Theatre, Performance, and the Amateur Turn

Nadine Holdsworth, Jane Milling, Helen Nicholson
2017 Contemporary Theatre Review  
On July 1 st 2016 groups of men in World War One military uniforms gathered in public spaces across Great Britain, at railway stations and harbours, in shopping malls, streets and on beaches. Looking blankly ahead, the men were silent except for the occasional chorus of 'We're here because we're here' to the tune Auld Lang Syne, a song that was sung in the trenches. If approached, each soldier offered a simple card bearing the name of the man he represented who had died at the Somme exactly one
more » ... e Somme exactly one hundred years earlier. The presence of these ghost soldiers in contemporary settings was made more poignant by the fact that they were not only the same age as the men who were killed, but also because they were not professional performers but men with other jobs: teachers, office workers, students, flight attendants, plumbers, policemen and many others joined the ranks. We're here because we're here was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, and created by the artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, the artistic director of the National Theatre in London. Deller is perhaps best known for The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a re-enactment of a bitter dispute between striking miners and mounted police in Thatcher's England in 1984. 1 His large-scale performances rely on choreographing cultural memory with non-professional performers as one way to attend to the narratives of the past and bring them into the present. We're here because we're here illustrates the resurgence of interest in the amateur and amateurism, and captures their affective power. 2 Professionally conceived, it involved 1400 men between the ages of 16 and 52 who volunteered to perform in this living memorial to the dead. Rehearsing in secret, the event required disciplined participation and restraint, but involved no 'acting' as such; there was no line learning, no dramatic narrative, no monologues and no characters to play. Rather, the men remained eerily quiet, following subtle non-verbal cues that prompted them to respond (or not) to their environment, to move, march or sing. Involving untrained performers was integral to its emotional impact and their unsentimental participation, as Jeremy Deller pointed out, underlined the fact that many of the dead were not professional soldiers but volunteers. 3 Part of the appeal of the performance lay in its unexpected intervention into everyday contemporary life, with every uniformed man representing a 'real' soldier and invoking his 'real' death. Although British in location and history, within days of the event in July 2016 there was interest in adapting this performative memorial in Anzac countries. In this editorial we shall attempt to tease out some of the ways in which amateurism is conceived in contemporary cultural practice, and how amateurs contribute to the broad landscape of theatremaking. We open discussions with We're here because we're here because it prompts reflection on how amateur performers are integrated into contemporary performance, the visibility of amateur labour, and how amateur creativity contributes to contemporary cultural life. It also opens questions about the complex relationship between amateur and professional artists, and invites consideration of the emotional effect of the untrained body on audiences. In his essay 'Other Experts', gallery director Ralph Rugoff suggests that the twenty-first century is marked by a new focus on amateurism, both as 'an aesthetic strategy and a field of cultural production'. 4 Yet, as the art critic John Roberts notes in his essay 'The Amateur's Retort', the participation of amateurs in contemporary art also invokes what he describes as a 'fantasy about what is authentically professional '. 5 If distinctions between amateur and professional artists are predicated on claims to authenticity, it draws attention to how the 'real' and the 'fake' are performed and witnessed. New opportunities for members of the public to participate in projects led by professional theatre-makers often play on the presence of 'real people' in the performance, and creating a feeling of authenticity is integral to the artists' vision. We're here because we're here is a good example of this approach to performancemaking. Emily Lim, associate director of the project, found that participants who had no experience of the theatre were able to respond to the sparse theatrical language more 'naturally' than those with acting experience, thus realising more quickly the effect that the professional artists imagined. 6 Captured and shared on Youtube, the restrained performance was disruptive and urgent in each location, and yet the performance aesthetic was remarkably consistent from the Shetland Islands in the north to Plymouth in the south as 'ordinary' men, costumed and choreographed, mingled amongst the public from exactly 7am to 7pm on one day in July. We're here because we're here also throws into relief distinctions between amateur theatre-makers, non-professional performers and community performers. Amateurs make theatre for the love of it, often sharing an enduring passion that lasts a lifetime and an enthusiasm that is passed down from one generation to another. Non-professional performers may participate in a single performance or event conceived by professional artists, and community performers work with professional theatremakers, often focussing on local stories or participants' experiences.
doi:10.1080/10486801.2017.1266229 fatcat:j5c6ynzkq5fbjj6xtgs2pik2xa