Who's afraid of am-dram?

It launched the careers of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Robbie Williams. Plus it raises £34m at the box office every year, says Claire Wrathall. So why do we still sneer at Britain's most popular form of theatre?
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Until I found myself having dinner at the Hotel Hydro in Peebles one October evening surrounded by nearly 500 Scottish amateur theatre enthusiasts at their annual conference, I'd never quite believed in the cathartic power of community singing. As in many hotel dining rooms there was a pianist playing show tunes. The difference here was that everyone was singing along - not just between courses but between mouthfuls. The sound was tremendous, the atmosphere oddly thrilling. One could not but join in.

Until I found myself having dinner at the Hotel Hydro in Peebles one October evening surrounded by nearly 500 Scottish amateur theatre enthusiasts at their annual conference, I'd never quite believed in the cathartic power of community singing. As in many hotel dining rooms there was a pianist playing show tunes. The difference here was that everyone was singing along - not just between courses but between mouthfuls. The sound was tremendous, the atmosphere oddly thrilling. One could not but join in.

"How do you know the words?" My neighbour, another outside observer, nudged me. I wasn't sure; I just did. These were songs - by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb - I'd grown up with; shows I'd been taken to see at the Kilburn Gaumont; productions, I now realised, that had been put on by amateurs.

Amateur dramatics - am-dram - has a bad name in this country and is all too easily mocked as the preserve of overbearing show-offs. Yet few of the people I met in Peebles conformed to this image. What was striking was the range of background, age (15 to a lithe 85) and experience. There was Geoff the air traffic controller, Fiona the midwife, Jack the retired policeman. I met teachers, architects, accountants, engineers, taxi drivers, mothers of young children glad of a reason to get out of the house a couple of evenings a week. Not all of them were performers: many had joined societies to help out with the admin, sew costumes or paint scenery. For all the smell of greasepaint and the lure of the follow spot, what motivated them was the desire to be involved.

Amateur theatre is vastly popular in Britain. According to the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (Noda), which represents 2,300 British amateur theatre societies, 437,800 people are actively involved. Their productions attract a total audience of more than 7.5 million. And last year, their combined box-office turnover was £34m, £2.3m of which was donated to charity.

According to Noda's chief executive, Mark Pemberton, amateur theatre is important for many reasons. First, it is the only live theatre available in much of the country. "One of our societies, in Shetland, gets audiences of up to a quarter of the local population," he says, "a proportion no professional company comes close to."

Second, amateur companies perform in professional theatres, using scripts they have bought the rights to use. (The amateur royalty rate is 12.5 to 15 per cent of box-office receipts, which nets rights holders £4m to £5m a year.) They hire in sets, costumes and lights, and in some cases engage professional directors and musicians, all of which have to be paid for. So their financial contribution to the theatre industry's economy is substantial.

Yet theatre is the only amateur art form in England not to receive funding from the Arts Council. (The Arts Councils of Wales and Scotland are more generous.) Amateur societies benefit from public subsidy only insofar as they sometimes perform in publicly funded venues. For example, the Festival Theatres in Malvern, two 800-seat venues, plays host to four amateur companies for six to eight weeks every year. Chief executive Nick Lloyd believes they're an essential part of the programming: "They can do work that I couldn't afford to bring in professionally because of the size of the cast. We're a very popular drama house, but we can't afford to put on big musicals. But they attract audiences we might not otherwise reach." They also enable the theatre to host shows with reduced ticket prices, thereby making them accessible to people for whom outings to professional productions are an extravagance too far.

But perhaps most importantly, amateur theatre feeds the professional industry. "Twenty-nine per cent of our societies' members are under 21," says Mark Pemberton. "Many of them are typical starstruck youngsters who go on to drama school and then into the profession. In many cases amateur groups provide young people with their first taste of theatre. Which is as important in creating audiences as it is in creating artistes." Catherine Zeta-Jones famously got started as a member of Swansea Amateur Operatic Society, a fact she acknowledged in the witness statement she made in her recent High Court action against Hello!. Robbie Williams started his performing career aged 12 in a Newcastle-under-Lyme amateur production of Fiddler on the Roof, and in 2000, agreed to become its patron. "While we realise he's unlikely ever to attend one of our shows, his name appearing as patron will hopefully encourage other youngsters to join," says Gill Johnson, secretary of the society and a retired cashier. "And it gives us a certain pride, having one of the world's superstars leading us."

And it's not just the "youngsters" who make it. Leading West End musicals actor Dave Willetts, a former Phantom of the Opera and star of Ragtime which finished its run yesterday, was 30 when he was "spotted" in an amateur production in Kenilworth and asked to audition by the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. "I was a manager for an engineering company. I have a wife and two children," he says. "And I remember giving my company car in, my Bupa membership, my expense account and saying goodbye to my secretary on a Friday afternoon. And on Monday morning I was rehearsing in a church hall for a part in Annie." He'd given himself three years to "just stay in work" as an actor, but within 12 months he had a West End lead as Valjean in Les Misérables.

As with commercial theatre, amateur productions depend solely on box-office success, so their repertoire tends to rely on tried and tested shows with guaranteed audience appeal. Inevitably many of these are musicals, and the most popular shows at present continue to be the Rodgers & Hammerstein classics Carousel, South Pacific and Oklahoma!, along with Fiddler on the Roof, Me and My Girl and the Barry Manilow extravaganza Copacabana. Societies are always keen for new shows to supplement their ageing repertoire (Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are another mainstay), but a lot of new work is unsuitable, either because the casts are too small or because the rights holders won't release it. Roll on the release of Ragtime, which calls for 30 performers and 20 musicians.

There is also an insatiable appetite for Lloyd Webber shows, but his Really Useful Group guards the rights jealously. At present only Jesus Christ Superstar is available to UK amateurs.

"Amateur performing rights may be withdrawn for a variety of reasons," says Ian Reeder of Josef Weinberger, the publisher that controls rights to 267 musicals, including many of the most popular - Les Mis, West Side Story, Showboat and the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim oeuvres. "It can be because there's a professional production playing at a number one venue, and the producer wishes to create a demand. There are a high number of excellent amateur societies that perform regularly at these top venues, and the professional company may not wish to follow an amateur production." Which suggests that in some cases, amateur theatre is something the profession regards as credible competition.

Certainly Liverpool in its successful bid to become 2008 European Capital of Culture was prepared to endorse the British stage premiere last summer of Donizetti's obscure and implausibly named 1824 opera Emilia di Liverpool (set in the "mountains of Everton") at the city's Royal Court Theatre by a local society. Having seen a performance I'm not convinced the opera needed rescuing, nor that the run will have won converts to the art form. But there were some more than decent voices, and you can't knock the ambition.

Of course there is drama too: pantomimes and plays. Again, popular choices tend to reflect commercial realities. Comedies by Alan Ayckbourn, John Godber and Ray Cooney are all regularly staged, as are more literary contemporary works such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and classics such as School for Scandal. And the current season at the Questors Theatre in Ealing, west London - the country's largest amateur theatre company - includes plays by David Edgar, Patrick Marber, Liz Lochhead, Roald Dahl and Peter Whelan, as well as works by Molière and Tennessee Williams.

There is also demand for new writing. An initiative called Global Applause, improbably funded by the World Wildlife Fund, commissions and pays for a new play each year. This year's is a comedy called Saving Ardley by Tudor Gates that was premiered by the Staines Players and will be seen in nearly 50 productions across the UK, Channel Islands, Australia and Spain (where amateur theatre is also enormously popular). And the WWF's reason for supporting it? "In return for receiving this script free of charge, we're asking amateur dramatic groups to help raise funds for WWF by selling a souvenir brochure, which we also provide at no cost," says a spokesman.

Yet still we sneer. "The reason we object to the term 'am dram'," says Mark Pemberton, "is that it generates images of wobbly scenery and wooden acting. But the reality is very different. There is a lot of talent out there, but not everyone has the nerve to risk the insecurity of a professional career. Amateur theatre is the only art form in which the word amateur is used in a pejorative sense. Nobody questions amateur music-making, sport or visual artists. To transcend this we're increasingly referring to ourselves as 'community theatre', the term used in the US."

The Archers' Lynda Snell may have a lot to answer for in terms of perpetuating the stereotype of the overbearing busybody aspirant actress, but it would be untrue to claim amateur theatre was wholly without infighting, rivalries, sexual intrigue and worse.

In February 1999 "killer blonde three-in-a-bed monster" Jenny Cupit, as the Sun dubbed her, was jailed for life for the murder of deputy head teacher and mother of two Kathryn Linaker, 33. Both women, along with Linaker's husband, Chris, were members of Warrington Centenary Operatic and Dramatic Society. "Kathy's husband Chris had cheated on her," the Sun said, "by having a torrid drama club fling with sex-crazed Cupit", who then stabbed her to death. Sometimes the real drama happens offstage.