Thursday, 20 August 2009


After complaining about how the Chaise Longue we used in An Ideal Husband had been cluttering up my living room for the past few weeks, I must confess that it was not without some sadness that I helped to return it to its rightful home this morning (many thanks Joe Makin Theatre at JMU, by the way). It can be hard for me to let go of a show at the best of times - I miss the people and the occupation and the creativity, if not the stress. In this case I have formed a peculiar attachment to Oscar and his philosophy of beauty and the decadent cadence of his works. And even if I couldn't afford to fill my flat with Art Nouveau, chinoiserie, lilies and orchids, at least the old chaise was lending an air of decayed grandeur that is not out of place in my late Victorian par-de-terre. Besides, Princess Lulu had refused to sleep on anything else since it arrived - in fact, vacuuming away the cat hairs this morning was the most difficult part of letting it go.

I've already discussed how the last remnant of Liverpool Left Theatre came to be presenting costume drama to the middle classes of south Liverpool. Well another part of the rationale was that we would be able to use the proceeds of this to support the production of less popular drama to smaller audiences, with much more obvious social comment. This strategy backfired this year, partly due to our inimicable British summer finally emptying the contents of the sky on us, and partly because we aren't yet popular enough to fill up the Palm House in order to pay for it. I'm not sure, though, that everyone in the company would regret the demise of our Summer Shows, and members occupying the provisional wing of the company are already pushing for a push to the left in both our content and our target audiences. But what might this mean?

Well, you could subscribe to the idea that political theatre must have some overt, didactic political message. Quite where you find such plays, I'm not sure. You could look to the Champagne Socialists of the 1980's, I suppose - some ex-BBC luvvie playwrights who hated Thatcher but couldn't quite bring themselves to stick up for the IRA. Or we might find a contemporary writer who was prepared for amateurs to try out their plays in an attempt to stop the War/GM foods/Ryanair etc.

Or you could argue, as I do, that it is not the play, but the intention that is political. Here we see that it doesn't matter if you are putting on Caryl Churchill or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as long as you are bringing people into contact with theatre (either as participants or spectators), who might not otherwise be prepared to miss their mid-week soaps for the amateur stage (it's not the same on catch-up). The trouble with this approach is that you could use it as a Busby Berkeley Licence to do any old frou-frou nonsense, and never perform serious theatre again.

Finally you could argue that it is neither the play, nor the cast nor the target audience that is political, but rather the production itself. We should be challenging the boundaries of drama prescribed to us by the bourgeoisie, using new techniques, unconventional locations and cutting edge performance arts... In this approach it doesn't matter if you put on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Caryl Churchill and Chekhov altogether, as long as you include multimedia projections and elements of modern dance.

So how does my recent fixation with Oscar Wilde fit in with all of this? (I posted his portrait as my profile picture to promote the show on Facebook, by the way, and now I can't bear to take it down). Well, if our most frivolous work is an open challenge to social hypocrisy and political corruption, then perhaps we are, albeit anachronistically, not far from the political mark.

Or could it be that I'm intellectualising without true cause, in which case I'm already on my way to be dismissed as a lacky of the chattering classes (or the bourgeois intelligentsia as the powerful people who have hated us would have it). After all, our recent productions have included plays by Pinter, Shaw, Wilde, Orton, and Caryl Churchill's most recent work, as well as a newly-written traditional pantomime involving nearly everyone who we know.

Perhaps we'll never get the balance better than this. And if we were truly political creatures, we wouldn't be debating our content, but rather how to get people "on message". I can't help wishing, that we could enjoy a bit of the accidental popularity of Max Bialystock in Mel Brookes film The Producers, though:

"How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?"

Monday, 17 August 2009

Al Fresco

Our company has just completed an artistically successful run of open air performances in period costume, and I'm wondering tonight whether or not our amateur theatre group will ever perform indoors again.

I use the word theatre group with an almost poetic licence - we can go for years without ever going near a theatre.

First of all you have to be able to plan your programme of productions at least a year in advance to book them. This poses a rather large problem for the group I'm involved in. Our company may have been born out of the left wing theatre movement, but we wouldn't know a five year plan if it slapped us in the face (which it probably would, the distance that we've strayed from the "true left". More show-tune than showtrial nowadays - sorry, Uncle Jo).

But we can't plan the productions because we can't seem to herd the people. In our last production I tried to get the members of the cast to predict their whereabouts for a period of six weeks. By the time I eventually got them all together there was only a fortnight till we went on. And if I'm honest it might actually have been me that forgot that one lead actor had his holidays booked, and that the festival season, or the football season would naturally take precedent over people's availability to rehearse, so I'm reluctant to cast blame. But am I really expected to accept working for a living, spending quality time with one's partner and, wait for it, looking after one's child as suitable reasons not to engage with the unsurpassable delights of am-dram? I ask you.

My point is that if getting a small group of people (a cast) to predict what they will be doing in the short term is difficult, then getting a large group of people (a company) to look into the future is like trying to get grant funding from the Culture Company.... a special art, and not one that we've mastered particularly well. We can discuss any topic for hours and still resist making an actual decision. It's the curse of democracy. And I do blame the matter on our leftish heritage. I know that we are connected to a history of protest that dates back to the Spanish Civil War, but do we really have to assemble a theatrical popular front before we can decide which play to do. I bet the Generalissimo didn't dither around looking for a slot for his Much Ado - he just got on with it.

Mind you the discussion is almost academic, because supposing we could plan ahead and book the theatre, we would have to all have to sell a kidney to pay the hire costs. It's so expensive to perform in a theatre with lights and sound and, heaven forfend, a stage, even without elaborate sets and costumes - by which, of course, I mean furniture and clothing.

We've tried to be imaginative. We've played in community centres, churches and the backrooms of pubs. But how do you get people to come? In the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, you'd give your i-teeth to get to sit through an hour of something "experimental" in the backroom of the pub. People seem more reluctant to risk backroom experimentation here. Mind you it's not straightforward getting people to turn up to the Empire to watch Blood Brothers. And you can't raise a taxi on derby day, let alone a theatre-going audience.

Well, between our bourgeois insistance on paying performance rights and the capitalist demand of theatres for us to pay for venue hire we have practically bankrupted the company. In the words of Alfred Doolittle " it's a choice between the Skilly of the workhouse and the Char Bydis of the middle class; and I haven't the nerve for the workhouse". So Shakespeare in the open air it is, then.

Unless anyone can come up with a suitable, inexpensive venue that Liverpudlians are prepared to turn out to to see a gritty tragi-comedy about the birth of the Irish Republic. If you can fit it in the Abbey Theatre, surely you can do it anywhere...

No? Not even with a Hey Nonny, Nonny? Please yourselves!!!!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Am Dram, Community Theatre, or Just Plain Vanity

Having been involved in some sort of amateur theatre now for most of my adolescent and adult life, I have recently been deliberating on what to call what I and others do in the name of art.

I find it at once amusing and irritating that the term amateur dramatics has fallen so far from favour, and that am-dram has almost become a term of abuse to describe our worst excesses. At best it conjures up images of very hierarchical and exclusive clubs that require money and social status to join, with very large costume budgets (if not very large costumes) and decidely variable talent. At worst we remember sitting through excruciating renditions of Shakespeare and Shaw in the name of friendship, loyalty and family duty, only to lie with impunity after the event ("but darling, you were marvellous").

Of course none us actually involved in producing amateur theatre would ever recognise ourselves in that description. My own company espouses strongly the notion of theatre as a vehicle for social change, and while our revolutionary zeal may have been diluted since the days of the Spanish Civil War, we still hope that we are accepting of people regardless of their backgrounds, we don't make it too expensive for them to get involved, and you don't have to wait for one of the stalwarts to die before you can get a part in on of our plays.

There was a time that I used to describe what we do as community theatre, as if the notion of social responsibility validated what we do. But we are not social workers. We do it for fun. And when you try and emphasis how producing drama can build up social capital, community cohesion etc (in the vain hope of attracting grant aid, for example), well, it just sounds dull.

Then there are those who regard themselves as "semi-professional". This means that although they are untrained and have full time jobs in banks, supermarkets and self-regulating professions, it is only a matter of time before they are discovered by an agent or a talent scout, and their career rockets them to the West End, the RSC or the Big Brother House.

But is it not vanity to describe ourselves as something that we are not? And what is wrong, in the end, with being amateurs. It is only relatively recently, after all, that it was professionalism that was considered the term of abuse - at lease by the upper classes (perhaps we should call ourselves gentleman-dramatists).

But let us be amateurs, out and proud. And if it is vanity to expect people to pay to see our productions, so be it; because if you have to pretend to be the new Sam Mendes in order to be taken seriously, then you can count me out.