Gone are the days when amateur dramatics meant over-acted performances that make you cringe, sets that fall over and plodding production. Small independent theatre companies are springing up across the region, offering people from all walks of life the chance to gain quality training and star in dynamic productions in front of proper audiences.
Nice Swan Theatre Company in Gateshead is one of the pioneers of this new wave of amateur dramatics. It was formed in 2009 by Ben Hunt, who wanted to put on a production of the musical RENT. He asked a group of friends to pull everything together and the company was born.
The team wanted a young, talented and vibrant cast, so began holding auditions at colleges and universities across Tyneside and Wearside. ‘It was a bit shaky at the start with people leaving and new people coming in,’ Ben laughs, ‘But we pulled it off. We couldn’t get enough.’
Nice Swan now put on performances every year, and show no signs of stopping. Managing Director Jamie Gray says, ‘Why should London be the go-to place for theatre when Newcastle has the talent? With Nice Swan we’ve found a bit of a niche. We give performers the chance to practise and grow, while also providing audiences with top notch shows and lower admission prices.’
The team at Nice Swan have watched a huge number of shows between them, which gives them ideas for their own performances. Jane Kane, one member of the founding group of friends, explains, ‘We sit in meetings for what feels like 20 minutes but ends up being hours just discussing how we can sprinkle our swannie sparkle on different shows. We make shows that have been done hundreds of times before seem fresh and new. We want our productions to stand out from the crowd.’
And that’s exactly what they do. Nice Swan now have 12 shows under their belt and have received some outstanding reviews, with the UK Theatre Network talking of their ‘professionalism, exuberance and talent’ and their ‘unabashed audaciousness’. Jane says, ‘For us, there are no limits. And that’s where the magic happens.’
Show rehearsals are an exciting time for the Nice Swan team and start months in advance. ‘We buzz around our rehearsal space like children on a sugar rush let loose in a playground,’ Jane chuckles. ‘Then, gradually, amongst the silliness, a cloud of focus and professionalism comes over us, and we manage to string together a surprising dramatic spectacle for our audiences.’
Nice Swan usually perform at The People’s Theatre in Heaton. The theatre is home to one of the largest and oldest amateur companies in the country, putting on lots of shows of their own. Sarah McLane, the Youth Theatre Coordinator, explains, ‘Every show we do is produced entirely by our members – on stage, backstage and front of house. I’ve been a member of The People’s Theatre for 13 years now, and I can’t imagine ever wanting to leave.
‘It’s provided me with all kinds of opportunities. I started out working backstage on my first production back in 2001, and since then I’ve directed Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, acted in Shakespeare and become the Young People’s Theatre Leader. I’ve made life-long friends and learned so much.’
Amateur dramatic societies are always in search of new talent. ‘This year has seen a number of our strong performers, who have been with us for three or four years, leave Newcastle to train in London,’ says Jamie from Nice Swan. ‘This means we’re looking to bring in some new talent to add to our current ensemble of performers. I really can’t encourage people enough to get involved – I’m not a professional producer and I’ve not trained at any top schools, but I’ve learnt a lot through putting myself out there, talking to industry contacts and working alongside other passionate people. I’m still learning every single day.’
Jane wholeheartedly agrees. ‘We love taking new members under our wings and seeing them become part of the furniture, just as we love waving off our old ones who are moving on to pastures new, though we’ll always keep them in our hearts. We’re all in it for the love of theatre and we’re like a big family. Without that, I think we’d just be a bunch of eccentrics feeling a bit lost.’
After sell-out shows for the past two years, the Nice Swan Pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, will be running from 1st–7th December.Tickets start at £7 and can be bought online at www.niceswan.com. They will also be holding auditions after Christmas for their 2015 show at The People’s Theatre. Keep an eye on their website for dates.
The People’s Theatre have a number of shows coming up including Death of a Salesman, a powerful adaptation of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, running from 11th–15th November. Tickets start at £11 and can be bought online at www.peoplestheatre.co.uk
Sign up to take part in a Halloween-themed Musical Theatre week at the new Valley Studios in Gateshead. Run by Ben Hunt, who started Nice Swan Theatre Company, you’ll receive quality guidance, with inspiration taken from Dracula and Rocky Horror.www.valleystudios.co.uk
Join Sing Theatre by Day8 Productions over the course of 10 weeks and improve singing and performance techniques, learning songs from musicals including Hairspray, The Bodyguard and The Phantom of the Opera. With the range of shows, there’ll be something to suit a range of vocal abilities. www.days8productions.org
Ever fancied yourself as a playwright? Take part in a workshop or course at the Live Theatre and learn how to shape your material into a workable production through improvisation and stagecraft.www.live.org.uk
31st October–1st November - Haunting Julia
A supernatural thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.
Tickets from £10 Alnwick Playhouse, Alnwick www.alnwickplayhouse.co.uk
3rd–8th November - Hairspray
An all-singing, all-dancing 1960s musical.
Tickets from £10 Middlesbrough Theatre, Middlesbrough www.middlesbroughtheatre.co.uk
6th–8th November - Carpe Jugulum
A comic fantasy by Terry Prachett.
St Nicholas Church Hall, Guisborough www.guisboroughtheatreclub.org.uk