About three years ago I went to see an amateur production of The Pyjama Game. When the lights went up at interval I turned to discover my grandmother shaking violently in the seat next to me; not a fit, thank goodness, merely a refusal to vocalise the laughter rampaging through her body. It transpires the sight of a tone-death, big-bellied Lothario howling his love-interest into submission in an unconvincing American accent was simply too much for her to sit through with equanimity. And that was before said Romantic Lead appeared in the second half with his stomach hanging over a pair of washed-out pyjama bottoms. That was when my grandma really lost it.
As unintentionally hilarious as it was, The Pyjama Game is by no means the worst amateur production I have seen. That accolade rightfully belongs to one of the two plays I walked out of half way through (in one case due to boredom, in the other lest our laughter distracted the actors). Or possibly to the production of Robin Hood in which an insipid, amnesiac Robin had to be prompted for every line by Little John.
Do not mistake me; I love a good night at the theatre, and I have seen many well-done, well-cast, well-polished amateur productions. But I am highly, brutally, mercilessly intolerant of bad theatre, and amateur productions, for all that I make allowances for small budgets and enthusiastic casts, are not spared my critique if the best I can conclude from an evening is “well, that’s me three hours closer to death”. Lest you think I overdramatize then let this be proof: the Robin Hood I heap scorn on was a child, appearing in an all-children’s production.
I myself am a hopeless actress. The thespian gene that gave my great-uncle a career on stage and screen and my sister aspirations to follow in his footsteps by-passed me completely. On the one hand this admission makes my unjustly harsh appraisal of amateurs yet more unjust; on the other hand, being fully aware of the fact that I could drive an audience to despair, it is to my credit that I have never had the selfish temerity to flaunt my lack of talent on stage.
Until now. For this week, in a move of bold hypocrisy, I auditioned for an amateur dramatics society.
I expected to be scared. I expected to be awful. I expected to nonetheless get a part. Circumstances conspired to justify all.
The audition consisted of sixteen or so hopefuls sitting around in a circle and reading through several scenes from the play. Hardly as frightening, you mock, as standing alone in a spotlight and asking whether I ought to be or not. And you would be right, were it not for the fact that this form of group audition instantly exposed me as the only non-luvvie present. Any suspicions that my fellow auditionees were exaggerating the extent of their experience to intimidate the competition were blown away when the reading started. For it turns out that the majority were actually very good.
More than that, some almost convinced me they were genuine actors. I was utterly bewildered. How is it that these people could seamlessly drop their ordinary speaking voice and replace it with an actor’s projecting one? And how is it they could read aloud and yet read ahead to anticipate which words to stress, when to pause, how to pace? In sum, how could they act a line on the first time of reading it? It was as though they’d all read the script before. I had of course read the script in preparation, though this did not stop me rushing through my lines the sooner to be done with them.
I did try to learn, to imitate the techniques and expressiveness of my fellow auditionees, but my education was undermined by the fact that what lines I had were short and scarce. I rarely had a handful of words to string together, and not a single fulsome paragraph to really throw myself into. A further impediment to really “going for it”, as the director kept encouraging me to, was the nature of the few words I had to read.
For the play is perhaps best described as a comedy of lust, a sexed-up Carry-on farce with a social message. Now I am no prude, but when a sixty-something year old I had never met before asked me whether he could clap his moist lips over mine and plunge his tongue again and again into my mouth sending me mad with desire – well, I ought to be forgiven for having blushed and paused before stumbling over my one-word response.
Here we have the crucial dilemma of am-dram, the stumbling block over which I fail to suspend my disbelief: a scarcity of physical resources. Few people put themselves forward for am dram, and those that do are generally middle-aged. This would not matter were it not for the fact that it is rare for a play to be populated entirely by middle-aged characters. Players are consequently often asked to play roles decades older or younger than them; a necessity that is unavoidable and unfortunate, but also potentially highly uncomfortable. As was the case at my audition, when I had to witness the spectacle of an octogenarian pretending to become highly aroused by a stranger handling her breasts (to her credit, she gave a splendid performance).
It is because of this limitation of physical resources that I fear that, despite out-amateuring the amateurs, I may well be cast. For while there were a surplus of middle-aged men vying for the middle-aged male roles, there were but two women in their twenties auditioning for a play which requires precisely two women in their twenties.
I haven’t yet heard if I have been cast, but the ominous parting shot of one attendee still rings in my ears: “You showed promise”.