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

Kelly Monahan tells us about Sunderland Theatre Company (and a national scandal)

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Sunderland Theatre Company is particularly interesting because it was founded in 1893 by Dr George Frederick Vincent, a well known organist and composer. The Vincent family was well known in Sunderland - George’s father Charles and his brother William ran a music shop, his brother Henry owned St Mark’s Organ Works which manufactured church organs, and his brother Charles.J. was an organist and composer who founded the Vincent Music Publishing Company. George himself studied music at the Leipzig Conservatoire in Germany and later returned to Sunderland to become the organist at St Thomas’ Church in Sunderland. During this period he founded Sunderland Operatic Society, the first productions being “After All” and “H.M.S. Pinafore” in 1894. It appears to have been a family affair, as his son George and niece Nora both appear as performers in the 1890s, and his nephew Victor wrote a comic opera which was performed by the society in 1924. 

In 1900, George moved to London to teach at Trinity College and play the organ at St Michael’s Cornhill, and he also wrote a number of operettas and cantatas. The society continued to perform after his departure, with a break in performances during WWI and a subsequent revival led by Chief Constable Frederick Crawley, whose claim to fame is introducing the police box (an American invention) to the UK. Around this time the word “Amateur” was added to the society’s name, making it “Sunderland Amateur Operatic Society”. There appears to have been another break in performances during WWII, around which time the word “Dramatic” was added to the society’s name, although this was dropped again by the early 1960s. The society continued to perform as “Sunderland Amateur Operatic Society” until September 2013, when it was renamed “Sunderland Theatre Company”.

A particularly interesting historical footnote is the 1902 marriage of the founder’s niece Nora Vincent (who performed with the society) to a jeweller and amateur violinist named Robert March Blacklock. It seems possible that these two could have met via their musical and theatrical hobbies. Their subsequent divorce in 1904 was a national scandal which was reported in newspapers as far away as London; divorce was virtually unheard of in that time, and this one was all the more scandalous because Nora had run away to London with a pierrot (circus performer) whom she had met on the pier in Sunderland. Unfortunately I have been unable to find out what happened to Nora after that, as she disappears from the census records and is not listed in any further performances with the society. 

 I have attached a photo of the Vincent music shop at 34 Fawcett Street, Sunderland - probably taken in the late 1890s. The shop closed in the early 1900s after George’s brother and father died. The building later became part of a department store but was destroyed by bombing during WWII. It’s highly likely that one of the men pictured in front of the shop is George F. Vincent himself. 

 

Who can be a researcher? You!

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

We've been so pleased and surprised by the number of you who have gotten in touch, interested to be involved with this research.  It certainly verifies that this is an area of un-tapped interest and rich potential!  

In order to provide some clear ways for people to get involved and contribute, we've put together a Research Toolkit.  (Don't worry, it's only one piece A-4 paper!)  

This toolkit gives some suggestions for some ways in which you could help us to tell the untold stories of the amateur dramatics sector - through audio recording, photographs, writing and even drawing.

We need your help!  Please send us your contributions to amdramaresearch@gmail.com.   

Creative economy

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Post written by: Erin Walcon

I spent a lovely day at the Swan Theatre in Worcester on the 28th of October, chatting with Chris Jaeger, Artistic Director of Worcester Live.  (Chris is a man of many talents - GoDA adjudicator, director of the Swan Theatre & Huntington Hall, navy advisor to the Royal Navy & the RAF, and a professional drummer too!)

We first met Chris at the GoDA adjudicator training day, and his insights into the challenges of the cultural economy were so fascinating that I made a second trip to Worcester to continue our conversation.  Drawing on his wealth of experience, Chris described the challenges and necessity of amateur theatre group bookings to keeping professional theatres financially viable.  Through Chris, I became acquainted with the work of Kay's Pantomime, originally a group of Kay's Catalogue employees first established to perform an annual panto and still going strong in a new form today.

Since taking over the Swan Theatre in 2002, Chris and his team have worked to strengthen relationships with amateur groups in the region - and his descriptions of how this has changed over time were truly fascinating.  

It was such an honour and a privilege to speak with Chris - thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me! 

 

It's nearly pantomime season...

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

posted by: Nadine Holdsworth

Well, there can’t be many research projects that involve conversations about where to get a large cup-size bra - for a pantomime dame, of course! Yes, I spent last week visiting pantomime rehearsals being conducted by the Royal Navy Theatre Association theatre companies: The Admirals’ Players and RSC Collingwood. RSC Collingwood, based at HMS Collingwood in Fareham are doing 'Dick Whittington' written and directed by Sarah Miatt. Whilst I was there the 25-strong company were being drilled by choreographer Andrew Wright; falling about laughing at the outrageous exploits of Robin Sheppard as Sarah Stewpot offering to show his 'hot and sticky muffins' and trying to get into the spirit by singing rousing Christmas numbers in October! Behind the scenes another team were working their magic making a giant sea creature for the notorious Collingwood UV scene, decorating a huge tiered cake and fashioning 18 rat noses....  

Props created by the production team for RSC Collingwood

Props created by the production team for RSC Collingwood

Props created by the production team for RSC Collingwood

Props created by the production team for RSC Collingwood

Over at HMS Excellent on Whale Island, Portsmouth, the Admirals' Players are producing a cowboy-style pantomime: 'Little Panto on the Prairie' written and directed by Joe Allan. As the company rehearsed in Fisher Hall, a small theatre space surrounded by pictures of all Whale Island Admirals from 1869 to the present day, I was reminded of the incongruity of serving navy personnel taking time out to rehearse a pantomime. In fact, the baddie played by marine, Marc McKinley, has thirty of his mates from the marines watching the show on the first night (I'll be there and I can't wait!). 

Cowboy costumes hanging up in Fisher Hall

Cowboy costumes hanging up in Fisher Hall

Rehearsing songs for 'Little Panto on the Prairie'

Rehearsing songs for 'Little Panto on the Prairie'

I was so impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm I witnessed as I watched these two companies rehearse and their absolute commitment to putting on 'a good show'. It was so lovely to see an inter-generational group hanging out together being creative and having fun. I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of family groups: mothers and sons; fathers and daughters and the producer for RSC Collingwood, Chris Blatch-Gainey, topped this by having partner Jane in the cast and his son Ben and mother Ida working as part of the production team.

Rehearsing 'Little Panto on the Prairie' at Fisher Hall

Rehearsing 'Little Panto on the Prairie' at Fisher Hall

I can't wait to see the final results in December - good luck everyone!


Enchanted

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Post written by: Erin Walcon

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Three members of our research team were privileged to be able to watch the performance on Sunday 28 September by Philippine Theatre UK of Ibong Adarna: The Enchanted Bird, adapted and directed by Ramon Tenoso.  

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Marketing & musicals

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Post written by: Erin Walcon

There are times doing this research when I am surprised - pleasantly gobsmacked by the complexity, richness, and depth of the work which is happening.  This happened to me last weekend - when attending the NODA SW Workshop Weekend in Torquay, I found myself floating between three different workshops: Musical Theatre (with Ian Goode & Dane Preece), The Actor and the Text (with Ben Crocker) and Marketing (with Ian Goodenough & Graeme Savage).  

What struck me, as I explored the opulent interior of the Palace Hotel, en route to each workshop room, was the quality of the workshop material.  Ian & Dane immediately put the musical theatre group at ease, establishing an environment where everyone was comfortable trying out a bit of song-and-dance, whatever their experience level.  In the Anstey Room, Ben Crocker challenged the group by giving them texts which required a larger-than-life presence and a gritty realism. (Think Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, for example).  

And in the marketing session, Ian & Graeme gave a masterclass in marketing - everything from flashmobs on youtube to social media organisers to where to source the cheapest printing.  I found myself staying in the marketing session, jotting down notes about marketing tips and perhaps more importantly, about the realism of trying to market amateur performance.  As many of the participants said, it can be difficult (in some settings) to convince your amateur company that posters and flyers are necessities - and your committees that Twitter is a useful tool.  Both Ian & Graeme work professionally in marketing, and their expertise from their professional capacity enriches and cross-feeds their love for amateur work.  

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I left the day, feeling warmly welcomed by the SW NODA team - thanks to Lynne and Fred Caygill especially - and honoured to be there.  I learned a lot, not just about marketing (which I certainly did!) but also about the sheer business sense which operates, largely unrecognised, within the amateur sector.  

Learning to adjudicate

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Post written by: Erin Walcon

It's been a week since Helen and I attended the GoDA (Guild of Drama Adjudicators) training day up at the Swan Theatre in Worcester.  What a fascinating day!  We were part of a group of about 20 participants, all of whom came from diverse backgrounds - education, public sector, business, professional theatre, medicine, you name it.  

The day was led by Colin Dolley, and hosted by Chris Jaeger (Worcester Live & the Swan Theatre).  

I particularly enjoyed watching the one-act play 'The Teacher' and the adjudication process that occurred in small groups after that event.  The conversations about stagecraft, costumes, scenic design, directing, and acting were fascinating, especially the ways in which such dialogue then had to be translated into numerical scores and a winner determined. 


Hound of the Baskervilles

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Post written by: Erin Walcon

Spooky howling, a gust of smoke, and an ominous silhouetted figure in a deerstalker cap all greeted me at The Little Theatre in Torquay on Wednesday evening last week as I popped over for one of my regular rehearsal observations.  

Director Stephanie Austin has created an adaptation of the classic Conan Doyle story, which uses both the original myth and Conan Doyle's presence as the writer live on stage.  

The rehearsal was their last run-through before technical rehearsal began, and it was fascinating to watch the story unfold, even as the lighting designer plotted the design on a laptop in the next row.  

Over time, it's really exciting to get to see different members of this group in various productions - such a privilege to be able to watch a variety of shows here over the last year.  I'm struck by the expertise of the directors, and the professionalism of the wardrobe/technical teams - their dedication and keen eyes are constantly working to improve the show.  I'm looking forward to a longer chat with director Stephanie this next week about her process and the creation of the show.  


The Enchanted Bird

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Post written by: Erin Walcon   

The Philippine Theatre UK rehearsal I attended on Saturday 19 July was held in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church Hall in Fulham.  Despite swelteringly hot temperatures, the ensemble worked through their 6-hour rehearsal with laughter and dedication.  Having attended the original read-through, it was exciting to watch the production get up on its feet, under the direction of playwright Ramon Tenoso.  The final production of The Enchanted Bird will perform from 24-29 September at the Chelsea Theatre.  

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Noises Off

Added on by Helen Nicholson.

Post written by: Erin Walcon

I had the great pleasure of attending rehearsals from the TOADS Little Theatre production of Noises Off this week in Torquay.  Watching the cast come to terms with the fast-paced second act as they moved from the smaller rehearsal room onto stage with a two-story (rotating) set was fascinating.  Director Anna Reynolds worked through the act bit by bit to sort out the timing, in preparation for their opening night on 4 August.  Can't wait to see the final show!