AmDram Societies – Competition for Professional Industry?

Amateur dramatics form a vital and vibrant arm of the performing arts industries providing evenings of entertainment, hard-hitting drama and resurrections of long-since-forgotten plays up and down the country – theatre by the community for their community.

It saddens me, as a professional performer and theatre director, to hear how much amateur dramatics is mocked by a large number of theatre professionals. Yes, there is an obvious division between the amateur and professional stages, but why is there such much AmDram bashing out there?

The UK based National Operatic and Drama Association (NODA) indicates that it currently has nearly 2500 societies as members associated with them – and this does not reflect the multitude of societies who are not affiliated with them at all.

Each society stages at least one production per year (averaging runs of three performances), and hold a membership average of between ten and twenty five people. This means there is an averaged minimum of 7500 performances annually (or 21 performances per night), and a healthy casting pool when collected together of some 25,000-62,500 performers available. And that is just a brief analysis based on the NODA membership.

Playing Further With Made Up Maths…

Let’s put this into a financial perspective for contribution to performing industries from the AmDram circuit:

2500 productions per year = up to 2500 playwrights (assuming each society works with a different text) are going to earn a royalty.

7500 performances per year (based on 3 performances per society) at the Rights License fee average of £75 per performance = £562,500 being paid out in royalties to playwrights. Over half a million pounds is put back into the professional industry for playwrights.

A large proportion of AmDram societies also buy/hire lighting and sound equipment and staging facilities from appropriate professional theatre services companies. An even bigger input back from AmDram into the professional industry.

Small-scale theatres and producing houses often hire their venues to AmDram companies at variable rates. A larger still influx of money coming back into the professional performing arts industries!

This is even without speaking about the financial investment into charities (charity shop purchases for set/props/costume and fundraising).

Let’s put this into an income perspective for the AmDram industry:

If the minimum of 7500 performances were each to a potential audience of 100 people (this is a really low possibility, I’ve known some AmDram houses with 200+ seats available), this would mean a potential audience of 750,000 seats. Just think about that: the AmDram circuit can serve in excess of three quarters of a million theatre goers annually!

So, let’s be reasonable. An industry average for seats sold is 60%. In this case, based on the possible minimum of 750,000 seats, we can anticipate 450,000 seats to be potentially sold.

Using a ticket price average of £9.00 per ticket (I’ve seen tickets sold for AmDram performances between £5-£20), this means on a base minimum income at 60% houses of just over £4,000,000. Four MILLION pounds in income. I want to say that again: this is AMATEUR DRAMATICS, making upwards of FOUR MILLION POUNDS!

In industrial terms, the Amateur Dramatics is a viable industry and a solid competitor to the professional performing arts industries.

We REALLY should not scoff at the significant achievements they make annually. Remember, my figures are vague at best here, but they do represent a reasonable and significantly underestimated baseline.

AmDram Feeds the Professional Performing Arts Industry

Nearly every professional performer, director, stage manager and designer out there has roots in the amateur circuit.

Indeed, for many of us pros, AmDram was the place where our aspirations were given the foundation to become reality: we often had our first ever stage experience in an amateur show.

Putting all of the usual politics of any organisation to one side, the experience was one of promoting self-development in theatre work in a safe environment, surrounded by people who shared at least the passion for theatre-making if not the professional ambition.

If this is the playground that supports the initial development of professional performers, the AmDram circuit can proudly announce that it nurtured the vast majority of the some 1500 drama school graduates from DramaUK recognised institutions (and the number of institutions is significantly larger than this!) annually. That is some serious parentage!

To be able to boast these types of statistics, why then does AmDram get such a negative attitude from the professional arm of the industry, but also an increasingly savvy audience?

Why AmDram Societies Should Raise Their Standards

The main difficulty is in the quality of production and performance when compared against professional theatre. Yes, the aim of AmDram is not to provide professional theatre (otherwise we would all be professional theatre companies), but the audiences do expect to see quality for their pound. It is increasingly more difficult to meet these expectations.

As an amateur dramatics performer:

  • Could you state what your intentions are as a character?
  • Do you understand your character’s thought processes?
  • Are you able to affect your voice to support your character, and do so in a way that means you won’t have a sore throat by the end of a performance run?
  • Have you really considered the shared imaginary world of your character within the confines of the play?
  • Do you know how to analyse the text to make it make sense and support your work?
  • Can you perform in a way that reflects life rather than just imitate it?
  • Are you able to move beyond two-dimensional acting and produce a well-rounded performance of high quality?

A lot of questions, but they should be reflected upon.

When mounting any kind of performance, it is hoped that you wish to produce the best quality performance and raise the appreciation for your society within the local audience, but also the professional circuits too.

With AmDram groups charging ticket prices that can range from a couple of quid to some tickets encroaching on £20 (a recent production of Sweeney Todd that I saw), audiences are looking for some serious quality to warrant some potentially serious money.

Sadly, in an age where professional theatres are reducing ticket prices and can offer standing seats for a fiver, amateur dramatic groups really need to up their ante.

Training Available for Non-Professional Performers

Acting courses (and directing, designing, and playwriting courses for that matter) are increasingly worthwhile to support the valiant work of an amateur crew. This does not mean that an amateur theatre-maker will necessarily aspire to create theatre professionally, but it will set them up in good stead to provide a quality performance and with continued work build an audience that respects your group for its quality and professionalism.

This is a reputation that will not only bring about repeat audiences, but will also excite aspiring performers to work with your group during their fledgling years.

Developing your voice technique will ground your performance work – and with increasing performance runs of amateur productions (I recently saw one group advertising a two week production run of As You Like It – amazing considering many professional companies can only just about manage a week run in any given venue) supporting and looking after your voice is increasingly imperative.

Voice technique classes do not just look at the sound you make, but also focuses on skills to support and sustain the voice.

Acting classes delve into practices used by professional actors in developing character from thought processes to emotions to ‘finding truth’. To affect an audience requires an ability to truly find the heart and soul of character – and to take a class in acting will give insight to these skills to thoroughly enhance your delivery. Not only that, but these courses will provide valuable tools to textual analysis and physical control.

Is it Absolutely Necessary to Undertake Such Courses?

No, it is not – but they will advance you as an individual. If AmDram and Professional theatre are increasingly on similar ground and competition for the same audiences, surely it is about time to up the stakes.

It would be an absolute dream of mine to hear the sometimes snide comments made from the theatre profession towards AmDram to be less about mockery and more about respect and healthy competition. Respect that the local AmDram group is producing high quality work that is driving the professional theatre-going audience instead of through their doors.

I would love to hear performers of the future reflecting on the quality of their pre-training and pride in their AmDram roots rather than the current bashing I all-too-often hear.

Will this Make Me a Professional Actor Rather than Amateur?

No, you will not become a professional actor by undertaking a few short courses, but you will raise the calibre of your performance and provide quality work to a deserving audience.

Just a few simple courses can really raise your game, while also being a fun opportunity to explore the acting craft beyond simply churning out the next production. If acting is a skill it needs to be developed, not just exposed to competition (a sports player will spend weeks developing skill before going into a match or game).

Amateur performers and crew can get involved in these types of courses quite easily – a number of organisations run acting classes that may be right for you. Many institutions also run summer programmes with week-long intensives. As an amateur performer these intensive workshops can really benefit you by injecting some fast-paced understanding to your craft.

As an AmDram society or group, it would be so advantageous to your work to support and promote this level of growth and discipline in your members – not only does it fulfil self-development, but also raises standards for the work you are doing.

If you chair a society, have you considered contacting your local drama training centre to see if you could book a group to a course at a discount? That would be a different kind of social event for your members!