Welcome to the website of our two research projects, the first fully funded academic studies of amateur theatre in the UK.

The Exhibition Part Two – Navy Amateurs: in the Archive and on the Stage

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Curating an exhibition provided the perfect opportunity for us to share some of the amazing materials of amateur theatre-making we have collected over the course of the project. Over the last three years, I have spent many an hour ordering boxes of papers, large scrapbooks, diaries and bound commission books in naval archives around the country in the hope of finding those sparkling gems of evidence among the dust. On the 17th of September, I was able to share some of those exciting finds.

From the dark, cool, and dry surrounds of the archives to the system of folders on my computer’s hard drive, images of publicity materials, programmes, photographs, and newspaper cuttings finally made their way to the light, airy foyer of Royal Holloway. It was a moment of anticipation for me. The bedrock of my PhD research was going on display. 

My PhD thesis traces the development and longevity of 20th century amateur theatricals in the Royal Navy at sea. I have uncovered a wide repertoire of theatrical performances, a variety of performance spaces (including aircraft hangars, Nissen huts and mess-decks!), and fascinating personal testimonies of participation. I tried to capture the breadth of this research on the display boards. From photographs of auditoria at sea constructed at the turn of the 20th century to sketches of SODs Operas at Scapa Flow, these once disparate archival materials were placed side by side for all to compare.

The most exciting part of the exhibition for me was to see the two display boards I had designed together. For the first time, my material was shown alongside snapshots of Nadine Holdsworth’s research examining current amateur theatre practices in the Navy. Images of Royal Naval Theatre Association events from the recent past hung adjacent to the material evidence of the amateur theatre-making in the Navy that preceded it decades before. It was wonderful to see this material side by side. From 1899 to 2016, black and white to colour photographs, exclusively male communities to serving men and women, performances on land and at sea. One thing, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains the same – a chorus of men in wigs and dresses is still a firm favourite!

If you've read this post and you have any thoughts or reflections that you want to share - please do get in touch. 

Sarah Penny

@SarahLouPenny

Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research: The Exhibition Part One - Creative Spaces

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

If you were one of the many wonderful amateur theatre-makers who attended our event, ‘Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research’ held at Royal Holloway on the 17th September, you may have noticed a small exhibition scattered around the event space. The exhibition was put together by myself (Cara Gray) and Sarah Penny, both PhD students on the project. We decided that we wanted to show our project’s collective research in a different way, through the vibrant material that we had collected over the years of researching amateur theatre. Before the event, Sarah and I set to work busily collecting photographs, books, videos and programmes from the rest of the team, whilst sifting through our own material. We chose the themes, ‘Heritage’, ‘Archive’, ‘Creative Spaces’, ‘Place-making’ and ‘Amateur-Professional Collaboration’ to frame each space.

Jeni's Desk was a way of demonstrating the theme of the ‘Creative Spaces’ of the amateur theatre-maker and was actually inspired by the real life work desk of costumer, Jennifer Gosling. I met Jeni through my research with the Settlement Players of Letchworth Garden City, of which she is a member. Jeni's Desk was based on a photograph that Jeni had sent me a couple of years ago after I had asked her in an email: ‘where do you make and alter costumes?’. She explained to me that in the weeks leading up to a performance, she carries out most of her costuming work at home, ‘only the bedroom and bathroom are safe, apart from them, a production can take over my whole house’. This is due to the lack of suitable space or equipment to work with at the Settlement. Jeni attached a photograph showing a desk (set up in her back bedroom) covered with ring bound notebooks, loose papers, piled up reference books, academic journals and folders and files bursting full of documents. Marking the desk as a space of academic work - a space of thinking, reading and writing (Jeni is a lecturer and researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine). However, nestled in amongst the tools of an academic sat a sewing machine and peddle, she explained:

On my desk I have my mother's old sewing machine...not quite a treadle machine, but a pretty old vintage! And I've found that it's much more useful to have it out permanently, rather than keep taking it out of its bag when I need it, so that sits permanently on my desk upstairs. I pull it forward when I need it and push it to the back when I do my academic work… I like it, it's a reminder that there is more to me than research and teaching, like colour and ribbon and fabric! And potential. I think I'm a frustrated dressmaker and the costumes give me an outlet for that. I usually have various projects on the go in between productions.

I wanted Jeni's Desk to illustrate the temporal qualities of the amateur theatre-makers’ workspace. Often crafted out of necessity in amongst the everyday, domestic spaces of the home. For Jeni, in the moments when her work desk temporarily transforms into a creative workspace - through the tools and the processes of her craft - she is allowed to perform her identity as a costumer, a Settlement Player and an amateur theatre-maker.

It was so great to have Jeni there on the day to see Jeni's Desk (though she pointed out that it was much too tidy to be hers). It was also so lovely to hear from other amateur theatre-makers, who attended the ‘Stories from objects, places and theatres’ workshop, talk about their own creative spaces (but another blog post on that will be up soon).

If you've read this post and you have any thoughts or reflections that you want to share - please do get in touch. 

Cara Gray


 

Amateur Theatre and Oral Histories

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Well, there was a decided buzz about the place when us amateur theatre researchers held a day called Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research at Royal Holloway on Saturday 17th September. We were delighted to be joined by so many amateur theatre makers, representatives from key organisations that support amateur activity and interested others keen to find out more about the research we’ve been doing. Despite many early starts as people traveled from far and wide, people were in good spirits and, buoyed by coffee, ready and willing to participate.    

As well as short presentations from the team on their research findings so far, there were numerous opportunities to engage in discussion. A panel consisting of Ian Wainwright (RSC Open Stages Producer), Tamara von Werthen (Nick Hern Books), Damien McGlynn (Voluntary Arts) and Jill Cole (The Castle Players/Arts Council) explored various incidences of professional and amateur collaborations. Discussion groups were held on the current trends, challenges and future directions opening up for amateur theatre led by leading figures in the sector: Colin Dolley (GODA), Anne Gilmour (Questors/IATA), Jo Mathews (The Globe/LTG), Damien McGlynn (Voluntary Arts) and Tom Williams (LTG).

Lyn Gardner (Guardian theatre critic) engaged in a conversation about current attitudes to amateur theatre, increased evidence of blurring boundaries between professional and amateur practice and the huge shift towards participation in the cultural sector

The day ended on a glorious high (not least by the addition of Prosecco to proceedings) with a fantastically naughty performance by the British Airways Cabin Crew Entertainment Society – dressed in nuns costumes made from old BA uniforms we might add – doing a rousing rendition of Fascinating Aida’s Cheap Flights song…what could be better!

In the morning there were also opportunities to participate in workshops that reflected some of the research methods and approaches we have been using. We (Nadine Holdsworth and Molly Flynn) ran a workshop on Interviews and Oral Histories and wanted to share some thoughts about what we did and what we learnt.

Throughout this project we’ve been struck by the fact that everyone involved in amateur theatre has a story to share – about why they do it, how they got involved, the work they make, the skills and knowledge they’ve developed, the fun they have, the friendships they’ve fostered and the contribution amateur theatre makes to them and life in their communities. To try and capture those individual stories we’ve been talking to people – doing oral histories – so that we can get at people’s experiences in their own words. The wealth of stories, anecdotes and memories people have shared have enriched our understanding of amateur theatre immeasurably.

Of course, this is not a new thing for many amateur theatre makers. Many companies have conducted oral histories with past or long-standing members so their experience can be recorded and preserved for future generations. Some companies, notably The Questors, have used oral histories as a creative resource for developing community-based shows and we were delighted to have Anne Gilmour in the room with us to share her experience developing PlayBack with The Questors.

During the workshop we discussed various aspects such as who to interview, where to interview and the benefits of individual versus group interviews. But, above all, we wanted to give some tips about how to approach oral histories. We talked about some of the approaches to interviewing that have worked well for us in our research such as starting an interview with an open ended question and being attentive to the interests of your interviewee. We also considered the importance of listening actively to the person your speaking with and giving them quiet time to think within the space of the conversation.

Next, everyone in the workshop found a partner and we gave each pair a voice recorder so they could try out some of the techniques we’d discussed. The room filled with voices as the interviews got underway. Many interviewers began the session by asking their partner how they came to be in attendance at the workshop that day. From there each interview took off in its own direction.

When we reflected on the process afterwards as a group, a number of people expressed surprise at how in depth their conversations had gone. Even though each pair only had 25 minutes to talk between them a lot of people found themselves deep in conversations filled with personal histories and fascinating details.

We were thrilled to hear that people found the interviewing experience to be of interest and potentially of use to their communities. Throughout this project our interviews with amateur theatre makers have proven consistently informative, surprising, and inspiring. It was a real pleasure to share these observations and open up our process to the people at the heart of our research.

If you’ve read this post and you have any thoughts or reflections that you want to share – do please get in touch.

Nadine Holdsworth and Molly Flynn

The Royal Navy Theatre Association Spring Festival

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Last Friday night saw the culmination of months of hard work with the Awards Night to celebrate the achievements of the RNTA Festival during which four different theatre groups competed against each other to secure, amongst others, the accolades of Best Production, Best Director and Best Actor and Actress. During the evening awards were handed out, cheering was heard, speeches were made, photos were taken and glasses were clinked. There was dancing, there was karaoke…these groups know how to celebrate!

I was thrilled to be involved with this year’s Festival as the official adjudicator. This involved seeing the Admirals’ Players perform Murder by the Book, a comic murder mystery by Craig Sodaro during which a figure dressed as Shakespeare gets wantonly seduced by Mary Shelley, Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte; whilst Agatha Christie gets hot under the collar reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I saw Sultan Theatre Group stage the musical Honk! in which grown men and women variously play ducks, swans, cats, a turkey and a bullfrog in a heart-warming retelling of the Ugly Duckling fairy-tale with catchy musical numbers.

 

At Collingwood RSC I saw Sir Terry Pratchett’s fantasy adventure Lords and Ladies where the inimitable witches fight the sneaky elves for supremacy amidst a cast of bumbling wizards, would-be witches and largely stupid or drunk (or both) villagers. Lastly, despite the RNTA’s Chairman and Festival Secretary’s best efforts to kill me off with a combination of 3-hours sleep and steep (very steep) yomps up and through the rock of Gibraltar, I saw the Trafalgar Theatre Group perform Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Improbable Fiction, which lulls the audience into a false sense of security in the first Act with a character driven naturalistic narrative about a local writers' self-help group for the creatively challenged before exploding in the second Act into a crazy acting out of various literary forms such as melodrama, crime fiction, children’s fiction and science fiction style alien investigators complete with a squirrel costume, Victorian dresses and resplendent silver suits with shocking pink wigs.

There was lots of dressing up during this Festival!

Each production - although very different in genre - had its own sense of joy and exuberance. In all the shows, but especially in the large scale productions of Honk! and Lords and Ladies, which both had casts in excess of thirty, I was struck by what a mammoth task it is to marshall that many people, from young tots to those of more mature years, all working together towards a common goal. In fact, the inter-generational nature of these groups is one of the many joys.

What I’ve taken away from the RNTA Festival is the huge amount of time, energy and commitment shown by all the people involved from the people who design the programmes, to those who run box office, stage manage, make costumes and props, produce, tech shows, design and construct sets, direct and perform. There was a great deal of skill in evidence – the standard of acting, stage craft and production values were very high across the board and made my job as adjudicator less than easy. So, although only a handful of the participants walked away with an award at the end of the evening, the whole Festival and the Awards Evening was testament to the seriousness with which these Royal Navy groups approach their amateur theatre, but also to the fact that creativity, team-work and fun remains at the heart of what they do.

Nadine Holdsworth

 

 

Amateurs or Volunteers?

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Until March 2016 the only White Paper on the arts was Jennie Lee’s A Policy For the Arts: The First Steps, published in 1965. The recently published The Culture White Paper has little in common with its predecessor; Lee’s paper was fresh with a new vision for art in 1960s society that was beginning to show signs of some ‘much needed colour’. The current White Paper places an emphasis on the contribution of culture on anything from individual well-being to reduced crime-rates and increasing the nation’s soft power.

From the perspective of this research project, what is particularly interesting is that, unlike the 1965 White Paper, there is no direct mention of amateurs. In 1965 amateur arts practice was widely recognised, and Lee sets out a vision in which amateur and professionals might work together, sharing arts buildings, for example. The White Paper is supportive of the Little Theatre Guild, and cites approvingly an interest-free loan to The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham (the theatre that, incidentally, hosted a highly successful conference a couple of weeks ago to celebrate Little Theatre Guild's 70th anniversary).

The Culture White Paper is, however, very keen on people volunteering. See this on page 27:      

'Volunteering is a way for people of all ages and from all backgrounds and walks of life to get involved in cultural activities and support the work of cultural organisations.'

So far so good. ‘Getting involved in cultural activities’ could mean the kind of all-absorbing life-long passion for – and serious expertise in – theatre-making that we have encountered in the amateur companies we’ve researched. Two sentences later this interpretation is beginning to seem less likely:

'We will work with Arts Council England, Historic England and other publicly-funded cultural organisations to encourage more volunteering opportunities in the cultural sectors.'

What they are after, it seems, is volunteer (i.e. unpaid) labour in the cultural sector. It is not valuing amateur creativity at all, and there is always a risk that these ‘volunteers’ take the place of paid employees in a sector which there is already workplace precarity.

There seems to be a bit of confusion between the idea of an amateur and that of a volunteer. There is a distinction between, say, someone who volunteers in a library and an amateur librarian. The former may well help out stacking shelves and so on, and have knowledge of how libraries work, but an amateur librarian conjures an image of an expert, perhaps a collector of books with a passion for a particular field.  As an academic, it is interesting to note that voluntarism as an action has been well theorised, informing gift theorists such as Richard Titmuss and Pierre Bourdieu. The amateur, by contrast, has received very little critical attention.

 This lack of definition means that there is sometimes a slippage between the terms ‘voluntary’ and ‘amateur’. In a recent blog post on Voluntary Arts website an article by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian is discussed. Gardner's article is headlined: In Theatre, Amateur is not a dirty word. The excellent Voluntary Arts organisation, which has done so much to raise the profile of art-making outside the professional sectors, seems to think it might be. They change Gardner's terminology, describing amateur theatre-makers as ‘voluntary arts practitioners’.

Perhaps the A word is too difficult or value-laden or too rude to use. There is, of course, an important argument about the stereotype associated with amateurism that needs challenging with evidence of the commitment, sociability and craft-knowledge that many amateurs possess. But  it may be worth considering whether describing amateurs as volunteers misses something important. Perhaps the distinction lies in the language, where people make theatre notas volunteers (voluntārius – of free will) but as amateurs (amātōr- lover),  for the love of it.

 

Helen Nicholson

The Folio

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Here are some of the objects which featured at our Evocative Objects events back in June.  These workshops, part of the AHRC Connected Communities festival, gathered together participants and advocates from the amateur theatre sector.  

It seems right and fitting that their voices, memories, stories, and experiences are shared here.

Image of socks


And now to Worcester!

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Post written by: Erin Walcon

Well, all I can say is... the first Evocative Objects workshop was a storming success!  Thank you so much to the wonderful participants who came along with their objects and who shared their stories and time so generously.

We saw an old leather bag once owned by a father which recently featured in The Importance of Being Earnest.  We saw a wedding dress which was transformed into a corset, which was worn by a man playing Queen Elizabeth in an original play. We saw a 16th century nail from a dairy barn roof, which has now been transformed and renovated into a beautiful theatre space for the 21st century. We saw a group of people who have a passion and a love for amateur theatre. We can't thank you enough for sharing this with us! 

Huge thanks as well to Questors Theatre in Ealing, who hosted the event with a delicious lunch and a tour of their beautiful space to end the day. Thanks to Robin Simpson from Voluntary Arts and Ramon Tenoso from Philippine Theatre UK for their words.  

I'll do my best to start sharing some of the rich and vivid details from the day over the next month, but first we have one more Evocative Objects event to go!  27 June at the Swan Theatre in Worcester. There are still spaces left, so BOOK HERE to reserve your free place, and choose an object to bring with you!  

Connected Communities Festival

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

We're so pleased to see our Evocative Objects events listed as part of the wider AHRC-Connected Communities Festival programme.  

What an incredible array of offerings!  You can see the full listing of events here - http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News-and-Events/Events/Pages/Connected-Communities-Festival-2015.aspx

Don't forget to reserve your free place at one of the Evocative Objects days Spaces are filling up, so make sure you book your place, let us know your dietary requirements and get that special object chosen!  

Evocative Objects