Strictly Am-Dramming

  • Inside the mysterious world of competitive amateur theatre. This article was first published in HOT, WILD & FREE magazine (don’t blame me – I didn’t name it) in September 2011. 

THE LETTER comes inviting us to Tamworth. It’s £25 to enter and feedback on each play performed at the festival will be given, in public, by the adjudicator. Hurrah!

GODA LogoIt’s amateur theatre, it’s the Tamworth Drama Festival and the adjudicator is the expert from the Guild of Drama Adjudicators (GODA) who’ll put one lucky group through to the Regional Final to compete with winners from the other local festivals. Other GODA adjudicators will determine its fate should the group then make the English Final, British Final, World Final, Solar System Final and Universe Final.

I may have made those last three rounds up. It’s competitive, this am-dram lark.

On a Budget

My village drama group says that if you can a) write your own play so you don’t have to pay royalties, b) have almost no-one in it because it’s easier to rehearse, c) not have to hire the venue you’re performing in and d) make sure your set will fit in the back of a Vauxhall Zafira (or similar car), your production’s good to go.

I’m not saying that we’re careful with money but our bank account’s more secure than a combination-lock chastity belt, in a sealed vault with 24 hour CCTV, guarded by a patrol of heavily-armed soldiers, in a castle with an iron portcullis and a moat filled with sharks, on a remote desert island protected by an impenetrable forcefield, whose top secret location is known only to an elite band of deadly ninjas. I mean it. There are ducks’ posteriors less watertight.

Some ninjas - protecting our theatre group's finances - yesterday
An elite band of deadly ninjas (protecting our theatre group’s finances) yesterday

So taking part in someone else’s event for £25 is good because you can just turn up and let other people do the admin. Everything is perfect.

But if it wasn’t for that pesky adjudicator.

One Lovely, One Drunk

We’ve been adjudicated before. Oh yes. First time, a lovely lady called Jill. Adored our show, a one-man play converted to a two-man play to meet the ‘minimum two characters’ entry criteria. She called it ‘wonderful,’ said we’d won and gave us two awards. Great for the cast. But not for the bank account because of budgeting for the next round and expenses for the trophy engraving.

It would be impolite of me to suggest that the next festival’s (non GODA-approved) adjudicator was ‘a little tiddly.’ In his defence, I’m sure his decision to punctuate his feedback on our show by careering haphazardly into furniture was made in our interests. I think he needed the toilet. I’m a father to two young kids and I know a pee-pee dance when I see one.

This bloke didn’t say anything complimentary about our show, a two-man play converted to a three-man play to meet the ‘minimum three characters’ entry criteria put in place to stop a one-man play converted to a two-man play winning all the trophies again.

But then he said we’d won anyway and gave us four awards.

Great for the cast. But not for the bank account because of budgeting for the next round and more expenses for the trophy engraving. They charge you by the letter at Timpson’s. ‘Calverton Theatre Group’ (at twenty-one letters a pop) is really costly so it’s been suggested in future that we either enter rubbish plays with no hope of success or continue to win things but change the name of our group to ‘Jeff.’

Stiff Competition

Anyway. As you move through the rounds of these scarily competitive events two things become clear – 1) the groups you’re competing against are a better standard because, like you, they’ve already won some local festivals and 2) the adjudicators are more eccentric and unpredictable. There’s an escalation in scale of what you have to face to progress. Adjudicators are like baddies in Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare on the X-Box. More difficult to conquer the higher you go up the levels.

Sepp Blatter arriving at Batley Light Operatic's recent production of 'The Mikado'
Sepp Blatter (not an adjudicator) arriving at Batley Light Operatic’s recent production of ‘The Mikado’

On balance, everything’s above board (unless you’re mates with the adjudicator in which case the brazen FIFA-esque favouritism can fair take your breath away). But in the end, for all their alleged expertise, adjudicators are fallible human beings judging talent shows, hard-wired like the rest of us to either like something or not. And when you like something, you’re more likely to say positive things about it at the expense of something else you don’t like which may actually have more artistic merit.

The Regional Final

I need to accept that adjudicators either love the plays I write or they hate them. In their eyes I am theatrical Marmite. And when an adjudicator doesn’t like you / is jealous of you / has already decided another group’s going to win anyway so big cheesy cobblers to you, all you can do is try to take the moral high ground. Strangely, the greatest praise given to one of my shows by any adjudicator took the form of two pieces of criticism at a regional final.

Firstly, the basic staging of our show (one chair, no actual set) could, the adjudicator suggested, have been improved by a chorus of heaven’s angels floating around the stage at the show’s opening, ‘as intended by the writer in the script.’ Given that I was the writer of the script and now intended quite differently due to my production budget being non-existent seemed to have escaped him.

Moody production shot of me at Regional Final (illuminated crotch not pictured)
Moody production shot of me at Regional Final (illuminated crotch area not pictured)

Secondly, we’d botched the final lighting cue. Due to a misdirected spotlight the last thing the audience saw as curtains closed was my illuminated crotch area. A fair point from the adjudicator on this one, because there’s nothing worse than having a show ruined by the final tableau being the actor’s particulars lit up like a beacon. Maybe if we’d brought in the chorus of heaven’s angels right at the end, it would have distracted the adjudicator. I suppose we’ll never know.

The adjudicator said nothing about the writing, or the acting, or that the audience had found the piece so powerful many were moved to tears. Competitive am-dram it seems (and this is its biggest flaw) takes no account of the impact of a play on an audience as a measure of its quality because – heh – what does an audience know?

So in summary. Two picky comments from adjudicator = nothing else to find fault with = resounding moral victory = no trophies = no engraving costs.

Rules is Rules / Keeping it Real

If this isn’t bonkers enough, read the competition rules. Each group has thirty minutes to put up their set and you’re timed with a stop watch. I hold the record for shortest rig at seven seconds, which was how long it took me to pick up a single chair and place it on the stage. I said timing me was pointless. The stage crew timed me anyway. Afterwards I said could they time me again, because maybe I could get the chair in place in three seconds now I’d warmed up a bit. They told me I was taking the Michael.

So why even take part at all, you may ask? Because it’s absolutely blooming brilliant, that’s why. These festivals are quirky, antiquated and arbitrary and I love them. Also, did I mention it’s dead cheap to take part?

If you’re in a group that takes this sort of thing seriously, please accept my apologies. I don’t mean to poke fun unfairly. It isn’t that we lack respect for this wonderful British thespian institution. It’s just that our group has different priorities. We just want to have fun and entertain some people, and that’s really about it. We’re quite happy, thank you, to turn up at an arts centre, do the best show we can, blag a couple of trophies, drive off with our set in the boot, pitch up at a camp site and drink whisky until sunrise.

Richard Burton (as 'Tommy Tumble' in the 1968 Felixstowe Players production of 'Crikey, Vicar!')
Richard Burton (as Mr Tommy Thump in the 1968 Felixstowe Players’ production of ‘Crikey, Vicar!’)

Our acting idols? Oliver Reed and Richard Burton. They’re still with us, you know. In spirit.

And they were certainly with that adjudicator I referred to earlier. You know, the ‘tiddly’ one.

Maybe we’ll see him at Tamworth.

Disclaimer: the author’s suggestion that a GODA-approved adjudicator would be biased – and therefore not judge all plays with complete objectivity – is not intended as a criticism of all GODA-approved adjudicators.

It is, however, based on a real example where it was blindingly obvious to a room full of people – and each of the drama groups taking part – that this is exactly what the adjudicator was.

I’m not bitter.

Please don’t take away any of our nine awards :-)

copyright (c) carterbloke 2011-2019

Photo credits

The following photos all used under Creative Commons licence.


  • Two more awards at Tamworth. Boom!