by Phil Lowe of eastmidlandstheatre.com
Above: Janie Dee with the cast of AmDram, including Laura Pitt-Pulford as Rose.
In true amateur style AmDram: a Musical Comedy has just run for four brief performances at Leicester’s Curve Theatre (27-29 May… blink, and you’ve probably missed it!).
Is this latest foray into the world of amateur theatre – by the professional industry – something of a p**s take or a lovable send-up? Many of us have taken part in A Chorus of Disapproval or Graham Holliday’s The Scottish Play and there is no shortage of further light-bulb moments to set a comedy (usually) to in the world of amateur dramatics.
As it turns out, this project in the Midlands could merely be a case of getting socially distanced live theatre back into the venue.
Keen to know more Phil Lowe caught up with its big star, Janie Dee, over the phone just after the production’s first read-through (of course, by the time you read this, Curve’s production will have ended – just)…
Over the years, 58-year-old Janie Dee has appeared in a myriad of plays and musicals including Follies (NT), Hello, Dolly! (Curve), Mack and Mabel (Criterion), Carousel (NT), Cats (New London Theatre), Noises Off (Old Vic), Comic Potential (UK & New York) and Calendar Girls (Noël Coward Theatre) among many, many others. “I’m very much looking forward to doing AmDram and to being on the Curve Theatre stage again in front of a live audience,” the seasoned star of stage & screen told me. “Although it is a big commitment we have chosen… to take this window of opportunity, dip our toes in the proverbial waters and see if audiences want to return to sitting with others, or, if they’re too scared.”
Blimey. That’s a thought. And you can bet the amateur sector will end up mirroring the success (or failure) of the professional industry. “We don’t know how people are going to react. Certainly, the people I am talking to are saying, ‘I can’t wait to go back to the theatre,’ and I think that now that people are having the vaccines, wearing the masks, doing the whole cleansing thing, I think that it’ll be fine actually, but don’t know for sure. So everyone is just being a little bit careful.”
Janie Dee is thrilled about how Curve is uniquely staging the production. “It’s going to have a proper orchestra and we are on both stages at Curve – we have the main stage and also the studio stage [which are physically joined to each other]. This is something I have never done at Curve. I did Hello, Dolly! on the main stage some years ago, and also The King and I. Both were brilliant productions. But for AmDram they’re opening up the wall between the main stage and the studio. It will open up the opportunity for a capacity socially distanced audience. It’s going to be epic and it is going to be enormous fun. It’ll be sort of in-the-round and I have never done that before there, yet I have always known that the opening up of the two stages was a possibility.”
Curve has, in fact, already opened up both stages for two recently streamed shows; Sunset Boulevard and The Color Purple plus a future ‘Made At Curve’ show, Rent, directed by Nikolai Foster (for which a gigantic revolve has been donated by Sir Cameron Mackintosh).
With less than a month until AmDram opens (at the time of writing), Janie tells me: “We just did our first read-through yesterday and I was thrilled to bits with it. I just think it’s a wonderful piece. It’s very true to the reality of amateur theatre groups but it’s very, very funny. I was doing Noises Off for the Old Vic some years ago and, at a posh ‘do’ connected with that, Dame Judi Dench was interviewed by Richard Eyre and he said to her, ‘What do you think the difference is between amateur and professional?’ She said, ‘None! We get paid and they don’t. That’s the difference!’
“We do it for a living and the amateurs supplement with a ‘proper’ job and, I thought, this is true, we all love it,” discloses Janie. “That’s the common ground here. We all love theatre. In my case, one does do it for money, as a living, as a profession but, I don’t just do it for money. That’s not why I say ‘yes’ to something. I say yes to it because I love it and I sort of need to do it. Nothing quite makes me feel so in tune with the world as when I am working on a piece, you know. I think I am okay if I am sailing, caught up in the rigmarole of what’s going on, but I love putting on a show. I know how to work a show. I know how to study the character. I know how to get there on time and how to warm up; how to build the character and then present it to an audience and work out my costumes and my hair. I make sure that the person I am playing is going to be relevant and resonate with somebody in the audience. They should feel they are watching somebody they believe is real.”
Janie Dee plays Diana, a leading lady in her am-dram life. “Diana is very organised and she’s the lead player in ‘GONADS’ – the Great Osterley North Amateur Dramatic Society [pun definitely intended]. She sort of takes it for granted. She’s in a very comfortable place I feel, because she’s got this amateur dramatic stuff going on at home and everything is in its place. But one gets the feeling that Diana is already aware that, for her, acting is getting a bit harder because she’s nearing that time of life when you just need to put your feet up in the afternoon a bit, you know. Sometimes the lines aren’t as sharp in her head as they used to be in her youth. I think it’s a really important learning curve for her, in this piece. Without giving too much away, she is ‘woken up’ by a big turn of events when two new professional people join the amateur group and one of them is a rival leading actress.
Katie Lam and Alex Parker’s AmDram: a Musical Comedy has actually already seen an audience when it premiered at London’s Other Palace in February 2019. Interestingly, Laura Pitt-Pulford has returned to reprise her portrayal of Rose in Curve’s new production. Rose is a newly arrived ‘professional’ actress who is attempting to reignite her ‘resting’ career but causes all kinds of mayhem including putting the odd nose out of joint when she is duly cast in the leading role… which Diana would usually expect to play.
“I think initially, Diana takes it for granted that she is going to win another fan,” reveals Janie, considering the dynamic between Diana and her new rival. “Rose is going to adore her, learn from her, and she embraces her at the start. However, that’s before she realises that Rose is going to be taking her role! For all of us, and me as a professional, this is something you have to come to terms with. It’s sometimes gonna happen that you don’t get the role or that somebody else gets it before you. Rejection is just part of the game. In AmDram, Diana has secured her place in the acting game. People say she is the lead and there’s no doubt about that. I suppose it can happen in the profession too; Judi Dench always plays the leads and I have been playing leads for years now. It’s still very important to keep your mind open to the fact it can change and, in a way, it has to change. I’ve worked with Alex Parker (AmDram’s composer) for years and he is very good at keeping us all on our toes. We are a co-operative and this is a group of us who are friends and we all play all the different parts. Sometimes I get to play the lead and sometimes I don’t but it’s really nice …to be part of a group of people who just love it. We put together so many things.”
“I recently produced a television show, which I didn’t realise I was doing until I was suddenly doing it, and I rang Alex and said, ‘I don’t really want to do this without you – will you come and do the Sondheim number – we are going to sing Our Time.’ He said, ‘Of course,’ and we did it at the London Coliseum but it really felt like a TV studio with all the cameras around. He’s such a great force of nature and professionalism but also, he’s just there for you. He’s a great friend and I really think he’s such a genius.
“Where am I going with this?” Janie says, all of a sudden. “Ah yes, he’s asked me to play the arc that is Diana and it’s very telling and very useful, just to see this woman struggling a bit when her worst self comes out. That can happen to anyone, I think it can, you know. We don’t want to believe that we have a monster inside us but she does become a bit monstrous. I think it comes from fear really. Fear is a terrible thing. All the things that make her feel comfortable are suddenly being taken away. So, she’s got to deal with that and she doesn’t deal with it very well. She has an epiphany I think, at some point. I’ve gotta work out exactly where that is pretty soon!
“I don’t want to give away too much because there’s nothing worse than telling somebody what’s going to happen,” confesses Janie before very nearly caving in. “What Diana’s job in this show is her coming to terms with how to be happy while she’s getting older. It is a wonderful piece of theatre and it is a light musical comedy. It’s light and it’s fun and it’s silly and that’s what we all need right now.”
“It might be a light comedy but there is a wonderful serious truth underneath all of it which is that everyone’s got something …to deal with,” continues Ms Dee, philosophically. “It’s usually themselves – and that’s the skill of the AmDram book writer, Katie Lam. She’s made each person have a journey, as we are all are on a journey. We’ve got ourselves to contend with and that’s the first thing that we have to look at. Who am I? How am I? Am I happy with me? Not, am I happy with somebody else? That’s probably out of your control. What’s good about this is that my character has been made to address themself and that’s interesting. Even though the show is light and funny, it’s actually got a very good – strong undertone. Which I’m thrilled about.”
Follies at The National Theatre (2019). Imelda Staunton as Sally Durant Plummer and Janie Dee as Phyllis Rogers Stone. Photo: Johan Persson
With Janie Dee beginning to get quite deep, I decided to deflect the focus and ask about the nature of the songs in this ‘musical’ comedy. “The songs are Stick with Me which is actually a number I sing to Laura’s Rose. I Should Have Known is absolutely gorgeous! It’s a big old ballad about wishing you hadn’t been such an idiot in the past. It’s something that only people of my age can sing, ha, ha! Something in the Air is very much in the moment of ‘something in the air tonight’ and about what’s going on underneath all the chat and all the frivolity. There’s something odd happening, but nobody’s quite sure what’s going on but, something is definitely changing. It’s very funny but again, quite resonant. And then the song We Are Family is all about theatre. I love this song and anyone who’s involved in theatre will say this is true. It’s that thing about when you put on a play you become part of a family. Even if it only lasts for eight weeks and you have four weeks’ rehearsal and four weeks’ playing, which is the case with most professional jobs.
“If you are with an amateur company you’ll be rehearsing for months because you can only do three or four rehearsal days a week,” Janie tells me, knowledgeably. “So actually, it builds up a whole structure or infrastructure of people, friends, social life, and that’s what becomes a very important part of living; being there for each other. The Marvellous song is just wonderful. It is – just marvellous! The clue is in the title, as they say. There are other songs but those are the ones I have got in front of me at the moment. There are some great numbers. I mean what I love about Alex and Katie is that they write beautiful tunes. And fun tunes too. Like, Kander and Ebb, Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stiles and Drew, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. They’re all people who can write a catchy tune and good lyrics.
“Why does it matter?” asks Janie, before launching into the big question of the moment. “Why does theatre matter at all? We’ve learnt in the last year that it can be there one moment and gone the next. And, it’s put us in a position where we should now think about frivolity and excess that we don’t need. Let’s just enjoy our life. What’s equally important to me is that, aside from theatre concerns, we must protect and enjoy nature.”
I could sense Janie Dee was about to go off on a tangent and, I was right but, then again, who am I to stand in her way. “I’ve questioned myself and others: ‘theatre – does it matter – really?’ Nature matters to me, like the trees, the grass, the food that feeds us but do the arts matter? Do we really need to tell each other stories like this? Overall, I think we need to be careful with the large carbon footprint of theatre and throwing everything away afterwards. It’s too wasteful. But I do also think that telling a great story can lift people’s spirits. I remember when I was younger how it was. I remember literally dancing up the street and leaping and swinging around lampposts because I had just seen a show. It made me feel so good about life. I think that this last year, in all the lockdowns, we have perhaps been focussing on our health, our gardens, our family and beauty of the sky. It’s now a good time to keep an eye on our carbon footprints as we begin our personal journey of recovery and the recovery of theatre.”
Eventually, I manage to get our theatre star to focus on theatre once more where, it turns out she has a full calendar following this brief taste of how amateurs tackle the genre: “Luckily, we are all busy afterwards. I’m doing A Little Night Music at Buxton Opera Festival with Paul Kerryson who directed me all those years ago in Hello, Dolly!. Alex is busy. Everyone in AmDram is busy, busy, busy. It might be that they say, ‘Come back next year with the show,’ or something, but right now we are testing the water. That’s what we are doing. I dearly hope the Curve audiences love our show, especially if there are any amateur players sat out there in the socially distanced seats.”
By Paul Johnson
Curve theatre supports homeschooling during the third national lockdown with a brand new educational initiative: Curve Classroom.
Available on Curve’s website and YouTube channel, the free sessions are available every weekday from 4pm and delivered by a range of leading artists including performers Molly Lynch, Garry Robson, Cathy Tyson and Hareet Deol, designers Grace Smart and Kate Unwin, directors Tinuke Craig and Julia Thomas, choreographers Kesha Raithatha, Lee Proud and Mel Knott, writer Jess Green and composer and Curve Associate Tasha Taylor Johnson, as well as a number of Midlands-based artists local to Curve in Leicester.
The programme has been created following consultation with parents and teachers and lessons include English language, English literature, analytical thinking, vocal exercises, character work and choreography workshops, plus puppetry, disability awareness and LGBTQ+ history. Curve Classroom will provide an educational resource for all ages, from children to adults, as part of Curve’s commitment to lifelong learning.
Curve’s CEO Chris Stafford and Artistic Director Nikolai Foster said: “Throughout the pandemic, we have tried to respond positively and contribute meaningfully to the lives of our communities and audiences. Now in our nation’s third lockdown – and as our theatre continues to work online – we are launching our very own Curve Classroom to support homeschooling led by Curve practitioners.
“Many of the creative skills we use on a daily basis in making theatre are transferable to other aspects of life and can support teaching and learning across the curriculum. Literacy, music, complex problem-solving, forming well-reasoned arguments, teamwork and developing the imagination, are just some of the skills our practitioners will share in their online tutorials.
“We sincerely hope these daily sessions will help support learning and the incredible work being done by teachers, parents and carers, whilst also offering young people an insight into the creative industries and the incredible wealth of talent and resources we have to offer. We’d like to extend huge thanks to our army of freelance actors, local artists and practitioners who have responded so positively to our call out to join the Curve Classroom.”
Once released, each video session will remain online for access at any time.
To find out more about Curve Classroom and watch the latest lessons, see www.curveonline.co.uk/curve-classroom.
This new initiative sees the theatre build upon its existing database of online content produced and shared since its doors were closed in March 2020. Alongside activities for young people, Curve has also shared archive recordings of previous Made at Curve productions, in-depth conversations with leading theatre-makers and new commissioned work created by local artists and community members.
To explore Curve’s database of online content: www.curveonline.co.uk/the-show-must-go-online.
Curve, Leicester. Photo: Ellie Kurttz