We’ve just had a marvellous few days. We trooped over the Pennines, together with Emily-from-Barcelona, to see the Bolton branch of the family.
This was no run-of-the-mill visit though. No, we’d chosen this particular weekend because 8-year-old grandson Alex was playing feisty little Gavroche in a production of ‘Les Miserables’. Not only were the actors all amateurs, but all were young people under the age of 18. They played to a packed house for five nights in a row. Now you don’t get packed houses by relying on proud parents, devoted grannies, supportive uncles, aunts and cousins. You get packed houses because there’s a wider public who recognise talent and commitment, and are prepared to pay to see it, even if it’s not a ‘professional’ production.
As the potted biographies in the programme demonstrated, many of the young people on stage last week hope to be the professional performers of the future. They’ve already shown they have much of what it takes. Like many professional actors, they rehearse during the evenings and at weekends so they can work round the day-job: in their case school. Like professional companies, amateur groups use the ticket income generated to pay for sets costumes, publicity, printing and the like. Many groups even perform in the same venues as their professional cousins. The distinctions between the two become ever hazier.
Alex, like twin brother Ben, is a junior member of C.A.T.S., a youth theatre group in Bolton whose senior members put on two productions a year. It certainly turns out some talented performers, but that isn’t the main aim. It’s much more about teaching children and teenagers new skills, and developing their confidence in a supportive environment. Some young people may eventually find their interest lies more on the technical side: lighting and so on, others in developing scenery. Yet others will use the lessons learnt there in fields utterly unrelated to the stage. For both young and adult groups however, amateur dramatics, whether you’re acting, sewing costumes, selling tickets or stuck in the prompt corner, is a real means of being part of a purposeful, busy and enriching community. Ben and Alex’s mum Elinor should know: she’s usually to be found engaged in some production or other in the thriving Bolton am-dram world.
I never came across amateur dramatics in France. It seems a quintessentially English activity. In the village where I now live, the Arts Society sits alongside WI membership, cricket, book groups and so on as a real focus for village life. This weekend, everybody will be crowded in to the hall as the Arts Society puts on ‘Blood Brothers’, for two nights only.
And afterwards, everyone has to come back to earth. Adrenalin gone, late nights having taken their toll, it’s time to take a breather. But only till the next time. Am-dram is a drug, and addictive for performers and audience alike.