My short career as an amateur actor was about to be born.
Not even in a million years could I ever have imagined that my encounter with the petite, blond “American” (as people used to call one of our instructors, despite the fact that by then there were about three or four more Americans teaching postgraduate courses at the institute) was to change my life forever. The main reason why I auditioned was to improve my English, since the workshops, the rehearsals and the performances would be in that language. I had done a lot of drama and public poetry-reading when little but it’d been a few good years since I’d been in front of an audience. Plus, I was twenty years old at the time so self-consciousness was part of my burgeoning young adult persona.
Yet what happened during my audition and my later membership of the impro group had profound repercussions. To the point where a couple of years after and freshly graduated from university, I tried to become a professional actor. Along the way I got involved with another amateur theatre company, did Scene 1 of the First Act of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (I still remember the “Now, for the love of Love and her soft hours/Let's not confound the time with conference harsh/There's not a minute of our lives should stretch/Without some pleasure now/What sport tonight?” It took me ever so long to learn my lines and “live” them! ) and was a member of the Tomas Piard’s experimental video troupe for about a year (think Passolini minus excrement, violence and sex). When I look back on those years, I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons why I blog so confidently now is because of the self-esteem and trust in myself I built up during that time.
Amateur dramatics used to be (I don’t know now) quite popular in Cuba. I know at least half a dozen actors and actresses who came from the non-professional world and they were terrific on stage as salaried performers every time I saw them after. In fact, one of my closest childhood friends began his artistic career in an amateur troupe for teenagers and youngsters.
My reminiscence about my years as an amateur actor was prompted by a recent six-week-long series on Sky Arts that was shown at the end of 2012. Sadly, I was only able to catch snippets of each episode without seeing an entire programme. My aversion to so-called “reality shows” was partly to blame for this. However, from what I was able to see, Nation’s Best Am Dram was serious business. The three judges, Miriam Margoyles (who, amongst other roles, has excelled as Dickens’ Miss Havisham), Quentin Letts (insufferable, never liked him) and Bill Kenwright (producer and chairman of Everton Football Club) were fair and objective. The biggest winner was amateur dramatics itself.
When people think of non-professional actors and actresses, the first idea that usually comes into their heads is that of unskilled and old wannabe thespians, dusty old rooms that double up as rehearsal spaces and lack of craft amongst the cast. Nothing could be further from the truth. In most amateur ensembles, it’s common to find members with plenty of abilities and the knack of multi-tasking. From making their own costumes to creating their own props, am-dram is all about dedication, motivation and commitment. In fact, I would go as far as to say that those three terms are the raison d’être for most non-professional actors and actresses. Plus, there’s very little of the “luvvie” culture that permeates Theatreland. I forgot to mention at the beginning that prior to my audition for the improvisation theatre workshop I’d seen a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the same students’ club in which one of my teachers was involved. She was absolutely fantastic. The play, directed by the blond “American”, became another reason for me try my hand at drama.
There’s a danger, though, of taking one’s non-professional activity too seriously. As I wrote before, I auditioned once to become a fully paid actor. I’m sorry to say that my endeavour didn’t meet success. I was rubbish. In vain I tried to blame the friend who was meant to help me out on the day with the props and the music but never turned up. The monologue I’d prepared – Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart – didn’t come up to scratch. For a few weeks after I kept wondering if I had perhaps overplayed my triumphs as an amateur. The acting bug never died, though. It’s still alive. In the last fifteen or sixteen years it’s come out mainly in my other career as an Afro-Cuban dancer and story-teller.
Very often we equate quality in art with professionals, be they painters, photographers or dancers. And yet, there remains in most human beings the extraordinary capacity of pledging our time and resources to an art form without remuneration of any kind. Just for art’s sake. It goes with writers (hello, bloggers, that’s us!), singers, of course, actors and actresses and other non-salaried artists. There might not be any monetary transaction involved but we do get a great payback: the public’s honest appreciation and sincere applause as the curtain comes down.
Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 23rd January at 11:59pm (GMT)