Amateur doesn’t mean low quality!
What was the last play you saw? (You can count the one you saw before Covid hit, or a play that was performed virtually since many companies are doing that during this crisis). Was it done by a professional theater, or an amateur one? While plays done on Broadway, or any large, union theater company are absolutely something to be valued, it’s important to note that small companies, even the ones with shoestring budgets, are not to be devalued. We differentiate these types of theater companies by saying “professional” theater and “amateur” theater. But don’t be fooled when you hear the word “amateur”. Several people interpret this word as someone who’s not very experienced or is unskilled. After all, when I googled “amateur” that was the second definition listed—not the first. And hence, not the only definition. But when people hear this word, I think they automatically derive this meaning. But the first definition I found is simply saying that an amateur is someone who engages in an activity, skill, or trade but is not making a living with it. You can also view the Wikipedia definition. And like any activity, amateur theater (which in the US is often called “Community Theater”) is often met with assumptions that it will be bad theater. Maybe someone you know is asking you to come see their community theater production of such-and-such and this can be met with a groan or an eye roll by many, and not just from people who aren’t familiar with theater. Well, I’m here to change that mindset. Because here’s the point: just because someone isn’t making a living off what they’re doing, it doesn’t mean they’re not good at it.
Many people who work in amateur theater are well trained theatrical artists.
If you’re watching an amateur company’s play, there’s a good chance that most of the artists involved have received formal training in theater, and are thus capable of putting on a good show. I have been doing nonprofessional theater for most of my adult life. I have two college degrees in theater: an Associate of Arts and a Bachelor of Arts. I also spent a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and have taken classes and workshops by people with years of experience. Most actors I’ve worked with have similar training. For example, they may have a Bachelors, a Masters, or have completed programs at a conservatory or another high ranking educational facility which can last from one to two years. If a person has devoted four years, two years, or even one year of their life to studying something, this is reason to say they’re capable of creating something of quality. You can even get valuable training in a beginning scene study class which can be as short as a few months. Even if the show you’re watching is on an ultra shoestring budget, there’s a good chance the actors have been rigorously trained in how to captivate an audience. They may not be getting payment for their work, or perhaps they’re receiving a modest stipend, but rest assured, that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing.
Why do they do it you ask? Well, it could be just for the fun of it. Or maybe an actor is building their resume with the intention of moving onto professional theaters and/or professional film some day. Many famous actors got their start this way. I should also mention there’s an issue of whether it’s morally right to ask actors to volunteer their time, but that’s a whole different article… which I totally see myself writing in the future.
Bad theater happens in a professional setting too.
Here’s the deal: just because it’s amateur theater doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad. And with that, just because it’s professional theater, doesn’t automatically mean it’s good. A simple google search will show you lists of failed professional shows. (Let me be clear on something. I have not seen these shows and therefore I cannot comment on their quality or lack of it. Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume that at least some of these shows were not done well for whatever reason.) Perhaps it was bad writing, bad production value, bad musical numbers, or just a bad idea for a concept. But there’s good and bad theater everywhere. It’s sad that there was a waste of funding, resources, and an audience member’s time, but it happens. You learn from it and move on.
Many successful theater companies have started out small
If you need more evidence to support the claim that amateur doesn’t necessarily mean low quality, consider the fact that many professional theaters started out as amateur ones. This means that the artists involved knew how to put on a good show and knew how to run their company well. For example, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago got it’s start in the basement of a church back in the 1970’s. Today their accolades include the National Medal of Arts and Twelve Tony Awards. They also tour nationally and internationally. The Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington DC also started out in a church. (Small theaters love churches!) But that didn’t stop them from seeing success. Plays that premiered with Woolly Mammoth began to be produced in New York and across the country and actors in the company emerged as stars in Washington theater. The company has also received 48 Helen Hayes Awards for their work. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that any small production you see could be done by a company that may see huge success in the future, or may have an actor who will one day be a household name.
Quality is key
But whether a small theater group will become huge is not the point. Professional company or not, good art is good art. It doesn’t matter who’s producing it and why. Ya know, people do live theater outta their garage! You’ve heard of “garage bands”, right? There’s also “garage theaters”! Honestly, I’d much rather see a good production of Hamlet in someone’s garage than a bad production of it in a 200+ seat theater! If the amateur theater that you watch moves you, if it’s honest, if it has raw emotion, if it’s authentic, then it’s high quality. It shouldn’t be thought of as any less. And make no mistake, it makes an absolutely vital contribution to society. Large theater companies deserve support, but I implore you, don’t think that small… amateur companies don’t.
Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks, but I thank you.