Photo: Daisy King
Amateur dramatics: the unspoken past of many a Fringe performer. From four generations of leading ladies comes one queer Londoner, sharing stories of return and reconciliation- with her history, hometown and love of musical theatre.
Step-ball-changing between suburb and city, I, Am Dram minds the gap between the identities we assert and the worlds we leave. Developed through Starting Blocks at Camden People’s Theatre.
How has working in Live Art fed into your dramaturgical approach to the work?
From projects I’d worked on in the past – with Split Britches and Hunt & Darton amongst others – I definitely found myself considering the structure of the work as something that should be linked as closely as possible to what I was talking about. The story is all about going back and forth between these two places – Welwyn Garden City and London – and then you drill down into the other things they stand in for: urban/suburban, present/past, amateur/professional, onstage/backstage. So then you start thinking about how you can set up the idea of dualism and journeys through a colour palette, lighting, sound, props. Most of these decisions that come from this nuanced internal logic only mean anything to me and can hardly be read by the audience. But then I’m the one who has to perform the damn thing every day so it might as well be giving me some sort of dramaturgical satisfaction.
Why do you think amateur dramatics has such a naff reputation?
It certainly didn’t use to. Back in the 30s, maybe up until the 70s (when my great-grandmother was in her amdram-directorial prime), the line between what was considered ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ was much more blurred. Special trains used to be put on to take audiences back down to London from Hertfordshire after shows by the company she was a part of, the Welwyn Thalians.
The quality of amateur dramatics (in some respects) may have diminished in the intervening years, which may go some way to explain some people’s perception of amdram’s ’naff’-ness. Performers in these societies tend to be older, when they used to be packed with talented younger people who may have classed themselves as semi-professional. The audiences are older too, which means groups will tend to put on the ‘safe bet’ classical musicals – instead of arguably less ‘naff’ modern stuff. At the same time, big regional theatres, with proper rigs and orchestra pits and the like, now charge far more for local hires than they used to, so may amateur companies are forced to use smaller venues with minimal tech equipment.
I also think people in the ‘professional’ arts feel a kind of need to assert the difference between what they do and what amateur companies do, but can often throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Through making/ researching the piece, have you actually noticed any surprising overlaps between [amateur] musicals and queer performance art?
Absolutely, though neither side will be prepared to admit it. I think what may have drawn me into working in queer live art in the first place was this sense of community. That everyone was part of this queer arts scene, in London and then in cities like Glasgow and Manchester. People collaborate, support each other’s work, go see each other’s pieces. There are rivalries and scandals and romances and family units. It’s exactly like a local amateur dramatics scene. Yes, exactly.
What has also been fun, in scratching early bits of I, Am Dram to friends in London – drag kings/queens, trans activists, live artists, lesbian academics – is realising how everyone, no matter what kind of work they are doing now, has at some point been in the chorus of Calamity Jane. Am dram is such a ubiquitous British subculture that if you were vaguely weird and performance-inclined as a young person in a small town, being in an amateur musical was probably your only outlet.
We’re thinking of starting a Live Art Musical and Dramatic society back in London. Probably gonna do Little Shop of Horrors first and then maybe Annie.
Is escape (in both senses of the word) at the essence of the piece?
Hmm… in terms of escaping from somewhere, I’d be tempted to say it’s more about drifting. It’s not one of the classic ‘baby gay escapes oppressive small town’ stories. I’m very lucky to say that I was fairly happy in Welwyn Garden City as a teenager, and I enjoyed prancing about with the Welwyn Thalians (even as the petticoats began to make me feel a tad dysphoric).
The story isn’t about leaving, it’s about coming back, again and again, as you get older. And on each return journey feeling that little bit more distant, less comfortable, more ‘other’. The place and the people have stayed the same; it’s you who’s changed, is changing. It’s about deciding how you can hold onto who may have become, in your identity or your politics, whilst reconciling your relationship with home.
What can Edinburgh Fringe audiences expect from the show?
It ain’t High Art. There’s some stupid jokes and sing-along and extremely poor piano-playing. This is intentional. I’ve tried to situate the show, in form and content, at a midpoint between my memories of amateur dramatics and my present experience of living in London as a queer performance-maker. I really enjoy people from both sides being in the audience – making confused young LGBTQ+ people sing ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’, then slipping in some veiled references to drugs and cunnilingus. To the tune of Modern Major General from Pirates of Penzance, so my nan probably didn’t even notice.
Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 31st July- 26 August, 2 pm