Amateur theatre

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Amateur theatre is theatre performed by amateur actors.

Amateur theatre is common in most urban centres; notably, it is staged in summer schools (usually organised by a professional practitioner, such as a director) and in formal amateur companies. Amateur theatre is a convenient way for lay people to gain acting and stage experience, for pleasure and amusement.

Other examples of amateur theatre are school Christmas plays, low-budget plays, and musicals staged in local venues in much of the Western World.

Amateur theatre actors are not typically members of Actors' Equity Association or other actors' unions as these organizations exist to protect the professional industry and discourage their members from working with companies which are not signatories to union contracts.[1]


Opinions vary on how to define "amateur" in relation to theatrical practice. Technically speaking, an "amateur" is anyone who does not accept, or is not offered, money for their services. One interpretation of this is"One lacking the skill of a professional, as in an art." [1] Another is "A person who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession." [2]

An amateur actor is unlikely to be a member of an Actors' Union, as most countries have strict policy in place. For example, British Actors' Equity "are pleased to welcome into Equity anyone who is currently working professionally in the field of entertainment." Actors' Equity - Britain. The Actors' Equity Association of America, likewise, states "You may join the Association by virtue of employment under an Equity contract." American Actors' Equity These rules are in place to protect the professional industry, and professional artists.

Whilst the majority of Professional stage performers have developed their skills and studied their craft at recognized training institutions such as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (London), Juilliard School (New York) or National Institute of Dramatic Art (Sydney), amateurs usually lack professional training. As a result, amateurs work outside of the industry itself, in community run plays and revues, and there is very little flow from the amateur world to the professional. Most amateur actors work at non-theater professions and rehearse and perform in their spare time.

Many amateurs do provide a source of entertainment for their local communities and amateur theatre can be a fun and exciting hobby, with strong bonds of friendship formed through participation in community organized theatrical events. Many of these performers reject the "hammy" or "incompetent" label and re-label themselves as Pro Am. Many others reject the elitism of the professional industry entirely, and are pleased to just have fun. There are amateur actors and groups who claim to strive for excellence, study their craft and take their performance as seriously as trained professionals, though opinion remains divided as to their level of success.

Scottish theatre-maker and writer Andrew Mckinnon acknowledges that "whether we like it or not, and whatever its original root meaning -- the word "amateur" now has a negative, often pejorative significance in modern English usage when it applies to theatre and art. In theatre specifically, "amateurism" is regularly used to imply muddled and botched work, low standards, lack of preparation, and so on; indeed, some amateur theatre companies in the UK, being aware of this, are even following the American usage by re- branding themselves as "community" groups. Regretfully, I believe that this is an irreversible change" but he questions the definition of "Professional" in purely financial terms and argues ""'Professional behaviour' is measured by your self- discipline, collaborative skills, level of commitment, and by your ability to solve problems creatively, making constructive use of available help and guidance. It is taken for granted that you will always be punctual and prepared and conduct yourself maturely and thoughtfully in rehearsal and performance. These are the minimum conditions for the creation of satisfactory theatre work." ( Al-Ahram Weekly 21–27 September 2006 Issue No. 813)

Mckinnon, then, makes a distinction between "amateurism" and "professionalism" in more than purely financial terms. He cites it as a difference in attitude, ability and intent.

Relationship between amateurs and professionals in theatre[edit]

The relationship between amateurs and professionals in a theatrical context is the subject of debate in many countries. Professionals argue that the amateur community devalues the art form and damages the industry, through the promotion of unskilled performers, directors and crew. By drawing an audience that would otherwise pay for high-quality, professional theatre it has been argued that amateurs hurt the industry as a whole. Their inability to attract new writers and new work highlights this. In his article, 'The Amateur Theatre in Great Britain', Edwin R. Schoell notes that "There is, particularly in professional quarters, a deep-rooted suspicion that amateur theatre is really an institution that exists in order to give significance to "amateur dramatics" a frivolous kind of amusement with no pretention to art" or "as a base for starring the most popular and politically astute members" (Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2 (May 1963), pp. 151–157)

On the other hand, amateurs continue to argue that they perform a community service,[2] and many practitioners accrue considerable experience and skills, which may be transferred to the professional industry, if they are lucky. There are a considerable number of "jobbing" actors who had their start in amateur theatre, and amateur companies provide a more-constant source of income for less active playwrights.[citation needed]


  • The Mockumentary Waiting for Guffman depicts a local amateur theatre group staging a performance for their city's sesquicentennial, with the prospect of a theatrical professional attending the performance.

Amateur theatre in the United Kingdom[edit]

People throughout Great Britain participate in amateur theatre as performers, crew or audience members and many children first experience live theatre during local amateur performances of the annual Christmas pantomime. Amateur theatre can sometimes be a springboard for the development of new performing talent[3] with a number of prefessional actors having their first stage experiences in amateur theatre such as Liam Neeson (with the Slemish Players in Ballymena) and James Nesbitt (with the Ulster Youth Theatre).[4]

A survey carried in 2002 by the major UK umbrella organisation for amateur theatre, National Operatic and Dramatic Association ("NODA"), noted that "Public support in the UK for amateur theatre is patchy"[3] but highlighted the activity for that year:

    • The total annual turnover of NODA-affiliated amateur theatre groups is £34 million.
    • The total number of performances given per year is 25,760.
    • The total number of people attending performances per year is 7,315,840.
    • The total number of people actively involved is 437,800. 29% of these are under 21.

Further, in England alone a sample investigation of activities in five English cities and districts revealed that only 19% of amateur drama groups active there were affiliated to a national "umbrella" organisation[5] suggesting that the figures above could be underestimating the level of grass roots, community involvement with amateur theatre.

Umbrella organisations and associations[edit]

NODA is the major infrastructure body for amateur and community theatre in the UK. It was founded in 1899, and in 2005 reported a membership of over 2,400 amateur theatre companies and 3,000 individuals throughout the United Kingdom, staging musicals, operas, plays, concerts and pantomimes in a wide variety of performing venues, ranging from the country's leading professional theatres to village halls.[3]
The Little Theatre Guild (LTG), which represents amateur companies which control their own premises, has 95 members located in England.
The National Drama Festival Association caters for amateur theatre groups which participate in local drama festivals, and is concerned with around 100 festivals of one-act and full length plays, involving some 500 or more theatre companies. Please see "Major Festivals" below.
The Greater Manchester Drama Federation (GMDF) promotes and supports amateur theatre in the Greater Manchester area. GMDF holds major, prestigious full length and one act festivals annually and has some 60+ active members.
  • England - There is no dedicated and publicly funded infrastructure body in England. Amateur theatre in England is represented to an extent by:
Like the National Drama Festival Association, the AETF caters for amateur theatre groups which participate in local drama festivals, and is also concerned with a similar number of festivals of one-act and full length plays, involving a similar amount of theatre companies. The AETF hold All-England Finals, the winners of which go forward to represent England at the National Festival of Community Theatre along with representatives from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Please see "Major Festivals" below. English amateur theatre is of course eligible to be represented by the UK-wide organisations. As at January 2005, the Arts Council England was not providing any funding towards infrastructure organisations for amateur and community theatre, other than youth theatre through its support for the National Association of Youth Theatre.[3] However, despite there being national umbrella organisations, a sample investigation of activities in five English cities and districts revealed that only 19% of amateur drama groups active there were affiliated to a national "umbrella" organisation.[5] In addition, England has a number of major regional associations such as:
  • Scotland - The situation is very different in Scotland from that in England. It has its own long-standing representative body, the Scottish Community Drama Association ("SCDA") which was founded in 1926 and works to promote all aspects of community drama in Scotland. SCDA received funding of £50,000 from the Scottish Arts Council in 2004-05.[3]
  • Wales - Like Scotland it has its own long-standing representative body, the Drama Association of Wales ("DAW"). The function of DAW is to increase opportunities for people in the community to be creatively involved in drama. This is supported through the provision of training, new writing initiatives and access to an extensive specialist lending library containing plays, playsets and technical theatre books.
  • Northern Ireland - The situation in Northern Ireland is similar to that of England, with the only major umbrella organisation being one concerned with the major festival of the region. The association is the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals ("AUDF") and is made up of three representatives from each member Festival - Ballymoney, Bangor, City of Derry, Theatre Upstairs (Downpatrick), Castlereagh,Enniskillen, Larne, Mid-Ulster (Carrickmore), Moneyglass, Newry, Newtownabbey, Portadown, Strabane and Newtownstewart. The Churches Drama League enjoys full membership, while the Young Farmer Clubs of Ulster are Associate Members. It does agree matters of general policy but ancourages member Festivals to develop their own unique "personalities"). Its leading role is to organise this annual Ulster Drama Festival, bringing together winners from provincial festivals and companies from both North and South of Ireland in friendly rivalry. The AUDF Constitution, drawn up in 1949, includes the following aims: "to foster and encourage amateur drama through the holding of Festivals of Drama, the fostering of relations and co-operation between Ulster Drama Festivals, and the fostering of relations with similar organisations in Northern Ireland and other regions…"[6]

Major festivals in the UK[edit]

There are many local festivals of amateur theatre within the United Kingdom with two major national festivals and one international festival:

Competitions in the UK[edit]

There a number of UK wide competitions that are organised by different bodies:

  • The Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain (LTG) - Playwriting competition.
These are run every two to three years.
  • The National Drama Festivals Association (NDFA) - playwriting competitions:
There are two competitions, both of which aim to promote new writing for the theatre. Adjudication is carried out by a panel of judges and the winners receive a certificate and a cash prize.[7]
    • George Taylor Memorial Award
The George Taylor Memorial Award was initiated in 1979, dedicated to the memory of the founder of Amateur Stage, the major magazine for Amateur and Community Theatre. The award is funded jointly by Amateur Stage and NDFA.[8]
    • Nan Nuttall Memorial Award - specifically for Youth Theatre
This was introduced in 1994 to stimulate new writing for Youth Groups and to encourage their participation in Drama Festivals. It

is dedicated to the memory of Nan Nuttall, a long-standing Secretary of Manchester & District Drama Federation.[9]

  • The Scottish Community Drama Association (SCDA) - Play on Words
The "Play on Words" competition is Britain’s largest competition for new short plays. The top three entrants to Play on Words win professional support from professional writers.[7]
  • The Amateur Musical Theatre Challenge - Scotland
The competition will run throughout Scotland for the first time in 2009. Its aims are to bring together amateur theatre groups both large and small from across Scotland who have a passion for performing and allow them to showcase their talent.
  • Drama Association of Wales/Cymdeithas Ddrama Cymru (DAW) - Playwriting
This is a competition for one-act plays written either in Welsh or English and with a running time of 20 to 50 minutes. It is an annual event and attracts 250 entries from all over the world. In some years, entries are invited under a specific theme.[7]
This is organised by the same committee which run the National Festival of Community Theatre. The award is for "the best original unpublished play receiving its première in the first round of the National Festival of Community Theatre anywhere in the UK".[7] The award is named for Geoffrey Whitworth (1883–1951) the founder of the British Drama League.

Amateur theatre in the United States[edit]

In the United States Amateur Theatre is generally known as Community Theatre. As of January 27, 2009 there are 923 member organizations of the American Association of Community Theatre.[10] Membership in this organization is voluntary so the actual number of community theatre organizations in the United States is uncertain.

While the performers in Community Theatre are typically non-professional there is a provision of the Actors' Equity Association which allows up to two paid Guest Performers in a Community Theatre production.[11]

Community Theatre organizations in the United States are eligible for non-profit status under article 501(c) of the United States Internal Revenue Code.[12]

History of community theatre[edit]

The origins of Community Theatre in the United States are not well documented.

Umbrella organizations[edit]

The American Association of Community Theatre is the major umbrella association for community theatre in the United States. According to their website:

The mission of the American Association of Community Theatre is to foster and encourage the development of, and commitment to, the highest standards by community theatres, including standards of excellence for production, management, governance, community relations and service.[13]

Among other activities the AACT sponsors a national theatre festival called AACTFest in odd-numbered years.

Amateur theatre in Australia[edit]

Dedicated amateur building

The independent Theatre Association [3] is the peak body for amateur or Community drama in Western Australia. Australian amateur theatre is dependent on volunteer effort and very few amateur theatres pay salaries, although some employ cleaners. Amateur acting experience is highly sought as an entry point for aspiring professionals.[citation needed] The annual Finley awards celebrate the achievements of theatres in several categories.


A Workers' Education Dramatic Society and student counterpart was active in Brisbane between 1930 and 1962.


list of amateur theatres in Australia,

See also[edit]


External links[edit]