Treading the boards

Treading the boards

Grassroots theatre still thrives in many towns and cities across the UK - but what is the history of amateur dramatics, and how is it perceived by others? Nell Darby enters the stage left to explain

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

When I was 14, I joined my local amateur dramatics society, and several years later, living in London, I joined the Garden Suburb Theatre, where I got to perform in front of the late Sir Donald Sinden. Yet I never tried to be a professional actor; my experiences of the stage were entirely spent in amateur productions. This is because, perhaps, the amateur stage showed up my deficiencies as a performer, but also it provided something else. There was the social aspect, most importantly: making friends with those with similar interests. It was also a means of embedding yourself in a local community, of getting to know others; and finally, it was a way in which you could perform to entertain others, to bring the community together for a few nights of drama at a reasonable price.

See How They Run
Comedies and farces have always been popular choices for amateur companies wanting to keep their audiences amused. See How They Run – a three act comedy – is performed here by Shropshire’s Gobowen Amateur Dramatic Society in 1954

Amateur dramatics have been performed for these and other reasons over several centuries, in various settings. Boys and girls in a large family, or those in a poor but educated one, might put on shows themselves for each other’s entertainment, or for their parents and households; it was a means of keeping them both occupied and motivated during long days or evenings stuck at home. Governesses, tutors or even parents might join in, if the children desired it, or the cast of a production necessitated extra members. However, adults have long also been interested in performing publicly, albeit on an amateur basis. In the 1820s, the first amateur dramatic performance in Southampton took place, and was described as being ‘long talked of’, to the extent that public curiosity led to a surge for tickets, which reached a climax the night before the performance, and the theatre being full 45 minutes before the starting time. The nobility also amused themselves with drama performances, particularly during the Christmas period. One particularly posh performance took place in January 1849, when the Marquis of Northampton put on a series of performances at his home, Castle Ashby, for the local gentry. A temporary stage was erected in one of his saloons, with parts taken by titled individuals as well as two members of parliament.

Marie Studholme
Although some performers may have dreamed of being successful stars such as Marie Studholme, pictured here, most simply enjoyed being with others and entertaining their communities Nell Darby

By the 1860s, there were a multitude of amateur dramatics societies performing around the UK. In Buckinghamshire, there was the Stony Stratford Dramatic Club, whose performances were attended by a wide range of people from the local community, although the best seats were reserved for the town’s elite. At Easter 1865, the club put on a show at the town hall, taking time to organise appropriate set designs – including a ‘splendid forest view’ – and props. The show comprised several parts, the first being an 1850 farce by John Maddison Morton, My Precious Betsy, which would continue to be performed by non-professional groups until at least 1911. Another of John Maddison Morton’s farces, Box and Cox (which had also been the choice of the Marquis of Northampton two decades earlier) followed, with the last play being a ‘burlesque tragic opera’. The show was in aid of several town charities, but the audience came not only to help local charities, but to enjoy a good and varied show.

Local newspapers covered amateur shows just as they did other local events. These reviews were often thoughtful as well as detailed – listing the various parts of a show, the casts, and synopses; they also assumed a certain level of prior knowledge from the newspaper readers as to who individual performers were, as they would usually be known in the local area. These performers often attracted good audiences, if they put on the right show at the right time –holidays were particularly good choices, with locals wanting to do something enjoyable during Easter time or at Christmas. Reviews from the 1860s frequently refer to how crowded the venues were, and the class of audience was often singled out as indicating how good the club or society was.

cast of the Topsham Amateur Theatrical Society’s production of comedy Molly Drake
The cast of the Topsham Amateur Theatrical Society’s production of comedy Molly Drake, pictured in 1908. Their performance was deemed to be ‘splendid’ by the local press Reach plc

Farces and burlesques were always good choices for amateur societies to perform – they were lively, they could involve fast action or wordplay, and no doubt they were also fun to perform. This doesn’t mean that the traditional plays were not performed, though; for example, Macbeth was performed by the Solihull Reading Room and Library’s amateur dramatics group in Warwickshire in 1866. However, as the group was performing as part of a varied programme that included musical quadrilles and comic songs, they only performed a ‘selection’ of parts, rather than the entire play, perhaps fearing for their audience’s concentration. As the Solihull group suggests, not all amateur dramatics came as part of a stand-alone drama club. Drama could be performed as part of a larger, wider, society – as another example, the Edinburgh Catholic Young Men’s Society had its own ‘dramatic association’ by the mid-1870s. In Northampton, the town’s lunatic asylum also had an amateur dramatics group that put on performances for the inmates. It’s not clear whether the society was open to inmates or just staff, but one man who took on several roles as well as acting as stage manager was William Arkell, the young chief attendant at the asylum. Arkell also borrowed a parrot to liven up proceedings. Other members of staff who acted with the group were chief nurse Ann Collier, and asylum attendant William Whiting, who played the ‘ugly sister’ of the production.

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Some societies had plenty of members jostling for the key parts, and new ones were regularly establishing themselves – in 1876, locals in Brechin placed a newspaper advert asking those interested in forming a new am dram society to come along to an evening meeting, for example. However, others struggled more – not necessarily for more members generally, but for those who could perform certain roles. One amateur dramatic club in Peebles advertised in 1879 for ‘a few young men’ as they were lacking these for their productions. Anyone who met the bill was invited to the local hotel for a drink one Monday evening.

Attitudes towards amateur performers varied in the 19th century. During the mid part of the century, professionals, perhaps understandably, looked down on their amateur counterparts, treating them with contempt or simply dismissing them. Even in generally positive reviews, there could be a barbed comment; for example, when the Weymouth Amateur Dramatic Society’s latest show was reviewed in the Bridport News in 1865, the reviewer commented that its farce ‘went exceedingly well’, but then added ‘and showed that a greater attention had been paid to rehearsals than is sometimes the case with Amateur Dramatics’. This was despite professional productions often having rushed or limited rehearsals themselves. In the first two decades of the 20th century, there was a joke about amateur dramatics performances, centring around the fact that a mystery had been performed in a local town hall the night before. When one person asked another, ‘What was the mystery?’, the response was ‘The mystery was how the audience stood it’.

Northampton County Lunatic Asylum
Amateur dramatics were not just performed on theatre stages – they took place in town halls and other local facilities. One group was even based at the Northampton County Lunatic Asylum

In the late 19th century, amateur companies were licensed to perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy operas, and it became recognised that the companies could be places where stage-lovers could ‘train’ to be good enough for the professional stage. For some, though, performing was something they simply wanted to do, when their backgrounds meant they had to do other, more mundane, jobs during the day. Sarah Charlston was one such individual; one of six children of a station master in Leigh, Lancashire, she worked during the day as a silk-winder in a local mill, but in her spare time was an active member of the St Joseph’s Amateur Dramatic Society. The Hastings and St Leonards Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, meanwhile, had a solid middle-class base: for example, government worker Richard Woodhams and solicitor Herbert Phillips were key members who, in 1909, were rehearsing Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers .

Actors of the Smith College Club of St Louis in the USA
Actors of the Smith College Club of St Louis in the USA sketched rehearsing for an all-woman amateur benefit performance of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ in December 1908

As one 1904 newspaper put it, ‘everybody loves acting’, and when individuals were not able to try to be professionals, or didn’t want to, the amateur stage was available. Yet criticisms continued. In Edwardian Northern Ireland, it was noted that the amateur dramatics societies in Belfast tended to be unambitious, and aware of their own limitations. They therefore had a certain amount of success in producing risk-free plays, but failed to offer anything ground-breaking or daring. The advent of a new, female, am dram society was therefore greeted with enthusiasm by local audiences, keen to see performances with women playing all parts, whether male or female. However, the local press, although commending its aims, was critical of the results: ‘&helli;the ladies who had to play the male parts worked hard to make the characters plausible, but though one applauded the effort as an experiment, it left much to be desired from the point of view of artistic effort.’ There was a lack of consistency about what amateurs should and shouldn’t do. They should take risks, but at the same time stick to the old formats – a one-act farce was ideal, but a five-act play was ‘a stumbling block to amateurs’. Action needed to be fast to keep an audience’s attention – no sense of dragging, and no long waits to shift scenery between acts.

John Maddison Morton
The 19th century playwright John Maddison Morton’s plays were popular with amateur dramatics societies

These criticisms, however, were as likely to be made about professional productions as amateur ones, generally reviews were fair, and there was recognition of the role that amateur companies played in the cultural life of local communities. This role has continued throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, with groups offering a varied diet of drama, comedy and pantomime to entertain their friends and neighbours.

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