‘You start an amateur and you end up an amateur’

Arthur Aldridge, currently treasurer, Market Harborough Drama Society

Arthur Aldrich in conversation with Nadine Holdsworth

Nadine Holdsworth: Let’s start at the beginning about why you got involved in amateur theatre in the first place.

Arthur Aldrich: Because I love theatre. I can’t explain the feeling. I can remember as most people can, the first time I went to the theatre, but it was not until I came out of the Army after my National Service when I was persuaded to join an amateur group in Coventry where I lived, that I got involved. I started by building scenery and then I was given a small part to play and it went from there. I enjoyed acting and later directing. Professional theatre was a dream but I didn’t believe that my amateur acting was good enough to keep a wife and a mortgage. I had worked in a bank and was then employed in a minor management role at Courtaulds [a large factory in Coventry] – so why not try theatre management? It was rather easy in those days to get a manager’s job provided you were willing to work for very little money, because they were very short of experienced managers. Theatre in the 1960s was expanding, new professional theatres were opening, repertory theatre was at probably its strongest point. Before then theatre management had been a last resort job, reserved for men who looked good standing front of house in a DJ. So when, at the age of 29, I applied for the job of House Manager at Hampstead Theatre Club, I was offered it on the spot. I was in and within two years was working at two theatres in the West-end.

NH: Which ones were they?

AA: Well, The Palace and The Cambridge initially, I was Deputy Manager of both of those and then manager when one of the managers died. I also worked in repertory managing theatres at Farnham and Leatherhead – the best years of my working life. No one stayed in one job for more than two years. You moved about a lot – it was expected, although I stayed at Leatherhead for five before being offered the job of opening the newly built New London theatre. If you ever went to London to see Cats, you probably saw it there. I was the first manager there. But then I found that I was spending all hours in the theatre managing, meanwhile I was paying wages to backstage crew who were earning a lot more than I was because they got overtime and overtime wasn’t in my contract.

So I changed direction. I got myself a Union card and starting working on shows in the West End as a stagehand. At the same time I started my own business as a “theatre consultant” – bit of a dogs-body really, doing whatever came my way as long as it was theatre related. It was the early days of VAT [Value-Added Tax] and I’d made a point of studying it. Most theatre people thought it was a nuisance and that, if you ignored it, it would go away. So knowing how to complete a VAT Return was very useful.

NH: So you were specialising in financial advice for theatres specifically?

AA: Well that was what my business offered – keeping accounts and a bit of costing. Costing is much the same whatever the business provided you have a good knowledge of the business itself. I’d got friends who were in the scenery business and at weekends, we’d do “get-ins” or “get-outs”. On most Saturday evenings in theatres one show ends; its scenery is removed (“get-outs”) and another show’s scenery come in (“get-ins”). Scenery moves from one theatre to another. It’s hectic. I did a lot of that and, with my other work, I made a living – quite a good living. Until I got to the ripe old age of 66 and I retired. But, you start an amateur and you end up an amateur and that’s what I have done. Not just here [Market Harborough], but in Leicester generally. I also became an adjudicator and continued doing something that I’d done since my twenties – writing plays.

NH: So, when you were working as a theatre manager and financial adviser for theatres, did you keep your toe in the water of amateur theatre or did that activity stop?

AA: No, it was very much a clean break. It has to be because in professional theatre I was working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and you haven’t got time for getting involved in too much amateur drama. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t go professional and then start sneering at amateurs. I think there’s a place in the world for both amateur and professional. It sometimes is a difficult relationship. Amateurs can be quite hoity toity about professionals. Luvvies or Riff-raff. (laughs) But by and large they work together well.

NH: What for you are the main distinctions between the amateur and the professional?

AA: The commitment! If you’re in a professional theatre it’s like living in a bubble. When you’re in the amateur theatre you’re still living in the real world as I call it. Probably if you’re a professional rehearsing a play, the only way you get out of the production is to call the doctors. Or walk out and make yourself very unpopular and unemployable. In the amateur world you don’t have the same stigma attached to dropping out. You say well I’m not feeling up to this or ‘my grandma’s ill’ or something, you know. But for a professional it is commitment – time commitment along with absolute mental focus.

NH: And in terms of quality? Am dram can be very derided can’t it?

AA: It does get derided. But you can see some very good am dram stuff. Let’s put it this way, you’ll get individuals in amateur drama who are very good and could exist professionally if they so desired. I mean they probably wouldn’t get so many parts and they certainly would have to work hard at it but they could survive. Technically amateur theatre tends to be a bit behind professional theatre. We couldn’t hold a candle to The Curve or Warwick Arts Centre for instance. You get better directors in professional theatre because, once again, it’s that commitment, it’s that time commitment which they can give which amateur directors can’t.

NH: One of the things that I was talking to somebody about the other day is how with an amateur director it’s a bit more first route and there’s not a lot of play. In the professional theatre very often directing is about opening things up and asking questions. I don’t know if that’s something you’d recognize?

AA: Well one of the reasons of course is there’s not the time in amateur theatre. We rehearse here for 2/2½ hours maximum 2 or 3 times a week – sometimes more often as the show date gets nearer. There isn’t a lot of time for improvisation games. When I direct, I will have studied the text and have very firm ideas about the mood, the pace and the characterisation. You hope that the actors will sort of fall in behind you although I certainly don’t rule out listening to anything they have to say. Contributions always welcome!

NH: So now you’re the Treasurer for the society [Market Harborough Drama Society, which is part of the Little Theatre Guild].

AA: Yes, there was a vacancy they were unable to fill despite months of trying so I sort of stepped in. I can do that job because I’ve done it professionally but I made it clear that they should continue their search because I’m 81 and therefore not exactly a good bet for the future am I?

NH: (laughs) Don’t say that! (laughs)

AA: Well, I’ll do it as long as I can or until they find someone else.

NH: How would you say you brought your professional experience to the role?

AA: It’s not wildly different. We have a building with overheads, which have to be paid. However, we don’t pay actors and directors so the pressure on the finances isn’t as great. And we have a good loyal audience. Each show at the moment plays to near 90% capacity but that could change if people lost interest in what we’re doing. The building itself is a bit of an attraction. On Tuesday Coffee Mornings the place is buzzing. It’s full of people, rather old people – you didn’t catch that did you? [whispered].

NH: So how does the place run as a business?

AA: Income comes from ticket sales, membership fees, and lettings. It is a desirable venue for organisations to hire for one-off projects. Income from lettings brings in over £20,000 per year.

NH: And is that something that’s grown over recent years?

AA: Yes. We’ve got a Trustee meeting next week and one of the items on the agenda is where do we draw the line because it puts a strain, bearing in mind we’re all volunteers, on the workers and it can put a strain on the programme itself because obviously on stage they’re building scenery as we don’t have a workshop.

So it is something that has to be watched. If you wanted a coffee morning in here on a Saturday for instance you’d have to go way into 2017 probably almost into 2018.

NH: Really?

AA: It’s booked that heavily.

NH: And do you mind me asking how much you charge for that kind of thing?

AA: We charge £75 to hire the lounge for a morning and £200 upwards for the auditorium depending on the services required. We get organizations like historical and arts societies who hire a whole day for a lecture and that’s the basis on which they’re charged. We also have two organizations, Octagon Films and Parsnips Youth Theatre who have weekly meetings and we negotiate a special rate for them. And then there’s the occasional social event, organised by the Social Committee. We don’t charge for them because, obviously, we’d be charging ourselves! It’s a busy theatre and one of the things you might like to know is that there are over 200 volunteers running events in this place.

NH: Incredible.

And what is your membership?

AA: I think it’s running just over 300 now.

NH: That’s very healthy.

AA: Membership is £15 a year. For that they get one week’s preference booking for the plays, as well as a magazine (Backstage) every two months with news and articles about the theatre. And, if they wish, they can come and watch the dress rehearsal of the play on the Sunday before it opens.

NH: You mentioned the One-Act Play Festival earlier – could you tell me a little bit about that, did you write and direct or just write?

AA: The plays they chose for this year’s festival were ones I wrote in the 1990s for other groups to perform.

NH: Where have your plays been performed?

AA: Well, twenty-three have been performed – some locally, but a lot as a result of winning competitions where the prize was a performance. A lot of them were premiered in places beginning with the letter B – Beckenham, Bridport, Bognor and Brighton – odd, isn’t it! I’ve got 5 published. They get performed in various places, I only know about them when I get sent money.

NH: Nice way of finding out.

AA: Well it is. The two they did last year, I hadn’t seen for 20 years. So it was nice to see them again. The All England Theatre Festival has first and second rounds, quarter-finals, semis etc. Like the FA Cup, if you’re not first or second in each round, you’re eliminated.
Market Harborough Theatre always enter the Leicestershire Festival because that’s our area. We’ve had a bit of success. We got to the English semi-finals twice, winning the Midlands area en route so that was quite pleasing.

NH: What do you think the benefits are of doing festivals?

AA: I’ll change my hat now and talk as an adjudicator. The biggest benefit should be, it isn’t always, to see what other teams are doing, how they’re doing it, compare yourself against them. Unfortunately, in practice, at the festivals most groups when they’ve finished acting disappear into the bar just waiting on what the adjudicator’s going to say at the end of the evening. I’m not in favour of that personally but it’s what often happens and you have to accept it.

NH: So they’re not so keen to learn from each other?

AA: Yes, well I think they probably don’t think they can.

NH: So how often do you do adjudicating?

AA: When asked really. Once again it’s something I went into after I’d retired. Well, I’d been adjudicating a bit before I retired because I did the Leicestershire Full Length Festival. I did that for five years and then I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this’ and I ended up doing it again for another three. But it wasn’t until I got into GoDA that I started doing one-act play festivals. I’ve done quite a few of those but I’m not actively looking for more.

NH: And is there anything you’ve seen while adjudicating that you’ve then brought back into your own work?

AA: Well not really. I mean you learn more about what not to do I think. And because theatres vary and the big thing about any theatrical performance in a festival is that you’re adapting to your surroundings, to the stage you’ve got and the auditorium, the size of it and the lighting and technical availability. It varies enormously from festival to festival because some are well-equipped and some are quite crude with their arrangements. You have to adjudicate what you see on stage – are the group rising above what’s available. You’d be surprised how ingenious some of them are.

NH: How long have you been a member of Market Harborough Drama Society?

AA: I actually first came to Market Harborough when I was doing the Full Length Festival because they entered all their plays that year. I live locally and, after finishing the adjudicating, I bought a season ticket for the following year and my wife and I have been regulars for some years.

NH: So you started as an audience member? Well, adjudicator and audience member?

AA: Yes, and then I got involved in other things – like helping to build scenery. I did a bit of internal adjudicating for them and then one day they said, would you like to direct a play?’ and, for better or worse, I said, ‘yes’.

NH: Is there anything that you would change do you think in the way that you’ve approached your roles in the theatre?

AA: Yes. When directing I’ve assumed a much more laid-back approach. Professional directors, on the whole stay calm and have conversations, not arguments. When I started out directing as an amateur, which I did back in the 1960s, I used to get quite ratty with people, a bit shouty. Hence, I look back on some of the rehearsals and think ‘how disgusting!’

NH: (laughs)

AA: But there are directors, amateur and professional, who get very angry but what’s the point? It’s all about talking – to individuals as well as the whole cast. I tend to talk mostly to individuals – if you’ve got a fault to find keep it between the two of you because otherwise it diminishes the poor victim in the eyes of the others. You could say that came with experience but it could be that you prefer the quiet life.

NH: Wonderful! Is there anything else that you think would be interesting for me to know Arthur?

AA: Well there’s a lot of people who take part in amateur theatre who do go to professional theatres but there’s an awful lot who don’t and I always think that’s a great shame because that’s where you learn. If you’re an actor, you sit and watch the best or even the run-of the-mill actors, who have all the skills – creating characters, getting laughs, playing the audience – looking like the ordinary man or woman in the street and making the audience believe in them.

NH: And what would you like the amateurs to learn by going to see the professionals?

AA: Everything really – how to stand and move; the power of standing still; not rushing your lines but biting quickly on your cue lines and then using variety of pace to achieve the full meaning of your lines. And, in comedy, learning how to play your audience, learning how to get a laugh and how to get that all-important second laugh. Inexperienced amateurs might get a laugh from an audience quite early on and it goes to their heads and they then try ever so hard to get another one and fail because they haven’t learned how to prime the audience to expect it. Or, and this is quite common, they’ve walked all over the first laugh by continuing to talk while the audience are still laughing. There are all sorts of little things you can pick up. And you can only learn by watching other people do it – boring isn’t it?!

NH: It’s fascinating! (laughs) You’re absolutely right.

And, last question, what for you is special about amateur theatre?

AA: Well, if it’s properly community-based there’s a sort of feeling, an atmosphere almost, that comes across when you’re in the theatre. An amateur theatre like this one is the nearest we have now to the reps of the twentieth century, where a company would stay a whole year and the audience would get to know them individually and see them in lots of different parts, and that was a wonderful atmosphere to work in. Amateur theatre to me is the nearest approach we’ve got to that. It’s not that they’ve suddenly become like that, they’ve always been like that but it’s still there whereas, tragically, the old fashioned reps are dead.

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