If the various reviews which have emerged as A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has toured the country are to be believed (and I think they should) the production has been a resounding hit. National and local critics, online bloggers and contributors to discussion boards and social media have been almost universally positive in their praise for the show (a digest of comments about Tower Theatre’s contribution can be found here). Ticket sales have also been strong suggesting a high level of satisfaction amongst the theatre going population. However, a number of blogs/articles have raised some question marks about the project and whether amateurs should or shouldn’t encroach on traditionally professional territory. As the final month of performances is now taking place this would seem to be an appropriate moment to address this point and the question of whether the experiment was a success and should ever be repeated.
The highest profile commentator has probably been Michael Billington, a critic for whom I have the greatest respect. In his regular blog in The Guardian (and based on his viewing of the production in London) he gave the amateur cast a very positive review but raised the question of whether the project is or should be repeatable. He reaches the conclusion that it should remain as a one off:
If I argue that amateur and pro should generally be kept separate, it is because I respect the craft of both. Professional acting, as we all know, is a precarious business with a high unemployment rate… The RSC Midsummer Night’s Dream is a special case in which an honourable attempt has been made to create “a play for the nation”. It should be enjoyed as a one-off, but not become a template for future occasions. In hard times, we need to protect the status of the dedicated professional.
I have to say I find this argument a little disingenuous. The logical conclusion would be that in any given field only those specifically trained and dedicated to a professional standard should attempt anything. Really? By extension that would mean any actor struggling to find work should not accept a position as a part time tutor or waiter or call centre operator, etc because a) they’ve probably not trained for it and b) they certainly won’t be as dedicated as they would be to acting; that would clearly be both untenable and ridiculous. And who is to say that an amateur cannot make just as good a job of something as the “dedicated professional”? If I want a celebration cake and I know and can trust a good amateur baker, why would I necessarily go to a professional?
A similar argument has also been raised in a piece in The Stage in which anonymised professionals (not quite sure why they need to be so) were asked their opinion on mixing the worlds of pro and am. Would you let an amateur plumber mend your sink? muses “Albert”; well, yes I might very well given that the context and circumstances were conducive. It is also not the case that allowing an amateur actor to appear on the professional stage is going to threaten someone’s health, safety, life span or possessions and so comparing them to (for instance) plumbers, dentists or lawyers is not really helpful. To be fair some of Albert’s fellow professionals take a rather broader view:
I think it’s great to use community and amateur casts. Not threatening at all… I have massive respect for them and for the role theatre can play in the community. (“Jenny”)
Totally inspires me. I have worked on a few community-based projects and it definitely encourages authenticity and originality, especially in new work. (“Tina”)
However, as these are Jenny and Tina’s only reported remarks in the article their positive slant is somewhat overbalanced and a rather more pessimistic view prevails. There is particular opprobrium reserved for producers who take this route to economise:
You Me Bum Bum Train and Secret Cinema – both dubious in the extreme as to their using actors and not paying proper rates. Or even anything. (“Albert”)
The thing is, A Play For The Nation was anything but a rentacrowd or a gimmick led approach. No Andrew Lloyd Weber talent show casting here! (Interesting that Gary Barlow has just announced a resurgence of the format for finding a new Fake (sorry, Take) That) From the get go, the amateurs involved were respected and treated as an integral part of the whole RSC production, not some media generating bolt on. Lyn Gardner in another, earlier, Guardian blog summed up this position:
Without the involvement of non-professional actors, the RSC’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream simply wouldn’t have happened. Community involvement was at the very heart of the project. It’s a very different case from a theatre simply deciding that it will use amateur actors because they can save money on the wages bill.
Agreed. And I think there are other subtler ways of cutting down on the bills. I have absolutely no idea what the budget for A Play For The Nation has been – I can only imagine. Despite that I have seen little by way of cheese paring. We have had phenomenal coaching from the likes of Michael Corbidge and Sian Williams, directing from the Deputy Head of the RSC and her talented team, a full and generous complement of highly skilled backstage and organisational staff and unbounded support from the professionals in the cast. Neither have their numbers been skimped on as a result of using amateurs. There are 26 adult performers in each show (18 professionals plus the 6 amateur Mechanicals). Interestingly there are only 14 all told in the current Globe production and a mere 7 in the production at Southwark Playhouse (see here) – indeed in the latter case the paucity of performers is the key selling point of the show. Aside from this the RSC has enhanced prospects for workers in the regions through touring the show to a number of locations. Far from taking away professional earning potential I don’t think that it’s going too far to say that much work has been provided through this particular project.
Christopher Haydon, artistic director of the Gate Theatre, in a blog piece rebuffing some of Michael Billington’s arguments goes further. He contends that rather than the project undermining the work of those fully paid members of the company, it acted as a clear demonstration of how great art does not have any boundaries – a seasoned pro, or a teacher from Hackney, can both find pathos, humanity and truth in the words they are speaking.
He then goes on to quote our very own Puck – Lucy Ellinson – who generously says:
I’ve learnt a lot from my amateur colleagues (the collaboration has been) “an important reaffirmation for me that when we tour the country with our work we’re not simply offering the local community something – we are making each and every performance with them.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Lucy, and I think I can confidently say that, reciprocally, we have learned a phenomenal amount of stagecraft from our wonderful pros and that this will undoubtedly inspire us in our ongoing work within our local communities.
Indeed a learning experience is certainly what it has been right from day one. Susan Elkin, The Stage’s Education and Training Editor has stated:
The whole concept is one of the most inspired celebratory training initiatives I’ve ever encountered – as well as producing a glitteringly good evening’s theatre.
In her article she roundly calls on the powers that be to deliver a repeat of the project every year; well I’m game!
So was it worth doing? An unqualified yes. It has touched the lives of so many people amateur and professional, young and not so young, actors and audience alike that I think it will be fondly remembered as a trail blazer for many years to come. Should it be repeated? If the end results are going to be so joyous, life enhancing and affirmative it would be criminal not to do so. I’ll leave the final summation to Erica Whyman:
It is a project on an almost unimaginable scale, but it is also a very simple idea: to make a new production of a great play in partnership with good colleagues. If it works it will strengthen those bonds and make visible a truly national passion for making theatre.
It most certainly did, Erica, and it most certainly has!
The production is now back in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for details