Where’s a young triple-threat to go?

A few weeks back I found myself in front of a lot of the Harvest Rain interns at one of their regular Friday Behind the Red Curtain seminar sessions. On the panel (chaired by Artistic Director of HR, Tim O’Connor) were three other actors: Steven Tandy, Bryan Probets, and Cameron Hurry.  As you’d expect, the students’ questions and subsequent discussion revolved around the business of acting.

One of the questions put to us was whether, after training, taking work in an amateur theatre production would mean an actor would not be ‘taken seriously.‘  Was there, in fact, a stigma attached to doing amateur theatre? The response to the query was an emphatic ‘No,’ from all of us – with the caveat that an actor needs to seek out work with the best people – especially when getting started. This is what we actually said:

By the way, the Harvest Rain Behind the Red Curtain sessions are good value! Check out the others on their site. But, back to the question …

Each of the actor-panellists at the session had either begun their stage careers in amateur theatre or have returned there from time to time – for various reasons. Bryan speaks most eloquently in the video above about his experience, as do Steven and Cameron. As far as I was concerned, there was no local training when I left school, and the newly-created NIDA was barely a blip on anyone’s radar. I worked with Brisbane Arts Theatre for a few years before going on to train in London. The time I spent at BAT was invaluable to me; watching other, more experienced actors at work focussed my thinking, whilst spending hours and hours travelling by bus and tram to and from Petrie Terrace to Sandgate during the week and at weekends taught me how demanding the work could be. It also hardened my determination to go on.

Times have changed and there are many training avenues now available to those who wish to make the theatre their profession. Some manage to get a place at a formal, award-granting institution or take intensives or ongoing classes at other training schools. The Queensland Conservatorium of Music at Griffith University has a full-time Musical Theatre degree in full swing. It took in its second cohort of students at the start of this year. However, for those who are not able to train this way, but who remain determined on a career in the field, the question remains, ‘Where do I go?’ For many it can mean seeking experience in local amateur productions. But even for those who complete formal training the issue after graduation becomes what to do to get a job?

Universities and training schools include professional development classes for their students, usually in their final year. Getting representation with an agent is seen as a first goal but, whether or not the actor is successful in this, the challenge remains – to be seen at work in order to generate more work. The fact is, of course, that most recently-graduated actors will be unemployed for most of the time; acting’s a part-time job after all and it’s a crowded field. Naturally, most would rather be doing something rather than waiting for the phone to ring, but finding the right something is the rub.

Amateur theatre has always been and will continue to be for many a legitimate part of a career trajectory

For many people amateur theatre is a leisure pursuit which (as the Ignatians have in their motto) is done ‘for the sheer fun of it.’ However, because the work being done at many of the region’s well-resourced companies is often excellent, they are attracting the interest not only of hobbyists and young people seeking further experience, but also that of more established practitioners in the industry. It would seem the attraction is mutual.

I was in the audience last weekend for the Ignatians’ current production of Sondheim’s excellent Sweeney Todd directed by John Peek. It was my first experience of this long-established Brisbane musical theatre group. As their website puts it, they have professional standard aspirations whilst still maintaining an amateur status. I assume this means all personnel work without remuneration.

I’ve also seen the work of Blue Fish Theatrical – last year in their production of Guys and Dolls. This company aims to provide professional pathways for their members. In Toowoomba, the Empire Theatre Projects Company have produced hugely successful musical productions for over 10 years now. I saw their The Wizard of Oz last weekend. As I have served on the Board of the Empire I can vouch for the quality of the work, and for the opportunity the EPC continues to give to young (and not so young) artists seeking to develop their skills. Many have gone on to professional careers or are in training now. These companies are aiming high and deserve attention and support.

The home-made, musical theatre scene in south-east Queensland is pretty much either part-time independent or amateur

Fully professional musical theatre companies are simply economically unsustainable. The big, commercial tours of blockbuster musicals appear usually at QPAC, but it is currently left to amateur and independent companies like Oscar, Harvest Rain, Blue Fish, the Ignatians, Joymas Creative and Zen Zen Zo in Brisbane, and the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba, and the Gold Coast Arts Centre to showcase the work of local artists and creatives on local stages.

The professional independent companies which do produce work can do so only because those in the ranks are subsidising the production, whether by taking a cut in pay or by working for no remuneration. It’s a business model which has currency for the simple reason that producing musical theatre is a hugely expensive enterprise. However, it’s not all smell of an oil rag stuff. A member of a local amateur musical company recently used the term ‘pro-am’ to describe an otherwise ‘amateur’ company which hires creatives – usually in ‘head of production department’ positions like Director, Designer, Choreographer or Musical Director – in order to produce shows. This is the model used by the Empire Theatre Projects Company – and possibly many others – for its productions.

Whilst this blog has always focussed on professional theatre, whether full-time ‘mainstage’ or part or full-time smaller indie companies, there’s a fair case to be made for Greenroom’s following and commenting upon the work of the larger amateur musical theatre groups in the south-east. Writing critical reviews of the work of amateur companies remains problematical, and it’s something I’ve mulled over for ages.

Without a doubt excellent work is being done in amateur companies, and it should be acknowledged. However this work can and does appear in productions which are uneven, and why wouldn’t they be? Whilst professional theatre productions are often rightly criticised for a whole range of perceived shortcomings, is it fair to do the same to amateur groups who lack the human and material resources available to professional companies? Whilst the problem often lies in a company’s reach exceeding its grasp in the choice of play, I’ve seen superb performances spoiled by less than adequate sound-engineering, an imaginative directorial vision dashed by a design that’s unworkable and, all too often, an ensemble that distracts from a scene’s focus, while casting in major roles can ask far too much of someone who is inexperienced in handling the great roles of the musical theatre. Should these things be pointed out in a review of an amateur production? Should the same rules for reviewing apply to an amateur as a professional production? Yes, and no.

Apart from its style, wit, readability, and all those other traits that make a piece of writing enjoyable, the heart of any worthwhile theatre review, whether for an amateur or a professional production, is its honesty and respectful, informed perspective. In the case of amateur work I believe that perspective needs to be positioned within a community context. I also operate in the belief that constructive criticism, if accepted in the right spirit, is a good thing especially for those who are on the career pathway and, indeed, for anyone who is keen to develop skills. I pretty much said the same thing to the HR interns to another query – whether a bad review would be a disaster for an actor. My response, like that of my colleagues on the panel, was ‘No.’ On the other hand, Tim did add that it could be for a producer!

As a coda – as the Conservatorium’s full-time Music Theatre course graduates its first and following cohorts there will be even more and well-trained young triple-threats looking to work here and elsewhere. I, for one, am excited for the future of musical theatre in the state – just as long as it’s not all blockbuster, big book Broadway babies. Let’s see more of the chamber musicals, shall we?

PS Perhaps there will also be the opportunity for the Con to offer short-courses and training intensives for those keen to develop their skills. That would be a fine addition to the local training scene.

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2 thoughts on “Where’s a young triple-threat to go?”

  1. Thanks for the comment, Jane.

    I agree that finding ‘the right terms to approach’ reviewing amateur theatre is problematical, and it’s why Greenroom has not done so in the past. For the same reason, student theatre is not reviewed here. My editorial standpoint is that it is inappropriate to apply the same critical lens to student and amateur as it is to professional productions. However, with some companies – and, indeed, university departments – hiring professional artists and creatives to work with their groups, it’s timely, I think, to draw attention to the work being done and, in so doing, to provide constructive and informed critical feedback to those who are willing to receive it. We will continue to mention work being done in those amateur/pro-am companies as part of our observations on the wider theatre community in (mostly the south-east of) Queensland. As part of our policy we will not be reviewing student productions.

    Amateur work is reviewed on other blog sites here in Queensland and, in the past, some of it has raised the ire of groups who felt the critical lens applied was inappropriate. Tricky, I agree!

    As to your taking issue with the ‘professional standard aspirations,’ whilst maintaining amateur status (which I quoted in the post) I do agree that the ‘key standard of professionalism’ is monetary remuneration for those who have ‘professed’ as artists. I suspect the word is often used synonymously with ‘excellence’ which, if a fault, is perhaps, forgivable.

  2. Much of the reason I don’t review amateur theatre in Adelaide is because I feel I don’t know the right terms to approach it on. I was involved in a student theatre group at university, and I felt much of the reviewers who saw our work didn’t understand the “who, what, why” of us: ie that we were all just doing it for the sheer fun (we were certainly not a stepping stone), and our production budget was $400. Never being involved in the amateur theatre scene, I don’t know enough about those companies or artists to put their work into context or engage with it with the right mind and heart.

    The pro/am divide is certainly a contentious issue here, and one I don’t engage in. I write about the work I write about because I do think I am more equipped to place it into context, and because I feel like I have more freedom to demand, yes, professional standards. Also, as you said, most independent work is subsidised by artists who are trying to make a living out of it, and as a member of the media the best thing I can do to support them in that goal is to focus my energy on their pursuits.

    (Although, I take great issue with “professional standard aspirations whilst still maintaining an amateur status” – the key standard of professionalism is paying your artists. If you don’t aspire to that, you’re not aspiring to professional standard.)

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