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

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