The violence she had suffered at the hands of David Blakely was suggested as grounds for a reprieval from hanging, with many feeling that a custodial sentence would have been more appropriate. It is often said that by the standards of the law today, Ruth Ellis would have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder.

 

The Magdala pub in Hampstead, the scene of the shooting

 

However, the trial must be viewed through the lens of the law at the time – and within the framework of the legal system then, it can be argued that there was no other option but to find her guilty of murder. It must also be said that Ellis herself did little to help her case; she herself stated that she did not want a reprieve from the death sentence and seemed to believe that her punishment was just. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” she remarked. In light of this, there has been speculation that, after killing her lover, Ellis willed death upon herself so that she might continue to be with him, that perhaps even the murder itself was her way of ensuring that she and Blakely would never be parted.

In a letter to Blakely’s grieving mother, Ellis wrote, “I have always loved your son and I shall die still loving him.” Could this hint at the agenda behind the events of that fateful Easter Sunday? Was David Blakely’s death just the first tragic act in a greater drama? Had Ruth Ellis already chosen the conclusion when she pulled the trigger? Could she have intended all along for the chain of events to close in the way that she wanted – her own consignment to death – her delivery back to David Blakely for eternity?

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson. This piece will also appear in the programme for ‘The Thrill Of Love’. 

AUDITION | ‘Alfie’

Audition for our Spring 2017 production – ‘Alfie’ by Bill Naughton. Visit our Auditions page for more details.

AUDITION | ‘Alfie’

Audition for our Spring 2017 production – ‘Alfie’ by Bill Naughton. Visit our Auditions page for more details.

AUTUMN PRODUCTION | Outside Edge

Huntingdon Drama Club’s autumn production for 2016 is Richard Harris’s hilarious cricketing comedy ‘Outside Edge’ – Nov 24-26 2016.

Outside Edge is a play by Richard Harris about a cricket team trying to win a match whilst sorting out their various marital problems. Roger is having trouble getting a team together for the afternoons fixture against the British Railways Maintenance Division Yeading East but this proves to be the least of anyone’s worries. Bob is having marriage trouble as he is still doing odd jobs for his ex-wife behind his current wife Ginnie’s back. Dennis is also having marital trouble as his wife seems intent on moving house despite the fact they only moved recently. When he finally puts his foot down she sets fire to his new car. Kevin is trying to fight off his over affectionate wife Maggie while at the same time nurse his injured spinning finger and Alex’s new girlfriend ends up shutting herself in the toilets having hysterics. Even Roger’s seemingly perfect marriage to Miriam hits the skids when she discovers he was playing away from home in more ways than one on a trip to Dorking last year. Just when it seems things can’t get any worse for them, it starts to rain. The play was adapted for TV in 1982 and was later adapted again as a sitcom which aired in the mid-1990s.

 

AUDITIONS | Shakespeare At The George ‘Pericles’

Shakespeare at The George 2017 summer production will be Pericles: Prince of Tyre – directed by Richard Brown. The production will be performed from Tuesday 27th June to Saturday 8th July.
Shakespeare at the George is an ever-evolving company of actors and new People are always welcome.

Open auditions will be held at The George Hotel, Huntingdon on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November between 10am and 4pm. To book an audition please contact the Director by email: pericles@satg.org.uk

List of principal characters
(Please note that it is the intention at the moment to use considerable doubling to cover the wealth of minor characters and give the production the feel of a fairy tale performed by a company of actors)
Male Roles:
Pericles – Prince of Tyre
Helicanus – elderly lord of Tyre
Cleon – Governor of Tarsus
Simonides – King of Pentapolis
Pandar – Owner of a brothel
Boult – Servant in the brothel
Lysimachus – Young Governor of Mytilene
Thaliard – a lord of Antioch
Female Roles:
Dioniza – Wife to Cleon the Governor of Tarsus
Thaisa – Daughter to Simonides & wife of Pericles
Lychorida – Nurse to Marina
Marina – Daughter of Pericles
Bawd – Wife of Pander & joint owner of the brothel
Roles which will be either male or female:
Cerimon – Lord or Lady of Ephesus
3 Lords & Ladies of Tyre
3 Fishermen (or women)
3 Knights
Goddess Diana
Sailors, pirates, whores and others

SOCIAL | Improvisation Workshop

Improvisation Workshop – Join us for a workshop on Improv with the excellent Mischief Theatre Company – producers of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’. Limited places – book via the website. Learn about the basics of long form improvisation and story telling with professional actor & Mischief Theatre Company member Harry Kershaw.

Nerves, excitement, anticipation…

Three days before opening night? How did that happen? It feels like only last week that we were auditioning! These are the thoughts going through mine and other cast members’ heads as we surge towards Thursday. The time has simply zipped by.

Rehearsals are very much a process of evolution and discovery. We learn what works and what doesn’t, develop our strengths and work on our weaknesses. Provided with the basic building blocks – our scripts – it’s our job to assemble the play into a piece of physical art, to infuse the dialogue with passion and energy. From the first tentative baby steps taken in the early stages, we’ve grown into confident, expressive strides – and, like adding the final pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, there comes a strong sense of achievement from surveying the finished product.

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I find getting to grips with your character to be one of the most interesting challenges of acting. It’s very difficult to give a worthwhile performance unless you really KNOW the person whom, to all intents and purposes, you’re grafting upon your consciousness. With the aid of director and cast, I’ve come to understand not only my character’s personality, but also his temperament, deportment and his relationships with the other characters. As we approach the very end of our rehearsal process, I think we’re all at a point at which we are very well acquainted with our characters, the transition from one identity to the other being easy.

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As always, the cast has been augmented by an excellent backstage team. For the first time, the club has enlisted the services of a stage manager, whose copious notes and methodical sensibilities have helped us flighty actors adhere to the structure. We’ve also been fortunate enough to get some stunning costumes, tailor-made for each individual. Staging a production – especially one of this size – is a wonderfully cooperative endeavour, each person having their own important contribution.

So here we are. I’m feeling a mixture of nerves, excitement, anticipation, all accompanied by the sadness of knowing that this time next week, it will all be over. The dreaded ‘post-show-blues’ will set in for a few days, but remedied somewhat by the fact that work on our next production, ‘The Memory of Water’ will start very shortly after ‘The Madness of George III’ ends.

Just like last year, I’ve had a great time – and am all geared up to go out there and break a leg! (Not literally…)

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson