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The Chequered History of Amateur Theatre

Lucy Henderson | University of South Wales

A photograph of the author of this article performing in the pantomine 'Sleeping Beauty'.
The author (left) in an amateur pantomime, Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Jon Olliffe.

When I say amateur theatre, what image springs into your mind? A dusty old village hall with a handful of people in second-hand costumes, stood in front of a poorly cobbled-together set? Some poor soul desperately trying to remember their lines as the other actors shift awkwardly on the spot? Wishing you brought earplugs when they all start singing? You are not alone. This was my view of amateur theatre when I turned up to audition for The Sound of Music in 2012. In the years since, I have discovered that amateur theatre is much more than the stereotypes that plague it. I have often wondered where its bad reputation came from, and why they do not appear to apply to any other amateur activities. Over the last ten years, we have seen dozens of reality competition shows about amateur baking, cooking, sewing, pottery making, floristry, jewellery design, cake decorating… it is safe to say that public interest in amateur activity is at an all-time high. Right at the start of this amateur renaissance, in 2012, Miriam Margolyes hosted The Nation’s Best Am-Dram, where amateur groups across the country competed to be crowned the best in the UK. It ran for one season, and viewership was poor when compared to the millions of households that watch the other amateur competition shows. As part of my research in amateur theatre, I looked at its history in Britain to try and understand why it is not as popular as other amateur activities, and why it has a bad reputation.

The history of amateur theatre in Britain begins in the Middle Ages, when enthusiastic storytellers rose from their seats and gathered friends to help them bring their stories to life. This developed into the mystery and miracle plays of the fifteenth century, which were designed to teach the general public, who typically did not speak Latin, stories from the Bible. These plays were performed by troupes who travelled around the country, and by 1500, many towns and villages had designated theatre spaces. After the Reformation, religious plays were no longer allowed, and troupes of actors had to get patronage from noblemen to perform.

A line drawing of the Globe theatre built in 1599.
The Globe was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s theatre company.

During the late sixteenth century, theatres were being built around the country, and the new theatre industry boomed until 1642, when Oliver Cromwell ordered their closure. During this time, we see the rise of private theatricals – a kind of theatre rebellion where wealthy people would perform plays and musical revues for friends in their houses. These performances are largely considered to be the beginnings of amateur theatre as we know it today. Eighteen years later, the British Monarchy was restored, and theatres re-opened, and over the course of the next two centuries, amateur theatre became more and more popular.

A cartoon entitled 'Blowing up the Pic Nics' by the artist James Gillray.
‘Blowing up the Pic Nics’ by James Gillray

In 1801, the first amateur dramatic society in Britain was formed. Called the Pic-Nic Society, it was a group of upper-class amateurs who performed in the Tottenham Street Theatre. They put on variety shows, with short plays, parables, and singing, and a large picnic at the end. These were sociable affairs, where actors and audiences mixed together, and performances would often happen within the audience space rather than on a stage. Whilst they were popular among the public, professional actors were not fond of them, and in 1802 a Pic-Nic performance was interrupted by a group of professionals holding a protest against them. This is our first example of negativity towards amateur theatre – we can only speculate as to why professional actors felt the need to protest. Their action against the Pic-Nic Society was unsuccessful, however, and more amateur groups began springing up across the country. Some still operate today, like the Manchester Athenaeum Amateur Dramatic Society, formed in 1847, which is widely regarded to be the oldest amateur theatre group in the world. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, various amateur theatre associations were formed, such as the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) in 1899, which is still running, and the British Drama League in 1919, which disbanded in 1990. The formation of these associations demonstrates that amateur theatre was a valuable part of British culture at this time.

The early twentieth century saw a boom in amateur theatre groups, particularly in the inter-war years when around seven hundred amateur groups registered with the British Drama League. In rural areas, amateur was the only type of theatre that was easily accessible, so many small towns and villages formed their own amateur groups. In these areas, if professional groups did visit they were typically not well received. We can assume that this caused further antagonism between those involved with amateur and professional theatre. The growing number of amateur theatre groups did not go unnoticed. In 1940, the Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (now the Arts Council) was formed to help maintain British culture during the Second World War. Initially, CEMA were positive about amateur theatre and recognised that it was an important part of British culture, and that it offered great social and therapeutic benefits for those who took part. However, the biggest blow to amateur theatre was dealt in 1956, when CEMA decided to stop funding amateur theatre productions. Since this decision, amateur theatre has been left to fund itself – which may explain why we have this image of amateur theatre being rough around the edges. If you compare the budget for the West End revival of The Sound of Music in 2006 to the one we had for our amateur production in 2012, you will probably understand why the sets looked the way they did – I painted them myself.

The decision to stop funding amateur theatre productions really was the beginning of the end for amateur theatres’ reputation, demonstrated by the lack of information about amateur theatre practice in the late twentieth century. It appears that during this time, amateur theatre was not worth writing about. Despite this, groups were still popping up around the country, and performing regularly to audiences, though we do not know much about the nature of these performances. Nowadays, support for amateur theatre is – to use the term offered by NODA in a recent survey – patchy. From my research, it seems that those who take part in amateur theatre tend to be very passionate about it, and those who do not take part, if they think about it at all, consider it to be a shoddy mess. The word amateur itself has changed meaning, beginning its life as a term of endearment – coming from the Latin amare, to love – to now being seen as an insult… call a professional actor an amateur and see how they react.

Interestingly, amateur performance that happens away from the typical image of amateur theatre is really popular. If you were to go on any social media site and look at the content, you will find videos of people singing, performing comedic scenes, and dancing to popular songs. A lot of these are amateur performances, where the person you are watching has not been paid to make this video. In fact, during the multiple lockdowns the UK had in 2020 and 2021, many amateur groups moved online and posted their performances on their social media channels. Maybe this is the future for amateur theatre.

A photograph of the author of this article perfoming in the pantomine 'Robin Hood'.
The author in an amateur pantomime, Robin Hood. Photo by Jon Olliffe

In this article we have gone on a journey, beginning in the Middle Ages and ending in modern times. We have tracked the history of amateur theatre and found a couple of moments which may explain why amateur theatre has a bad reputation these days. The rivalry between amateurs and professionals seems to be one of the main drivers for amateur theatres’ bad reputation, as does the decision to stop funding amateur theatre productions. I think both of these things together have created a culture of snobbery towards amateur theatre, but this snobbery does not seem to bother or discourage those who take part in it. I have met many people to whom amateur theatre is their life, and they will not accept any negative talk about it. Amateur theatre has survived throughout the centuries – even when professional theatres were closed. I do not think anyone can deny that amateur theatre is deeply entrenched in British culture, and hopefully will be, in whatever form, for many centuries to come.


Further Reading:

  • Coveney, Michael, Questors, Jesters and Renegades: The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)

  • Dobson, Michael, Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A cultural history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

  • Landreth, Jenny, Break a Leg: A memoir, manifesto and celebration of amateur theatre (New York: Penguin Random House, 2020)

  • Sierz, Aleks & Ghilardi, The Time Traveller's Guide to British Theatre: The First Four Hundred Years (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Lucy Henderson is a PhD student at the University of South Wales, studying newcomer experience to amateur theatre. She hopes to help amateur theatre groups across the UK adopt inclusive practices so everyone can get take part.

Twitter: @colourfultheatr


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