Taking to the boards – the art of amateur acting



Hand me my asp!

I took to the boards last week in the April Angelis play ‘Playhouse Creatures’ which is about five of the first women who were allowed by royal decree to act upon the stage professionally in England in 1669. I can identify with my character, the inimitable Mrs Betterton, who felt that by partaking of the thrill of the stage she had been infected with a ‘poison’ which was then forever in her system.  Mrs B (as she is referred to in the play) first tasted the forbidden fruit of the playhouse when she had to step into the breach and become Iago to her husband’s Othello, when the original player was felled by a rotten pork pie, shortly before a performance.  Indeed acting is a bit like that. The actress in me just doesn’t get enough chance of an outlet in my everyday existence and there is something so compelling about becoming someone else entirely for an evening.  



Everyone loves a jig

Nell Gwyn is the most famous main character in the play, and in it she catches the eye of Charles II who was a keen theatre goer apparently, and the rest, as they say, is history. She certainly did ‘quite well for herself’ out of her stage appearances when she became the king’s mistress, bore him a few children and was kept comfortably off for the rest of her life. She was a lady with a ready wit and an eye for the main chance. She could also dance a mean jig. Not bad for an orange seller. This period of history was one of great change and flux. The plague was devastating London and the Theatres had just reopened after seventeen years of Puritan suppression. The great fire of London changed the urban landscape and women were trying to survive along with everyone else as best they could.


Mrs Farley – in a  proper pickle

 Shakespeare was in full flow penning the plays that were to become the most famous texts in the world. Making a living as a woman if you didn’t have a ‘keeper’ was a precarious business. The women of the playhouse were lucky in that they could read, and the London audiences became fascinated with the ‘Playhouse Creatures’ and the chance to ogle young women under the legitimate guise of attending the theatre. The female characters were often ‘despoiled’ or had their clothes partially removed as they revealed their lustrous limbs, of course all as a part of the plot.



Mrs Betterton remembers when she was first stage struck 


T
he women are feisty, funny characters and they deal with the man’s world they inhabit with pragmatic wit and intelligence (mainly) Amateur theatre still flourishes today in most communities in the UK despite the relentless march of the digital age. The Little Theatre in Gateshead is a case in point. Anything below an 80% capacity audience is considered a bit of a flop and the theatre turns out twelve plays a year at a remarkable pace with every aspect of the theatre being run entirely by volunteers (very accomplished volunteers in many cases.) The actors, the sound, the lights, the box office, the bar and even the sale of Cornettos, is all carried out for the love of the Theatre. This particular member of the Little Theatre guild was one of the only ones to stay open during WWII and its art deco frontage was recently rebuilt in 1920’s style made possible by the bequest of a former theatre member.


Advice on the art of performing

Of course amateur theatre has its challenges and sometimes a ‘make do and mend’ attitude has to be adopted for some aspects of a production, but never is there a lack of enthusiasm. Occasionally things may go awry – there are no understudies – so if illness or some other disaster strikes (one ingenue got lost driving to the theatre and missed her entrance all together!) then sometimes others have to step in to the breach with books in hand (very Mrs B!) Even after one member had a heart attack and died on stage the show went on with a substitute. The audience had paid for their tickets after all.


Saucy sword play


As the Director of a show like this you really have to rely heavily on your cast to turn up, learn the words and give it some wellie. You can’t really sack them because they aren’t being paid in the first place. I also do directing but I find it more stressful and less fun than acting, but it’s a good opportunity to get everything how you would like it to be, if you can. I have even tried doing sound but I kept making the phone ring during inopportune moments on stage so I haven’t reprised that particular role. One can only cope with so much disapproving tutting.


I’ll stick to acting thank you!

Playhouse Creatures is a lovely play with excellent parts for women (not always the case) and I very much enjoyed getting my tongue round the rich language which we have little use for today. When I say that ‘affectation may be described as the annoying adherence to useless and superfluous gesture and or intonation such as may be found in the lesser breed of player or Dud’ – I really meant it and it remains equally applicable in a modern scenario. We all need more comedy in life and the willing suspension of disbelief which one encounters at the theatre retains its timeless fascination.


Mrs Marshall tries out a bit of witchery








Heavenly utterings from the muses..