For theatre... online, non-professional, amateur


“I think this production of Our Country’s Good is the best non-professional ‘straight’ play I have ever seen.”

Susan Elkin from her 2018 review of Sedos’s non-professional production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play at the Bridewell Theatre in London.

Photo: Sedos Photos (Flickr)

If amateur (or ‘community’ or ‘non-professional’) actors and companies want to be taken seriously and afforded professional respect then they really do have to stop being precious about criticism.

If amateur (or ‘community’ or ‘non-professional’) actors and companies want to be taken seriously and afforded professional respect then they really do have to stop being precious about criticism.
f you stand on a stage and act, sing or dance, people are going to comment on your performance. And it won’t always be kind – or informed, or tactful or sympathetic or understanding.

That, I’m afraid, is a fact of life whether you’re a young child in a school play, a seasoned RSC actor or anything in between. It might be a chance remark, a comment by a friend or relation or a formal review on a website or in a print publication. It all involves people observing you and your show and saying what they think. And it will happen whether you like it or not.

This magazine is unique in that it reviews shows of all types right across the amateur/professional spectrum. And as a member of the Sardines review team, I write dozens and dozens of them every year. In many cases we are invited in and welcomed warmly. On the other hand sometimes I contact a company or its press person along the lines of: “Hey, I’d really like to review your show,” which usually results in delight that someone with a long professional reviewing portfolio is showing an interest.

Just occasionally, however, the response will be, for example, “No no, this is my/our hobby. We don’t want anyone criticising what we do, thank you.” Another reaction I’ve heard more than once is: “Oh, no thank you. We work with children and young people. We have to protect them from criticism. It wouldn’t be fair to expose them.”

Then there are vocational training establishments – purporting to prepare people for eventual professional work as opposed to running youth theatre – which produce shows. It’s pretty obvious to me that anyone who wants to make a career out of performance simply needs to get used to criticism – formal or informal – as soon as possible. At drama school, for example.

Yes, of course I know that people who commit themselves to a life of publicly pretending to be someone (or something) else are often quite vulnerable. The industry has a significantly higher incidence of mental health issues than most other fields of work and drama schools have a major duty to care for their students.

Nonetheless they also have to prepare them for the world they want to work in and that, by definition, includes facing public scrutiny.

I used to review a lot of student shows both for Sardines and for other publications. Increasingly more and more schools are now telling me, and the editor of Sardines, that although they’re happy to welcome me, or any other interested person from the magazine as a guest, they don’t want anything written about the shows.

It wouldn’t be right, I was told recently, for some students to get reviewed while others aren’t – well, excuse me, but that’s exactly what will happen all the time the moment they graduate. Other schools have said that because these students are not yet fully trained actors they need to be protected – by implication from predatory critics like me. Well, sorry, but are they training actors or snowflakes?

In practice, this attitude simply means that I don’t see the show. I am a professional writer with a very congested diary. I simply can’t afford the time to pop along to see a student or other non-pro show for fun. If I can’t get copy out of it then there’s no reason for my being there. And that means the students or amateur actors are denied the impartial feedback which might help to build confidence or help their CVs.

For the record I have never “rubbished” a student actor in my life. I’m pretty gentle with hobby amateur actors too. I come from a teaching background and I’m programmed to be encouraging and supportive. All I’ve ever done is to praise the really outstanding cast members and say nothing about the ones who shine less brightly. At the same time, if I possibly can, I always make positive remarks about the production in general. I’m certainly never going to write “Jasmine Whatever is appallingly weak as Ophelia and I doubt that we’ll see her doing much professional work,” or anything remotely like it.

Yet, I was told recently by one Famous Name school that it seeks to manage publicity for its students so that it’s fully inclusive which, apparently, means that nobody gets attention which others don’t. Right – as will the professional companies these students will, one hopes, soon be working for when they invite in critics? Of course not. Critics will praise what they like and damn what they don’t. Welcome to the real world.

Now, let me be clear. It isn’t all schools which take this misguided line. I reviewed Red Velvet at the enlightened Guildhall School of Music and Drama earlier this term and very good it was too. And I continue to cover shows at, for example, Rose Bruford, theMTA and Fourth Monkey whenever I can but the list seems to shrink every week.

I am also delighted – like the rest of my colleagues in the Sardines team – to review a large number of local groups, associations and societies who produce a huge range of enjoyable work. It is utterly astonishing what a disparate but enthusiastic and well-directed group of people can achieve after work on, say Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

I suspect that the ones who spurn even the gentlest of formal criticism aren’t trying hard enough and are actually ashamed of their lacklustre efforts. I’m glad they’re in the minority.