The unpaid luvvie love-in

The British Telecom Biennial is a hot date for amateur... sorry, non-professional thespians.

The first thing you must remember is that it's not called amateur dramatics any more. Oh no. "No, I don't like that phrase. We call it 'non- professional theatre', actually," says John Anderson. Mr Anderson is chairman of the Little Theatre Guild, a collection of am-dram, sorry, non-professional theatre companies across the country. Mr Anderson regards me sternly. He is wearing a rather loud stripey jacket and is doing his best to impersonate Dicky Attenborough: "Oh no, darling. We're not amateurs. In fact, I consider we're better than most West End theatres." See much West End theatre, then, Mr Anderson, to validate your statement? "Oh no, the West End gets very little of my time nowadays. Too busy with the Guild." Quite.

Mr Anderson and I and about 100 other N-P theatre practitioners are all spending the weekend at a British Telecom training centre near Stoke-on- Trent, in preparation for the BT Biennial this October. The Biennial is a regular love-in for unpaid luvvies from all over the country. Sponsored by BT, the project commissions a specially written play (this year's choice is Nasty Neighbours, by playwright Debbie Isitt) and enables 100 non-professional theatre companies across the country to put it on, providing scripts, posters, tickets and this workshop weekend. It'll be staged by each company for three or four days, and all of them will open with the show on the same night.

This production will go into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ever simultaneous opening in theatrical history, either amateur or professional.

This weekend, however, we are all in Stoke to "workshop" the play. One or two members of each company have turned up; over the two days they will meet the playwright and discuss the characters in the show so that every company has a chance to mull over the play and its themes. It's 48 hours of continual theatre chat, and most of the am-drammers (sorry, but I can't keep up this "non-professional" stuff) feel they are in heaven.

"I'm going to be a professional," says Max, a teacher in his fifties who has just arrived from Nottingham on his motorbike. "A few more years at my school and then I'm going to be very cheeky. Take early retirement. Ring up Bristol Old Vic and say, 'Here's one year's fees: I'm coming.' I'll be an unknown face at 55, but I don't care."

"It just takes over," says Sean, from Manchester. "It takes over your life. lt gives you such a buzz; and, as an amateur, you get all the big parts you'd never get in the real world." "A helper to Basil Brush," says John from Belfast mournfully. "One of my mates was a great actor, went to Central School and everything; that's what he ended up as. A right- hand man to Basil Brush." He looks at me and shrugs. "Why bother?"

Why, indeed, when you can play everything from Peer Gynt to Jimmy Porter before adoring, if somewhat undemanding audiences? "We have to be careful what plays we do, and what playwrighters [sic], we choose, darling," advises Mr Anderson, who is also the director of the South London Theatre in Chiswick. "Can't do anything too difficult or intellectual, darling - the audience won't understand. But I've played everything. Shakespearian heroes to Noel Coward comedy parts - oh, all the great roles."

We sit around in BT's training area where, during the week, hearty young men are instructed in the whys and wherefores of scaling telegraph poles. We are discussing the play's lead character with its author, and everyone is shouting out ideas. "Oh, I read him as impotent," says a woman from the Ilkley Players. "Tall, young and fairly good-looking," says another from Cheadle Hulme. "I just think he likes bonking," shouts out a man from Sutton Coldfield. "No sexual problems. Other than that, of course." We all laugh.

Everyone is excited about the opening night, even though it's three months away. "I'll be casting the play when I get home," says Max, who is from Nottingham's Lace Market Theatre Company. He waves the script. "I've got some cracking ideas now."

The only company that will be unable to take part in October's mass first- night is the Penrith Players, which must open its show a week after the other 99 companies. I learn this unhappy truth during a post-workshop drink in the BT bar. "Well, the Women's Institute has its monthly meeting that night in the village hall," says the director of the Penrith Players gloomily. Surely with three months' notice the WI could be moved?He rolls his eyes dramatically. "You don't know the Women's Institute," he sighs.

The Biennial participants range widely, from computer salesmen and caterers to teachers and accountants: serious-looking men in suits, nervous teenagers in T-shirts with iron-on patterns, women in twin-sets and tie-dye trousers. Most would have liked to have acted professionally, but admit that they never had either the opportunity or the nerve. Nevertheless, few are bitter about this.

"The love of it," says the woman from Ilkley. "That's what amateur means. And that's why we do it. We do it for the love of it." Perhaps amateur dramatics is the right term to use, after all.

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