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

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