Letter to the Editor: In defense of the amateur

In his foundational essay on the art of the modern theatre, “The Actor and the Über-Marionette,” the director and actor Edward Gordon Craig warned of the danger in entrusting the making of theatre to painters, writers, musicians and others he deemed unfit for the task: “When in doubt,” writes Craig, “listen to the advice of a man of the theatre, even if he is only a dresser, rather than pay attention to the amateur.”

I thought of Craig when I read last week’s article, “The birth of a stage: Examining the conception and life of the ’62 Center,” in which the businessman and Williams alumnus Herb Allen ’62 faults the faculty of the department of theatre for not initially signing on to the idea of the ’62 Center as a Broadway musical touring house: “I think primarily [the theatre department faculty] were afraid of the professionals,” Allen suggests. “When you mention professionals to amateurs, there’s a certain jealousy that comes up.”

As a faculty member of the department of theatre, as well as its current chair, I would like to take a moment here to defend the art of the amateur, if that is indeed to be our title. The amateur, after all, is one who works out of love of her craft, often for the good of a larger community. The amateur, often highly skilled in a different field or occupation, is driven to her art by pleasure and joy, rather than by the interests of financial gain or prominence. The amateur is one who embraces her ongoing naïveté and role as a student of life, her art form and the skill of her teachers. The amateur then, by definition, commits herself to the promise that she must never stop learning, never stop humbling herself to the virtues and demands of her art. Even the greatest masters may strive to become amateurs of their form. As Picasso once admitted, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael and a lifetime to paint like a child.”

In his recent book Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love, theatre scholar Nick Ridout defines “passionate amateurs” as “those who work together for the production of value for one another (for love, that is, rather than money) in ways that refuse – sometimes rather quietly and perhaps ineffectually – the division of labor that obtains under capitalism as usual.” In light of Ridout’s description, I am proud to count myself as one among the many amateurs working in the ’62 Center today. And I cordially invite Herb Allen — to whom I remain grateful for giving me the space in which to make my amateur art — to come on in and see the love.

Amy Holzapfel

Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Theatre