It's Nothing Personal - Why I Don't Review Unpaid/Amateur Theatre
Updated: Jun 2
As most of you know, I also write reviews for the (brilliant) Wee Review online magazine. What you may not know is that, for a remarkably short time, I wrote for another magazine, The Skinny. This was a recent development but due to creative differences, I won’t be writing for them any more (you can give that statement as much weight as you see fit). Since the topic came up in my discourse with them though, I wanted to write a piece explaining why I do not review company that is unpaid, amateur, or a student or youth company. This is part discussion piece, part personal explanation for any companies that may approach me and request a review.
The first thing to say is that it is nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the shows. In all earnest, the quality of amateur theatre can be as good, and sometimes better, than professional productions. Nor is it to do with any kind of disdain or snobbery for those companies; many of my friends are part of them and I did youth theatre up until I left school and loved acting in them. That’s because acting is fun. You don’t have to dedicate your life to it to enjoy performing; it can be something you do on the side. It gives you a goal to work towards, an amazing friend group (because theatre people really do make a great crowd), and the sheer joy of playing another person. And that forms part of my reasoning; if someone performs as a hobby, then who am I to judge them for their work? It doesn’t matter a jot whether I thought their performances were good, their direction sound, or their design impressive because ultimately the performance they put on is for them, their family, and friends to enjoy, and there’s no reason they should be held to the standards of professional actors.
Ah, but Flora, what about those amateur companies that ask for reviews? Surely if they intentionally open themselves up to criticism, it’s ok to give it out? Not necessarily. Though they may be willing to hear what I thought of a show, there is a question about what standard they should be held to; a professional one, or an amateur one? Let’s say I go to a professional show and I don’t rate one of the performances particularly highly. That actor is being paid for their work, and people are paying to see it, therefore as far as I’m concerned it’s reasonable to question whether the theatre-goer is getting value for money. It may seem a cruel way to summarise criticism, since acting is such a personal art, but that is part of what I am there to determine. I’m happy to say that, for the majority of shows I see, the performances are good and often brilliant. However, there is always the chance it may not be. If that is the case with an amateur show, then do I give it the same treatment that I would a professional production, or brush over it and praise its good points? I don’t know the answer, and if I can’t be certain I could criticise a performance, if I can’t even consider the possibility that I might give it a one-star review, then I ought not to review it at all.
That’s not to say I disrespect any publications or reviewers that do review amateur theatre; many writers at The Wee Review do, as do the Skinny. They have found a balance that I have not, and more power to them for that. Where the line gets tricky is when it comes to companies that consider themselves professional but are nonetheless unpaid. There’s a discussion to be had about the ethics of that, about how working for free leads to a culture where paid work is few and far between, but that is a discussion that is for another day (not least because it involves me and the fact that I write for free). The crucial point is that, though the actors may be perusing this as a career and may be trained, there’s still the issue that I can’t hold them to the same standards if they aren’t seeing any money for their work. If they have a financial stake in a production, then absolutely that can be reviewed, but a line must be drawn somewhere and that is where I draw it.
And that I think summarises it. To the best of my knowledge, I haven’t reviewed an amateur/unpaid in two years (to the day), and long-time readers may recall that it got me into quite a pickle that lead to the decision not to do it again. That said, considering there is no reason for me to review amateur theatre, I see no reason why I can’t endorse it either. So to conclude here’s a couple of upcoming shows by student companies in Glasgow. Enjoy.
- The Glass Menagerie, by Student Theatre At Glasgow, Websters Theatre, 11/03 - 14/03 - Measure for Measure, GU Shakespeare Society, Cottiers, 19/03 – 20/03