Haven't they got enough drama in their lives?

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Teachers spend most of the day performing in front of others. So why do so many of them feel the need to take to the stage in the evenings as well? James Bennett unravels the allure of amateur dramatics

Carl Gilbey-McKenzie wears make-up and shamelessly parades around in front of people. Tessa Pointing is a "working girl" who plies her trade in public. Anita Gilson tells anyone who'll listen that she's having an affair with a younger man.

All three are teachers. And, before they sue for libel, it should be stressed these are roles they are playing on the stage. Along with thousands of others, many of them teachers, this trio are part-time luvvies. You know the type: people who get their kicks by putting on daft costumes and showing off in village halls.

Well that would be the cynic's view anyway. But it is unlikely to be shared by anyone who has ever tried their hand at amdram. Yes, you hear the occasional "Darling, you were divine". Yes, you get pompous majors and poisonous biddies performing dreadful potboilers in poky parish halls to audiences barely struggling into double figures - all of them long-suffering relatives of the cast. And, yes, the scenery does fall down.

But there are few more challenging, involving, educational and downright daring pursuits than acting on the amateur stage.

Drawing a national picture of the state of amateur drama is difficult, but look at your local newspaper or newsagent's noticeboard and you'll spot some enterprising local group putting on a Noel Coward or a Gilbert and Sullivan. One website, amdram.org, claims Britain is home to 17,000 drama clubs and societies, with a staggering 3 million people "involved". (It doesn't say whether that number includes the audiences, but it's still a healthy figure.) You'll find a teacher or two in most of those 17,000 groups, which is hardly surprising as the classroom is a stage in its own right. David Puttnam, film producer and chairman of the General Teaching Council, recognised this when he remarked recently that "watching a good teacher in action is a performance".

Carl, head of English and drama at the Hall school, Hampstead, north London, remembers: "I was once told off by a director I admired for being overly conscious of my own voice. 'Of course,' she said, 'you're a teacher. You're all in love with your own voices.'" And Anita, like anyone who has ever had to tell a bunch of infants they're "quite the naughtiest bunch of children it's ever been my misfortune to teach", knows the value of delivering unoriginal lines convincingly.

It works both ways, of course - experience on the stage can improve your classroom skills. Carl says: "In the classroom a talent for dramatic reading is invaluable. I wouldn't want anyone teaching in my department who wasn't an accomplished reader, able to bring a text alive."

All well and good, but should you let pupils and colleagues in on the secret of how you acquired your new dramatic skills? Tessa, who has been head of drama for four years at Tideway school, a comprehensive in Newhaven, East Sussex, recently starred in Just Whores, a play about the sex trade in her home town of Brighton. She will shortly be reprising her role for a festival. Respected Miss by day, tart by night. "The play's a bit risque," she admits. "Some of my teacher friends came, and enjoyed it. I'd like to have bought some of my sixth-formers, but it wasn't really on."

Carl had doubts about only one play - one that required dressing up in drag - and has otherwise been happy to be seen by pupils in roles other than Sir. "Pupils are fascinated to see me playing a part, because usually - in school - they are acting and I am directing. They like giving me critical notes afterwards."

When you ask Carl why he does it - and why he has done it for almost 35 years in 100 productions "from farce to Shakespeare via pantomime" - the answer is siple. "I do it because I have to. If I don't, I get dispirited. I'm told athletes get upset if they're unable to take exercise, and I am the same if I go too long without acting. I still put myself through the hoop at least once a year and struggle to learn the script with increasing desperation."

Tessa sounds less driven but equally convinced of the benefits. "Yes, there are times when I wonder why I do it, but if I didn't do it I'd probably just be sitting at home watching TV."

As for Anita, she's been in love with the theatre ever since she played Granny in Tale of a Turnip at the age of three. She is about to star with Hove's Sackville Players in Murder in Company, a play about deadly intrigue in an amdram society. Anita plays the director's adulterous wife. She laughs: "When I was young I seemed to spend all my time playing old ladies, then, when I got older I was always playing young girls. Maybe that's the secret of why we do it - it's the chance to be what you're not."

Certainly she believes actors are not merely show-offs. "Introverts are often much better on the stage," she says. "More sensitivity."

But you do need to be a trouper - prepared to commit. Anita has just returned from rehearsal. She sighs: "We've just had someone drop out tonight. It is a huge commitment to make, especially for busy teachers." Perhaps you also need to be a bit of rebel and a free spirit. None of the teacheractors I spoke to sounded the sort to accept blindly every "stage direction" Mr Blunkett or Mr Woodhead cares to deliver. After 27 years of teaching, latterly in infant schools in the Brighton area, Anita took early retirement. "I got so upset by the national curriculum, having to tick boxes and run silly tests all the time, that it made me ill." She now takes drama pupils privately.

Carl remains in the classroom, but when talking about "sensible professions like teaching", throws in the acid comment: "Can teaching be called sensible these days?" Joining an amdram group will certainly help you forget the stresses and strains of school. Tessa has made many friends at Brighton's New Venture Group and says the social element is as important as the artistic side. "It's good fun," she says.

The downside of "sociable" is that things can get bitchy, too. If you think your staffroom is a political arena, just try an amdram group. Tessa says her group is the setting for an on-going battle between traditionalists and modernists. "But it makes it more interesting."

Carl is all for politics. "The friendships and politics of an amateur group can be extremely powerful," he says. "One group I belonged to was at its strongest when people were sticking the knife into one another, left, right and centre, to get the best parts. A benign group is either short of members or too dull to be good."

Anita says the amdram image of fluffed lines and collapsing scenery is outdated. "More people get to see high-quality drama these days, and most amateur groups are more serious than they used to be. The standard has definitely gone up."

Carl agrees, and has little time for distinctions between amateur and professional. "Being professional does not necessarily make you a better actor. At its best, amateur theatre is just as good as the average provincial company - and probably better."

So how do you get into it? Simple. Find a group - try the local paper, the reference library, newsagents' windows - and join. (Anita says that young men are in particularly short supply - "like gold dust".) Carl's advice is to be sure you can commit to the demands of rehearsals - you'll rarely get away with less than two evenings a week - and to pick a group with an assured venue. "A group without a home is on rocky ground."

So, since theatrical convention forbids me from wishing you good luck, all I can say is: break a leg ... darling!


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