Friday, 6 November 2015

Ten Things That Bake my Noodle about amateur theatre - part one

Hey folks, welcome to the world of fury, fire, and blisters.

It's been a while since I released a blog from my piston-mind of anger, my bile-duct of regret and regression, my - uh - similarly themed set of odd mixed metaphors. I make no apologies, I've never pretended that I like you and you've never told me you need me. Knobwrangler.

So, I have been a theatre practitioner for nearly twenty years, on and off, often professionally, but also quite regularly at an amateur, or independent level. I have put on a number of my own plays, created street theatre projects for teenagers, and once spent a week acting in an Oscar Wilde play I understood none of. In this time I have experienced the best and the worst of theatre.

This listy blog is based on my experiences in that time, making attempts to ply my trade as an independent writer and performer in a sea of oncoming idiocy, beurocracy, and wilful and sometimes painful ignorance and disrespect.

I might as well say now that you probably won't agree with everything that is to come. These observations are often sweeping generalisations, satirical to a degree but as far as I am concerned, as honest a portrayal as I can represent from my time in the trenches. You may dislike the tone I adopt within. You're entitled to your opinion. You're wrong, but entitled to be so. Just stay out of my way.

So as I said, I've been a theatre practitioner for a very long time, as a performer, director, producer, and what was once my first passion, as a writer. I used to love what I did. I used to want to be the best I could be. I assumed and expected that those I worked with in this field would be the same as me. I was very, very wrong. Over time my experience in the world of amateur theatre has cost me my passion, and my desire to continue as a practitioner. It's a crying shame but in the grander scheme of things, it's really no loss to anyone but myself. I'll get over it, in time. You'll get over it before this sentence finishes.

So what is an amateur as opposed to a professional and how do their mindsets differ? Well, in the most generalised of terms, an amateur is someone who engages in some activity or other for the love as opposed to for the pay. For the love.

For the love.

As I angrilly delve into the first of a two-part blog, and my first five pet-peeves of amateur theatre, please remember this : for the love.

Part of why amateur theatre is so traditionally awful, is down to the traditions behind it - generally drama groups are started by one of two types of people : those who believe they are at a professional level because they won an award once, and therefore don't need to learn anything; and those who have never actually studied theatre ( I mean studied it, as opposed to watched it on the local stage and thought, I could do that ) but believe they have seen enough to understand it. They both suffer from the same malady - grotesquely over-stated self-belief. From these two types of tendrils spread an octopus of delusions.

But wait, I hear you declarifying loudly! Who are YOU to dare to arrogantly proclaim advice from within our computer slot, you b-bearded lanky fat-suit of a man! What makes you so special? Well, I'm not. I don't think I'm better than you. I really don't. I am just someone who has had his spirit crushed by the soul-less stupidity of one too many over-spoken fools, grandly spouting shite when they should be learning from experience. I am someone who has had the passion squeezed out of him by those who would declare a love for theatre, while keenly avoiding demonstrating it. 

I'm basically fed up. And I want to scream.

Onwards, therefore, and downwards. I warn you in advance, there are cusswords in this piece. You will probably - hopefully - be offended. I live in the vain desire that you will feel physically affronted by what I have to say, as if I am personally spitting in your mouth after I've just eaten a peanut butter covered oatcake.

10. "I don't like to over-rehearse my cast. After all I don't want them to get bored."

I can't tell you how often I hear this refrain in amateur circles, and it makes absolutely not one licked paint-biscuit of sense.

It is basically pandering to your cast over your audience and is why your play looks under-rehearsed and amateur.

Surely the whole point of putting a play on is that it comes across as natural, unforced, and well-rehearsed. Or to put it another way – like you made the effort to put on a good play for your audience.

Surely therefore, the only way to do that is to rehearse them to the point that they ARE bored, bored enough at least to want to present it to an audience. This notion of not boring the cast is based on two things simultaneously – the erroneous idea of keeping things fresh; and the notion that this is an amateur cast giving up their precious time to do this show, so must be respected at all costs.

Keeping things fresh : this is bullshit, and one of the main reasons many amateur plays seem under-rehearsed and the cast unprepared, leading to sine-wave voice acting, poor line readings, “off” pacing and more dropped lines than a cocaine addict with Parkinsons. Or Robin Williams. Too soon? There's no such thing.

The only way a cast can keep fresh with the material is to become so familiar with it that they can start to play around, within the already rehearsed confines and structure of the piece. Yes, in the professional world where performers may be doing the same show every night for two years, over and over again, to the point that they begin to resemble a moveable mannequin on-stage despite their own best efforts, one can legitimately talk about keeping things “fresh.” There is a world of difference between these people, who spent a goodly portion of time rehearsing the piece before opening night to get it perfect, and amateurs who spend on average three hours a week for four weeks, rehearsing.

Not even skilled improvisers can just turn up with no preparation. They must workshop, create cast and audience controls, rehearse their structure to give the maximum amount of entertainment to the paying audience. They work very, very hard in order to make it seem effortless. They may not know exactly what they're going to say, but they understand how and where they can say it, and with experience and repetition comes timing and a seemingly off-the-cuff performance. This is the difference between a skilled performer – someone who has taken the time to prepare, research, rehearse and become comfortable with the material or the structure of the material – and an amateur who likes to “keep things fresh.”

You pander to your audience, not to your cast. Which leads me to : but this is just an amateur cast. So? What's your point? If this person has given up their time to do this play, shouldn't the assumption be that that's just what they want to do? Yes, they probably work during the day. And yes, they have a life outside of this. But this is their hobby my friend, this is something they're doing because they want to do it, because it's fun, and because at the end of the day they want to look and feel good doing it. They need structure, and they need to be pushed and if they don't respond to it, or are just here for the social life, then tell them to fuck off. Replace them with someone who actually gives a shit. The only way to get someone to the point that they look good on-stage is to work, work, and work again at getting it right. This means over-rehearsing. This means boredom with the material. This means repetition and commitment.

To put it in perspective – no one would turn up to help a dairy engineer for two hours, once a week, with no idea what they're doing, then say but this is my hobby, and I like to keep things fresh when someone complains that they're shit and don't know what they're doing. So why do amateur performers and especially directors assume they can do the same with stagecraft?

9. "Roles must be given to people who have

In other words, if we're operating through an amateur drama group – which is most likely given their pack-of-wolf prevalence over independent amateurs – the important roles in the play do not necessarily go to those who are right for them, but to those who have been long standing members/friends of the group or individuals producing the play.

This is one of the reasons why, as an audience member, you will be sitting looking at someone in their sixties playing the seventeen year old main character and thinking – what the fuck were they thinking? Which is also why it is so very rare to actually see someone in an amateur play who suits or is in any way capable of playing the role they've been cast in.

That person is either – a friend of the director; a friend of the group; someone with money; someone who works for a local paper; someone who has been a member of this group for longer than five years and therefore is deserving of any role they choose to play; over seventy, pushing ever closer to pushing the daisies, and therefore MUST be given their respect and dues no matter how old and shuddery they are on-stage; a relation of someone; someone who turned up for the audition and therefore must be cast ( though they were probably one of the above, and have secretly been asked by the director to turn up to the auditions so they can be officially cast without having to worry about someone complaining, unless – well, see number 8. )

Now, all of this respect amongst friends is good and fine and dandy, except you're then asking the public to pay money to sit through this circle jerk of monkey jizz. And that, dear friends, is when it stops being cool. Because you know what? Just as your amateur cast work hard during the day and attend your rehearsals out of love or social necessity – so too do your audience. And they're the ones who are paying you their hard earned cash to watch this ignorantly cast bilge.

Which brings me onto number 8...

8. "Fuck it, just cast anyone – the main thing is to get the play in front of an audience."

Casting your friends or your relatives is obviously not restricted just to the amateur world. Nepotism is a very hack move but it exists in all walks of life. Hell, I often cast my girlfriend in plays I've written and directed. Of course the difference is, she's a seasoned, skilled performer and I only ever cast her in roles that are appropriate to her. I often cast her; not always.

So I feel like I'm okay to cast the first stone here. If you'll pardon the phrase coinage.

One thing peculiar and relatively unique to amateur theatre is the fuck-it-we-need-to-cast this play phenomenon, whereby either not enough people turned up to your audition, or not enough of the right people. Which basically means casting from a shallow gene pool, with all the attendant bullshit that brings with it, or reaching out to people who didn't show an interest in your piece in the first place, just so you can fill a role.

Look, I get it – sometimes you need to fill out your cast. You have ludicrously chosen a play that needs seventeen people, and you only have four people cast. Two of those are your close, personal friends, one is some guy who's promised to advertise his business in your program so you don't want to piss him off, and the other is someone who's wife just died of Cancer and you need to keep his mind off it for at least three hours a week. That's cool, but what are you going to do about those thirteen other roles?

I know! Fuck it – let's just cast the play anyway. Call in some favours, cast those two people who turned up at the auditions because they saw it on Facebook and just want to do “anything” to get out of the house for a couple of hours. Ask everyone you know to either join your cast or help you find someone who will so that what you end up with is one or two dedicated people, and a bunch of others whose commitment, generally, is – at best – uneven. Perhaps understandably so, but uneven none the less.

When casting outside of auditions, the result is usually eggshells – the director and cast often end up walking on them in accommodating this person, who of course is doing them a favour by even turning up once a month to help them with their little play. When casting from those who are not right for the roles but are required if this damn play is going to happen at all damn it, well it's obvious what happens. They just cannot pull it off. The audience has to sit through their painful performances and applaud them for, at least, giving it a go while secretly reserving a special place in their own mind-hell for the director of this shit.

Sure, the play has been saved by being able to cast it. But at what cost.

Again, in no other world would you so eagerly yet half-aresedly give away a role to someone who is not equal to the task just to get the job done. Would you like your Tuscanny Rabbit in Pork Blood and Greek Belly cooked for you by someone who was brought in at the last second to fill a space despite their complete lack of experience or appropriateness in the role?

The answer is no. In fact the answer is, obviously not. You idiot. I'm going to kill you. So why are we so quick to accept it in the world of amateur drama? Personally, I would rather not do a play than conflict it's potential with such a watered down approach. I have certainly done so in the past; pulled a play I understood instinctively would not get the cast it required. I have had just enough experience of seeing my own plays fail in the hands of others, who cast from that shallow gene pool just to cast, to understand that sometimes it's just not right to continue on that path. A play can always be done some other time. Let the stars at least attempt to align before shoving this shit out there for all to see!

Of course, I am certainly not free of guilt in this regard – I am over-familiar with the panic that ensues when you realise you're one cast member short, have already booked the dates in the local Arts Centre, and have three other cast members waiting for the first read-through before they tell you they can only attend rehearsals once a month, and only on the days no one else can attend them.

In my twenty years experience, I have sometimes had the good fortune to have known and worked with some strong performers, people I have wanted to work with, and who have wanted to work with me. On the few occasions I have had to stretch out to fill a role, I have ultimately – and always - had to cast despite myself to get the ball rolling, then I have had to drop these people because of a lack of commitment ( they're doing you a favour after all ) or lack of suitability to the role, and often had to replace them with myself, causing headaches and stress and lines I didn't want to have to learn, which is why I didn't cast myself in the first place god damn it.

I'm a prick, that much must be obvious to you as you read this. I'm a prick because I don't do this for the socialising. I'm a prick because I don't like seeing one person fuck things up for others. I'm a prick because I used to care enough about my craft and art to want to get it done to the best possible standard, and I would work damn hard at achieving this irrespective of how other people – often people on the inside – perceived it. I have worked with many actors, amateur and professional, and the best - and rarest - of them have shared my passions and work ethics. That is why we have often worked together on numerous projects and why when someone upsets that balance I do not work with them again.

Despite being an obnoxious prick, I'm also a gentle person, and I don't like having to replace people, especially if one of the only reasons I am doing so is because they were cast due to being in the right place at the right time. That's not their fault and it hurts them and me to have to do it.

I especially don't like having to replace people with myself. Not because of the next pet peeve, but because I suffer from stage terrors, and have become increasingly frightened of performing. But that's for another day.

7. "Actors should never direct themselves."

This is a phrase that is often, pompously wheeled out by people who just don't know what they're talking about. Or have singularly failed in doing so themselves and therefore assume it can't be done by lesser folk.

Look, this is only true to a certain extent. The reality is, inexperienced actors should avoid directing themselves, and inexperienced directors should avoid acting in their own pieces.

That's it. It has nothing to do with projecting an ego, nor has it anything to do with not being able to get a true performance from yourself when you can't see what you're doing. An actor – believe it or not – generally shapes their performance without being able to see themselves. The director is only there during rehearsals, unless you're my girlfriend, in which case there's no escaping me. Chances are you're not, though. Lucky you. No honestly. See above comments about my complete arseholery.

I have seen far too many strong performances given by actors who directed themselves to agree with this pious bullshit, and I have had too many occasions where I have had to direct myself through necessity to accept it. Did I give the best performance I could give? Sure. Why not? I've learned my own ticks, work hard at keeping them at bay. Ego? Fuck that shit, it's just fact.

is hard to do, to direct a play with other actors when you are acting alongside them. Sometimes it feels as though you are not giving them enough attention because you are on the wrong side of the fourth wall. Sometimes you feel like you're not giving yourself enough attention, because you're focussing on giving them their dues. But can any director or actor honestly tell me this isn't the case when you are not directing yourself? Sometimes a director simply focusses on one aspect of the play to the detriment of all others. 

I have heard directors discussing the lighting with the cast at the first read-through. This is just hilariously misplaced directing and can be far more damaging to a cast than directing oneself alongside them. This is a director showing off, when he should be easing his cast into their new roles. Why should your actors give a fat fuck for how you're going to light the show? They're too busy wondering how they're going to perform their role. It also stands to reason, why would your actors be against you coming down into the trenches alongside them, and experiencing what they're experiencing? Surely that helps the cast bond? Directors - you're not generals. You are guides. You cannot guide if you have not been there before.

To say that an actor should never direct himself is an absurdly definitive statement based on, at best, a half-truth, and at worst is the most amateur of declarations. 

I can direct myself. I have done so many times. Do I prefer to be directed by someone else? Sure. Sometimes. But I have had good experiences and I have had bad experiences. I have learned from both, and the good and the bad experiences have placed me in the position that I would prefer to direct myself than be directed by these idiots again.

You want a bit of back up? Here's a list of film and theatre directors who have all done pretty good jobs of directing themselves over the years :

Charles Chaplin; Harold Lloyd; Mel Gibson; Christopher Guest; Kenneth Branagh; Robert De Niro; Mel Brooks; Clint Eastwood; Orson Welles; Woody Allen; Mel Gibson; Tom Stoppard; Harold Pinter; David Mamet; Eric Bogosian; almost every stand up comedian you could mention.

The last three names, take note of. They'll come up again later on, in part two. Am I as good as anyone mentioned above? No. Obviously not. But will I be if I keep working at it? That's a definitely maybe.

This statement, that an actor should not direct themselves, is blown out of all proportion in the world of amateur dramatics. The reality is simpler – if they can, why shouldn't they? That's it.

I'll finish this one off with an anecdote. I recently went to see a poorly staged, intermittently well acted, but generally fucking awful play. I go out for a drink after, get talking to someone who repeats this mantra that actors should never direct themselves. Within this mantra we get talking about how excellent a particular cast member was in this production we just watched. How they just got the play, understood how to perform the lines, kept the rest of the cast's momentum up when they were clearly flagging on-stage.

Don't anticipate the punchline folks. But that's right – this person they were praising, was also the director of the play. They were indeed the best thing about it, they were an inexperienced director and so perhaps should not have put themselves in this position, but they saved the show from numerous dropped lines, numerous occasions of poor ad-libbing by the other cast members, and at the end, by pacing the play with their own performance so that it rarely flagged as a result of the other performers amateur – or “fresh” - acting. They knew the play inside out because, guess what, they had done their homework in order to direct it. They were also the only one who knew their lines and how to say them.

I don't know if that's the pudding or not, but there's certainly proof in there somewhere.

6. "We're already off book!"

Of all the amateur dramatic mantras that wreck my arrogant head, this is number six on my list. They all wreck my head equally, but this just happens to be here. At number six. Right here, at number six on the list. Boy oh boy can you beat that?

So every amature director will start their production of a play with a sit around reading, and at this reading they will express a date whereby the actors must be “off book.” Because of the idiotic nature of amature dramatics, most groups assume that they only need four or so weeks to rehearse their play. They're idiots, obviously, but within these four weeks they will expect their performers to be “off book” almost instantly, so that their hands are free of scripts during the too short rehearsal period.

What this means in laymans terms is, learning their lines. Now, it makes sense for actors to learn their lines as quickly as possible because it frees their rehearsals, and indeed their performances, up to experimentation. It also makes sense for actors to learn their lines because, the nature of stage performance is that actors are not supposed to be reading from a script in front of an audience. I don't know if this is – is this one of those statements of the obvious they sometimes talk about in books and stuff?

Ignoring the fact that the very people who often say they like to have their performers fresh with the material, are often the very people who demand that all the lines are learned immediately, let's move on to a more obvious fact.

It doesn't matter 
when someone learns their lines, as long as on the night of the performance, they're not doing it from a script. Honestly. Stop, stop your chattering and your whining right now. I can hear you, muttering at me. You've been doing it for the entirety of this article. You're wrong. It does not matter when someone learns their lines. That's it. That's fact. As long as they're not using a script onstage. Stop. You're wrong. It does not matter. Pressuring someone – especially someone who works during the day, and often in the evenings, pressuring someone who has a family, and for who this stage lark is often just a hobby – to learn their lines yesterday, does not work. It just does not work, and in fact what ends up happening nine times out of ten is that they rush the learning part in order to rehearse without their script. Which leads to paraphrasing, dropped lines and more importantly a lack of understanding of where the cues are. By rushing, the lines are usually not fully learned, nor their meaning appreciated, leading to poor line readings and rushed phrasing.

How often have you sat through a rehearsal where someone has insisted on dropping book early, then spent two hours spitting chunks of line out while a terrified prompter flicks back and forth through their jagged copy of the script, desperately trying to salvage the floundering actor yet secretly thinking “just pick up your fucking script you egomaniacal aresecock!! I want to live! I just want to live! Or at least go home.”

That's because instead of taking the time to rehearse with the script, taking the time to allow the actor to naturally and instinctively learn their lines, the director has put pressure on them to put their books down. This has little to do with the play and everything to do with a director's authority and ego. And complete lack of understanding as to how people actually operate.

It doesn't work. Trust me, and if you can't, trust in the amount of poorly executed amateur shows you've had to pay money for and then sit through, where the cast all seem to be actively searching for their next line instead of acting. That's why folks. Cause they were off book before everyone else, while struggling to keep that material fresh. Sure, sometimes it's down to the fact that a person just didn't learn their lines. That's because they were the director's mother, or the committee chairperson's wife. Shouldn't have been cast in the first place.

Here's the reality, and probably part of what you were muttering at me as you read this : it is far easier to rehearse without a script in your hand. Most actors prefer to learn their lines quickly, so that they can begin to shape their performances. Most actors also prefer other actors to learn their lines, so they can shape their relationships on-stage. This is natural, and makes a lot of sense. If your co-performer is familiar with their lines, and their cues, then there is a sense of trust which lets you, as an actor, relax and concentrate on your own performance.

But the truth of the matter is this : you can still achieve much of this with a script in your hand during the rehearsal period. Honestly. If you're getting the right lines out, and the pace is flowing, isn't that better than rushing to half-learn your lines so that you can put your script down, then spend most of your rehearsals paraphrasing your cues to the detriment of everyone around you? How does this help cement a scene, cement your movements? If you're spending your time trying to remember rush-learned lines? I'm gonna go ahead and tell you this one fact – it's doesn't.

All actors generally work hard to learn their lines as quickly as possible, but they do this in two ways. 1 : outside rehearsals, generally on their own or with a partner reading opposite them and coldly correcting them when they fuck up because they don't understand what it's like to be a sensitive actor desperately trying to learn your lines for an egomanicacal yet insufferably insecure director. 2 : by osmosis, through repetitive rehearsals, locking down how to verbally, and physically represent those lines. And the best way of doing this, is from the script.

It is no great achievement to be “off book.” It IS an achievement to learn not only what your lines are, but their meaning both in relation to your own character and to the other characters around you. And that takes time, not pressure.

End of part one...

Okay, so we got through the first five! Yay! I know, I know, all the time you've been thinking, but dominicispalmer, just what the fuck problem have you got with a bunch of people meeting up once or twice a week for fun, to put on a play out of love?

Theoretically, nothing. In practice my response is this : why bother going as far as putting on a show? I have no problem with you meeting up and fannying around. But when you start asking people to pay money to view you fannying around, that's when I start having problems.

As to, out of love - where is it? In the egos of the participants, spending their nights bitching about each other and everyone else? In the hour of rehearsal sandwiched in between lengthy bouts of small talk? Where is the love?

I haven't seen it for a long time. It's been sucked out of me, slowly and surely.

I used to be passionate about more than just attacking people in my blogs. But I have spent too long listening to pompous gas-bags spouting wheat-fields of chaff, watching them pomp and ceremony around, achieving nothing more than placing a bunch of people on to a stage saying lines, and expecting friends, loved ones, and off-the-street public to pay for the privilege of entering the arch. It's not good enough. I want more.

That's what the fuck my problem is. Thanks for asking. I used to want to do it just for the love.

I'm working on the top five pet peeves of amateur theatre, so hopefully I'll have it up and out next week.

As always, please comment, say what you will, piss up a flagpole and set fire to a snake. Whatever. I don't care.

Thanks for reading


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