Saturday, 7 November 2015

Ten Things That bake my noodle about amateur theatre - part two

"jaysus that took a long time to read..."


"i didn't like the font..."

Well there we are. My harshest critics. BUT I've taken it to heart so rest assured, this one will be ever so slightly shorter. Done fuck all about the font though. Might add a few more pictures.

Christ, don't tell me I don't listen to my audience, even if I know you're all a bunch of microdots up a spy's arsehole.

Did that even make sense? Not to YOU maybe. Idiots. So here then are my top five pet peeves of working in Amateur Theatre. With less words. And more fucking pictures.

Arseclowns all of you.

5. Committees.

Much of the pressure within the world of amateur dramatics comes from committees. Like big business or the tobacco companies, committees are theoretically – and often practically – to be feared and loathed, their undeserved arrogance forced on us like Fatty Arbuckle's erroneous rape charge, with exactly the same effect : bad feelings, stupid allegations, unreasonable expectations, too many publicly aired opinions, a failed career, and then nothing actually happens. People still drink Coca Cola though.

But what IS a committee? Well in amateur dramatic terms, a committee is made up of at least seventy nine people, all stringently against whatever anyone else thinks, their pursed lips pressed firmly together in practised disapproval as they eye anyone who hasn't been with the drama group for more than eleven years with deeply discriminatory suspicion. 

Their job is to meet every three weeks or so and come up with reasons why someone should not be allowed do what they want within the group. Then they'll congratulate themselves on it and go to the pub.

Breaking it down, most amateur drama groups have at least three to four separate committees, alongside a chairperson and some guy who does the accounts and tediously reports to everyone on the last show's returns every fucking time they meet.

The artistic committee – this is made up of people who know nothing about theatre but are charged with choosing the next forty or so plays the group are going to produce. They have been placed in this position in order to be manipulated by outside parties to agree to do certain types of play, ie those with “marketable appeal” for “bums on seats.” They have about as much artistic experience, knowledge or understanding as the day after 911. They are essentially civil servants, placed in their position by higher authorities to have no power whatsoever.

The social committee – this is the one where they organise the parties, be it after show, Christmas, Halloween, new years, birthdays, funerals, etc. This is where it's at, right here, this is the central hub of many a drama group, the go-to people, the have a laugh, kicking off, the fucking fun fun funnity of funs. Of course what this has to do with putting on theatre is anyone's guess, but who doesn't like to party? Aside from me obviously, I've established I'm an anti-social fuckshit, actively burning all bridges as I type this river of toxic slime. Why should anyone else get to enjoy themselves? Fuck that. Fuck you. Fuck everything.

What? Anyway.

The publicity committee – usually just one person, charged with arranging the distribution of posters, social media, and all other publicity material. This person takes their job so seriously, they actually grate on every other committee member's tits, partly because they're actually doing their job well and are therefore showing everyone else up. They will get a cursory thanks in the program.

The chairperson – this is basically the president of Ireland. With all the pomp and ceremony stripped of their position, these people do absolutely nothing of worth. They are there to have the real power whisper in their ear, then repeat those whispered mantras as though they are their own. They spout the party line and are usually voted in based not on their experience or ability, but because of their weak wills.

The real power – this is usually two or three people who are using the drama group to further their own agenda. They've been members for a long time, and do not like to see things change, especially when their own needs are being suited. They will be at the forefront of every vote, every discussion, their faces will be in every newspaper article, and they will be the controlling members of each and every play. They will be one of the three or four cycling directors or producers of each show the group presents. They will also continually tell you they always welcome new members, new plays, and new approaches. While actively disproving this time and time again. These people are driven by arrogance and insecurity. And everyone knows it.

The reason why committees tend not to work, however, is very simple : people. 

People by their very nature get in their own way. People refuse to believe they're wrong. People refuse to agree with others unless there's an angle that benefits them. Give people even the illusion of power and they will display levels of greed akin to Hitler every time he shifted the face of Eva Braun. People will argue for the sake of arguing, and give people a rule book to quote and you can forget about any semblance of sense to their decision making.

That is why most committees suck donkey balls.

In fact, the only thing worse than committees, are a lack of one. The irony of course is that drama groups need structure to work, someone in a – even fabled – place of authority from which decisions can be made. Take away this structure and you're left with a clusterfuck of disorganisation, pointed blame fingers, and a set of shrugged shoulders.

Here's the truth – you only need a forum of three people to run a drama group successfully. That's it. That's all you need for your committee. Any more than that, and those three people have chosen to delegate work onto others because they don't want the responsibility of running a drama group. Get rid of them, and get another three people who feel passionate about what they're doing. It's easy.

4. The assumption that everyone else is amateur except us.

This is not unique to drama or theatre. Everyone in the universe believes that they know more than everyone else, and everyone else is wrong except me. That's just a fact, and you can't argue with facts. That's just fact.

I'll keep this short, coz point number 5 went on forever and I can feel your bristles of annoyance at me DARING to use words in such a lengthy manner. Who do I think I am, Shakespeare? If you knew how many times I have been called "wordy," you'd realise the amount of times someone has given me decent advice that I've chosen to ignore in favour of contrived anger and an excuse to explode on paper. Or, what's this called? Your screen. I'm exploding all over your screen. Take it.

Point is, this is the same assumption that every amateur drama group makes – that THEY are far more professional than every other drama group around. It's bullshit. You're lying to yourselves.

Two reasons. One : you're amateur. Unless you're paying money to the cast and crew, you're doing it “for the love.” Now, I have known of several amateur drama groups who quite sneakily pay certain performers and crew – including themselves – and not others out of the returns for the show. This doesn't make them professional, this makes them scabs and frauds.

Reason two : If you are so self-obsessed that you must look to other groups before you look to your own, then you have already failed. You are operating your group from the point of view of what-not-to-do instead of through forward momentum. You've failed. Give up, there's no point continuing. Kill yourself, and in your suicide note remind us that you killed yourself better than anyone else ever has, ever.

A bit of advice from the incensed but wise – learn, gain experience, understand, and work together towards doing the best piece of theatre you possibly can. Don't give a shit what other people are doing. Just do it the best you can. I don't know why that should seem so alien to people, but there it is.

There is nothing wrong with being an amateur. It's just that you're doing it wrong.

3. “Writers should never direct their own work. They'll miss the bigger picture, they just won't be objective about their work.”

I hear this statement trotted out every few years.

The sheer pompous arrogance of it cannot be under-stated. It is basically saying that a writer does not understand their own work well enough to produce it.

Now being someone who used to write plays - until the absolute lack of respect, the sheer and ugly sneering I endured for DARING to write new plays wore me down into the shrivelled testicle sack I am now - this one is a particular bugbear of mine. I have heard it repeated many, many times over the years, and of all the amateur opinions I have heard it is one of the most bizarre, and is unfounded by actual practice.

Now sometimes it's stated by people with experience who genuinely believe this, people who may actually be a writer and simply cannot ever see themselves being a director of actors. They are not wrong in their decision. But it is THEIR decision. They would prefer to hand their play over to a legitimate director, someone who knows how to shape a piece of theatre from a set of paper-slapped wordlings. I'm not saying that every playwright should have to direct their own work, not at all.

But more often than not I hear this mantra being wheeled out by people who simply do not know what they're talking about, who are basically saying that writers lack the objectivity to deconstruct their work for stage, and are far too precious about their words to let loose.

Think about this for a second. This is basically stating that writers – the creators of a play, the characters, and the world in which those characters thrive – lack the vision to reproduce their own work. And furthermore, they will be less willing to cut or alter their work than a passionless – but objective – director will. The notion being that a writer put so much work into their play that they can't see the wood for the trees.

Now really think about that. No. Really.

Ignoring the fact that when a writer has finished a play, that is the play, that is the work from which you'll be creating your theatre, therefore why the fucking NEED to change it at all? Ignoring the bizarre assumption that a director is required to completely disregard the text in order to place their stamp on it, I want you to stop and read over that last paragraph again and think about it. Really think about it. I'll wait. Go on, have a cup of herbal orange juice and smoke a Piper Laurie.

It is nonsense to assume a writer's workload ceases the instant the play is handed to a committee.

Once again, I say this – if a writer can direct, then there is no reason why they should not be able to direct their own work. A writer, in fact who directs, can be far MORE open to workshopping it because they WANT it to work. Not only that, but the best directors will have the writer on board even if only to keep them on board for any changes that might be required.

Only insecurity and arrogance allows the director to keep the writer away; why would you actively seek to keep the one person who truly understands the play – because they created it – away from the process? It obviously makes no practical sense, but then matters of the ego rarely do. The only reason to do so is to exhibit a complete lack of respect for that person's work; because the assumption seems to be that the writer simply will not understand the director's vision and therefore must not ever be allowed to witness it.

Yes, of course there are times when a writer is being too precious about his work and so might be a cunt about it. A great example is that of the great writer James Dickey making an absolute arse of himself on the set of John Boorman's “Deliverance,” based on both the novel and the screenplay Dickey wrote. By all accounts – his own included – he shoved his musky big hands into the gears many a time, to much chagrin from the cast and crew.

So, it happens. But not always.

I'll give you a quick anecdote, and I will try and keep it short because I can feel the crosshairs on me, the mutterings under your breath of “he's a fucking writer, complaining that he can edit his own work, but when is he going to put this into practice?”

I hear ya. Fuck you, but I hear ya.

I recently directed a short piece I wrote. In the six or so weeks I workshopped it with the actors, due to poor scheduling we needed to replace a performer. It was a tough decision, however it made practical sense. But it meant we ended up one actor short for the piece.

My solution was simple – I cut his character completely out. It was a funny character, one I would have liked – as a writer – to keep. But I also recognised the need to keep momentum on the show so I made the decision to cut it. I introduced audience interaction to cover it; this interaction was not in the original script. While directing my own play I allowed for and encouraged improvisation, rewrote jokes to add punch, allowed the actors to bring their own sensibilities to the piece. I added a huge swathe of physical comedy and tics that were not in the script. I added props that were not in the play. I edited, added, deconstructed, and workshopped with the actors to make the piece work in the best possible way for the paying audience that it could.

I did all this to my own script. Please don't tell me a writer is too precious about his play.

I don't say this to brag, or tell you that my play was amazing or even special. I'm simply using it as an example in direct opposition to the frankly stupid assertion that a writer is too precious to direct their own work; and to the notion that a writer will only work toward selling their play without embellishment.

Now, the opposite of this is those writer/directors who have very specific tones and style they want to utilise. People like David Mamet or Hal Hartley, who often remove the emotions from their plays and let the bite of the words do the heavy lifting. They direct their own work in order to create that specific atmosphere they feel their plays require. Should they not be allowed to do this?

Someone like Neil Labute directs his own work so as to avoid the possibility of a director removing the acid bite of his work by softening the edges, or worse adding too much negativity to his often perfectly balanced and nuanced writing. Stephen Spielberg wrote ET. That seemed to work out okay for him. Harold Pinter often directed his own work. Chris Morris writes, directs and performs in his own pieces, working hard to get the exact tone for his vision.

Do you see where I'm going with this? It's bullshit to so explicitly state that a writer should not direct their own work. 

It's nonsense and it's such an amateur assertion to make.

2. “Bums on Seats.”

This is the shortest entry I'll give you. Standard amateur drama group practice is to present a play that has already been proven in the past, in order to secure an audience – bums on seats.

There are about ten plays in Ireland that continually move around the amateur drama circuit, with each group performing them again and again, every seven years or so. In Ireland, these are mostly Irish plays from the fifties and sixties, supposed “classics” that are supported essentially by the assumption that all an audience wants to see is an old play by a long dead playwright.

Most amateur drama groups refuse to stray from this formula of replay, and it is why it becomes hugely frustrating for a writer of new work trying to get their plays out there, or for an audience looking for new or interesting theatre.

Bums on seats belies the truth of many an amateur drama group's ethos – that they may talk the talk when it comes to art, artistic vision, and the love of the greasepaint. But the reality is they want to make money, win awards, and associate themselves with greatness by proxy. They believe that simply by putting on a play by Sean O'Casey, they are achieving a level of authenticity and artistry. They're not – they're putting on a laughably outdated play with brand recognition. For money. Often poorly.

1. “It is what it is.”

Of all the statements I have heard repeated over the past twenty years, this is the one that sucks my arse-cleft the most. I hear it so often about so many different things that it has become the one thing guaranteed to grind my teeth to powder.

It is what it is.” You know what that is? Justification and acceptance that something is shite, while taking no responsibility for why that might be. It is the worst, most ugly, pathetic and cowardly way for a participant to describe the final result of a group of people getting together to put on a piece of theatre.

If you find yourself using this term to describe the work you are doing, then you are doing something very, very wrong and you should not be asking people to pay for the privilege of sitting through the end result. When you take a shit and look at it in the bowl, it is what it is. A siren is what it is. A play should be something else.

Imagine using this statement in any other context. 

You've just had what you thought was intense and sweaty intercourse with someone you almost care about, you've put all your work into it, you've slammed when they wanted slamming, you've tried not to ejaculate within the five minute mark which has necessitated you thinking about your mother's funeral and the fact you're almost positive you heard her crying in the coffin, and when you've finished and ask your partner “how was it?” they reply - “it is what it is.”

Imagine a pilot using this term instead of righting his too steep descent.

Your father using it to describe your mother.

A waiter slamming an obviously smashed creme brulee down in front of you.

Someone forcing themselves on you.

A doctor accidentally crushing your newborn baby's head with a vice clamp, or whatever it is doctors use to yank children out of vaginas during that birth thing you people do these days.

A teacher refusing to work a little harder to help a child with Asbergers.

Do you begin to understand just how offensive this term is?

It is what it is.” The largest shrug possible. Fuck off anyone who uses this phrase. It's akin to that other nauseating mantra - “it's just a bit of fun, isn't it?” You're a moron for saying this. 

It would also be a bit of fun to watch you fall off a building into a pit of angry giraffes who proceed to use their necks to kill you.

There is a vast difference between having fun, and shrugging something off as “just a bit of fun.” A vast chasm of difference. It should never be this way. Ever. It should never just be “what it is.”

Otherwise what the fuck is the point of putting in all that effort?


I know what you're thinking – I do, I really do. Get over yourself, dominicispalmer. You're taking it all far too seriously. Yes? So? And? Isn't that the whole point of doing this theatre thing? To do it as seriously, as well as possible? Surely it is. Surely to fucking god it's more than just turning up to socialise in high-school style cliques designed to ostracise and alienate those idiots who dare to join a drama group in the vague hope of doing something good.

Here's my suggestion, amateur theatre. There is time for you to change. I feel it, I feel like all you have to do is stop and think for a second. To remix your ideals. To come to terms with the fact that a drama group is about theatre; not internal drama, never changing until the internal rot becomes the only thing keeping it together.

So here's my suggestion - take it seriously. Work hard at it. Rehearse properly. Don't assume that just by turning up and saying the lines you're creating drama. Listen to and learn from those who have experience ( and not just experience of being a member of an amateur drama group for nineteen years. ) 

Don't assume simply by taking part you know what you're doing. Respect writers work and opinions; without the writers you have no play. Remember that. A play without a director is still a piece of art. A director without a play is nothing.

Cast correctly. If someone is cast through duty, they will know it. They will look and feel like shit on the night. Isn't it better not to put anyone through that?

Work hard at getting every element of a play right, so that when the audience pay their hard earned money, you can be proud of the final product and they will have something more to say about your production than, “the sets were good, weren't they?” while you shrug your shoulders and declare "it is what it is; when's the next production?" Because you know what? That next production will be as piss as this one if you don't put in the time and respect required.

For me, I'm done. I'm out. I'm no longer supporting amateur theatre, either with my presence or my experience. I'm disillusioned by it. I have stopped writing plays. I am no longer performing, except for outstanding commitments. I hope never to work in theatre again.

What was it that tipped me over the edge? To quote the great “Seven” : it wasn't any one thing, I can tell you that.

Is it any better in the professional world? No. But it comes with perks, most notably professional attitudes and though I'm loathe to say it - the odd payslip. Not always, but most of the time. 

But I have other pursuits I want to chase. I have ambitions and goals, just like anyone else who's been a porn performer and has finally gotten out.

You won't miss me, and that's okay because believe me, I won't miss you.

It is what it is.

Thanks for your time.


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