Sunday, December 4, 2011

A theatrical discussion

Sorry about the title. I couldn't come up with anything better.

Anyway, a recent back-and-forth following a comment on a Facebook group set up for people involved in the Adelaide theatre scene has revealed some very strong feelings about several issues, with one of the most significant being the divide between amateur and professional – amongst both performers/producers and critics.

Since I'm an occasional performers/producers and a regular critics it's a discussion I've been following with more than a little interest.

What sparked this was the nominations for the Adelaide Critic's Circle (ACC) awards; specifically, the category of emerging artist. Two performers in amateur productions, both with the Adelaide Theatre Guild – Nigel Tripodi for A View from the Bridge and Robert Bell for The Pillowman1 – were nominated alongside two professionals: Charles Sanders, artistic director of theatre company Early Worx; and Alex Vickery-Howe, the playwright of Accidental Productions' Molly’s Shoes.

The other categories in the awards are separated into amateur and professional, but this one isn't – and that's annoyed those who are more on the professional side of the fence, who feel it isn't appropriate to mix the two together.

And they've got a point. As seriously as I take my theatre, and as much of my spare time2 I devote to it via performing/crewing, seeing shows, writing reviews and contributing to the website, I'd be lying if I said I believed that put me on the same level as those who try to make their living from the arts. I have immense respect for anyone who makes that sacrifice – I know I've never had (nor probably ever will have) the courage and self-belief to try that myself.

So of course I think they do deserve recognition for that, and agree that it seems more than a little strange that the ACC haven't kept the two separate.

It's one of the issues I, as part of the Adelaide Theatre Guide reviewing team, face each year when it comes time for us to sit down and decide the nominees for our awards, the Curtain Calls. Sometimes the divide is not so straightforward – several companies/productions include both paid and unpaid performers – and then there's the issue that came up this year when the Adelaide College of the Arts were thrown into the mix with their stunning production of Sweeney Todd.

The performers are students, so they aren't paid – but they're also being trained, and have had to meet what is presumably a high standard in order to get in. Plus they're being taught/mentored by trained, experienced and paid teachers who are all (I believe) graduates of drama schools with years of experience; they've also got all kinds of resources that aren't available to amateur performers, and (presumably) rehearse to a greater extent (either spending more time doing it, and/or with a more focused approach courtesy of their experienced directors) than their hobbyist equivalents.

However, the decision was made to include Sweeney Todd in the amateur capacity, a move which caused more than a little confusion – and concern – in the theatre community. I would expect that we're going to have to have another discussion about this before next year's nominations appear.

Whether or not 'amateur' reviewers are should critique professional shows is not something I've thought too much about, but I have to admit that I do sometimes wonder if I'm able to grasp all the nuances of some of the shows I see.

Yes, I've been doing theatre pretty much non-stop over the last nine years, and was a regular theatre-goer for four years before that; I've also studied theatre and related topics (e.g. scriptwriting) at university level, and – without being egotistical about it – I'm fairly bright and reasonably perceptive as well. But, even with that in mind, I'm the first to acknowledge I don't know even close to everything there is to know about theatre. Should that prevent me from critiquing shows, though? While I would argue that it shouldn't, I don't have a problem with my status as an 'amateur' being known by those whose shows I review, or the people who read those reviews.

Then again, given who I write for, that's probably already the case.

But only letting 'professionals' review shows would cause a bit of a problem in Adelaide, since there's only one hard-copy newspaper, and even it doesn't have a person who only writes performing arts reviews; similarly, while there are a few websites around, as far as I'm aware, none of them makes enough money from advertising to pay its writers.

However, I also feel that it's the right of a company to choose not to have their shows reviewed. I don't agree with it, of course, because I think reviews serve a purpose by giving feedback to both theatre-makers and potential audiences. But if they take that option then there's really not a lot we can do about it. I don't think it's going to come to that, though.

One good thing has come of this; the people involved seem keen to have a discussion about the issues. Whether or not it will lead to a satisfactory outcome waits to be seen, but I'm hoping that I'll be able to contribute.

1Yes, the same one I stage managed; read more about it here.
2Rather a lot when you add it all up, particularly during the festivals.


  1. I haven't been a part of the debate on Facebook because I just don't think it is a healthy platform for that discussion. However, may I suggest when unsure if an artist or organisation would be classified as "amateur" or "professional", we simply pick up the phone, and ask how they define themselves?

  2. Last time we did – some of them don't think it's relevant.

  3. In which case, I would suggest they are amateur. I have never met a professional who didn't want to be acknowledged as such, in any career.