Andrew Martin: Acting? It's child's play - or it should be

Our writer applauds a move to put more kids on stage
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The Independent Online

Children have the "Right to Play", according to a currently prominent charity campaign. They also, in my view, have the right to act in a play. The Government announced last week a review of the licensing system regulating the involvement of children in amateur drama, the aim being to make it easier for am dram societies to recruit youngsters.

As a (very) amateur actor since the age of about 11, I welcome this. Am dram – the decline of which was bemoaned recently by Sir Ian McKellen – is the Big Society incarnate. A collective of disparate individuals is united in one endeavour, and there would come a point in the dress rehearsals of productions I appeared in as a boy when the lighting man, who'd just put up the rig (I love the terminology, by the way), would look at me, fully made-up and about to go on, and charmingly avow, "I could never do what you do." "And I could never do what you do," I would reply, with all the earnestness of one who couldn't wire a plug.

My big break came in 1976 when, aged 14, I landed the role of Herod's Messenger in the York Mystery Plays. I well recall the audition. It was held in a long hall with a low stage at one end. The director stood at the other end. "Shall I start my reading?" I called to her, at which she immediately nodded to her assistant. I had the part – on the grounds that she could hear my voice. The production gave me my first taste of media attention. I was interviewed by Woman's Hour, whose reporter asked me, "As one of the youngest actors, what do you think of the fact that the Plays are supported by the rates?" My answer – "I didn't know they were supported by the rates" – was probably not what they were looking for, and so the exchange was cut out. But it was all character building.

Like many good actors (and many terrible ones), I was terrified of forgetting my lines, and I would repeat them over and over at any spare moment. Just before curtain-up on the first night, with 2,000 people awaiting the start of the show in a specially erected auditorium in the Museum Gardens, Herod, a humorous head of English at a private school, said, "I might vary a bit from the script but let's just play it by ear and have fun, eh?" I nodded and said "Fine", and wandered backstage to be sick.

But we did have fun. I learnt a lot from King Herod. He more or less ordered me to start listening to Radio 3, and am dram was otherwise educational in many ways. It was after my performance as Abdullah, a street Arab in Camino Real by Tennessee Williams, that my father said, "I didn't recognise you" – a very liberating moment. It was probably on account of all the slap I had on. A big, if unacknowledged, attraction of am dram to the adolescent male is that you're allowed to wear eyeliner.

It was thanks to am dram that I first saw a real live woman in her underwear (my mother having died when I was very young). It was a Victorian melodrama and there was drama backstage too. Playing the heroine was a very beautiful, very difficult, former professional actress. Before the first rehearsal, the director – the owner of a local furniture shop – told us that she wouldn't tolerate a single mention of "the Scottish play". But on the first night, she gave everyone in the cast a red rose, and I am in love with her still.

It occurs to me that, in light of the foregoing, some parents might resolve to keep their children away from am dram at all costs, but they would be wrong. There are too many spectators in our society, too many creeps who "like to watch". We need more people willing to brave the scary side of the footlights.

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