The link above leads to an article by Lyn Gardner in the theatre blog of the British newspaper The Guardian: “Hurrah for am-dram: why it’s time to applaud amateur actors.” (Love that term, “am-dram”—I’d never heard that one before.) This piece was timely since just last weekend, my family, two close friends and I attended a community theatre production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” while vacationing together on the Oregon Coast.
The production, we all agreed, was compelling. Sure, a couple of the voices were weaker than others, but that’s to be expected in a community production. Yet all of the voices were pleasant, and a couple of them were as strong as any professional. All the actors displayed a high level of skill, the costumes were appealing, and the set, though minimalist, was evocative. Overall, the director clearly knew what he was doing. It made for an enjoyable evening out, and for a fraction of the cost of attending a professional version of the same show down the road a ways, in Ashland.
So what is the difference between “professional” and “amateur”? Is it only about money? And why does “amateur” have such a bad rap, especially when it comes to the performing arts?
One point made by a friend who attended with us: “In community theatre you see regular people, with regular looking bodies and faces.” Not the Hollywood or Broadway ideal, so there is that. Look like an ordinary person, and in this society you’re more than likely to end up leading a so-called “ordinary life”—though I personally don’t believe there is such thing as “ordinary.” I think each individual life is amazing. But that’s another subject altogether.
Granted, sometimes the performances are just bad—as Gardner admits when she confesses that she recently made an excuse to depart early from an “execrably acted” production. Hey, we’ve all been there. (Sometimes you can’t get away with leaving early—because you have a family member or best friend in the show. Worst case scenario: the person you know is the one doing the execrable job.) I remember wincing frequently while watching a community theatre production of My Fair Lady in which an alto had been cast as Eliza Doolittle, and she never could hit the high notes. I was relieved when she decided she really could not dance all night and gave up trying. (I found myself wanting to sing along with the maid as she pleaded, "I understand, dear/It's all been grand, dear/But now it's time to sleep!") Sometimes, “amateur” can mean excruciating.
But to be fair, I’ve also experienced various kinds of “execrable” at Broadway shows, and off-Broadway shows, and London shows both West End and fringe, and professional productions, both resident and touring, in several cities. (And for that matter, not even Audrey Hepburn hit the high notes as Eliza; her part was sung by Marni Nixon, who also voiced Deborah Kerr’s Anna in The King and I and Natalie Wood’s Maria in West Side Story. If you want to see what Marni looks like, she’s Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music.) So professional does not always equate to “good,” and unlike amateurs, professionals often get help, and a lot of it.
I agree with Gardner when she points out, “Who says amateur has to mean amateurish?” In Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest presents a hilarious send-up of overly self-impressed, delusional community theatre types whom we probably all recognize—people with outsized egos and a zillion stories about why they’re not rich and famous when they really should be. I do love Guest’s mockumentaries. But I also wondered as I watched Guffman—as I do whenever I see a particularly compelling community theatre production, such as the stunning rendition of the controversial Spring Awakening that played in my town last year: Are these stereotypes entirely fair? Do we give amateur artists and performers too little respect? Do we buy too easily into elitism? And if we do, what does that say about the fate of the arts--and the humanities? If we want to keep the arts alive, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to be disseminated and engaged in as widely as possible, rather than making them ever more rarefied—not to mention ever more financially inaccessible to the average working person?
Like so much of the good stuff I find online today, I found this article on Facebook, posted by a friend with whom I share several mutual interests. Like me, she’s an amateur musician--though her current status as a “mature student” at a British conservatory marks her as a higher caliber of “amateur” than me. (I did, however, spend the better part of my Sunday morning today trying to improve my current work-in-progress, a piano solo rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Everybody needs a hobby.) As my friend pointed out in her post, “One could make many of the points in this article about music too.”
True, I think: Gardner points out that “the popular notion of am-dram is still one of pensioners with too much eyeliner,” and similarly, when we hear “amateur musician,” we might conjure a middle-aged woman who was the star of her high school vocal ensemble but now only feels truly alive once a year when she solos on “O Holy Night” with the church choir on Christmas Eve. Or a forty-ish bearded dude in the midst of a midlife crisis, who gave up college in hopes of “making it” with his band, gave it all up to get married and raise kids, and has recently resumed playing his guitar at coffee shops on open mike night (for a while he tried to write his own stuff, but the unenlightened patrons just wanted him to sing covers of James Taylor, so he complies even though he actually conceptualizes himself as the second coming of Mick Jagger). The amateurs among us often get little respect.
And if you're one of those who “professes English” for a living, I don’t even need to tell you how the academy conceptualizes the “amateur writer.” Nowadays, we all know that “anybody” can get a book into print through various self-publication platforms, whether print, online, or both. For an English professor, it's the professional kiss of death if we go that route; we may teach writing and dedicate ourselves to promoting literacy, but "anybody” is, apparently, not the person we want writing books. (The already-famous, of course, can pretend to have written books even when someone else did the actual writing, but that's a whole different subject.)
Amateur artists in all fields, it seems, get little respect. When someone majors in an arts-related field yet goes on to make a living doing something else, it’s often perceived that the person isn't “doing anything” with their degree—meaning they don't earn their living by doing it, even though they may well still engage in their creative pursuit--painting, singing, writing, acting. Yet all too often, amateur pursuits are seen not as admirable, but as slightly pathetic—delusional, even. Doesn’t Joe, who tries out for every lead role at the local Thespian Society, realize he’s never gonna make it in Hollywood? Who does that soprano think she is, Beverly Sills? Great-aunt Millie says she’s just published her memoirs, but she didn’t write a real book, did she? How dare people play at the arts? Can’t they leave it to the pros? Don’t they recognize that they are losers?
This attitude may not always be expressed explicitly, but I’d argue that it does pervade our culture. It also seems to me that this attitude is peculiar to the arts. Nobody argues, for instance, that we should all give up exercising unless we are capable of becoming Olympic athletes. Nobody goes up to the guy tossing a football in the park with his kids on Saturday afternoon and tells him to leave the passing to Russell Wilson. Nor do most folks assume that we should all resort to microwaving frozen entrees just because we’re not Iron Chefs.
In other endeavors, we assume that being an amateur is okay. Expected, even. Yet when it comes to the arts, those of us who engage in “amateur” pursuits are often reluctant to admit to it—and certainly, if we're not getting paid for our creative expressions, we don't dare call ourselves “artists.” That would be pretentious--and we' leave pretentiousness to the "real" artists, the professionals (who have, at least, earned the right to be pretentious).
A lot of us complain, rightly so, that the arts are presently under attack. Why? There may be lots of answers here. Could an insidious, pervasive elitism that too many of us have internalized possibly be a factor? After all, creative expression flourishes all around us in spite of it all, because that is what human beings do—not always well, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe the arts that we perceive as “lost” are not really lost--but maybe we need to develop a less narrow way of understanding them.
And maybe we need to quit thinking that the only people who are “using” their degrees in arts-related fields are the ones who are making money by doing so. Maybe, like exercise and food, creative expression should be seen as everybody's right--something expected, even--whether we’re particularly good at it or not.
How to stop schools, from K through 12 and on into college, from cutting arts programs in this age of No Child Left Behind, Common Core nightmares, technophilia, and austerity measures? How to argue for their survival in formal educational venues? How to keep them alive outside formal settings when some of those attempts fail? Stay tuned.
Now, back to that amateur piano rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” . . .