With a wealth of amateur dramatic societies thriving in and around Tunbridge Wells, there’s plenty of sing-along entertainment available on our doorstep. Here, Andrew Swann, chairman of the Local Amateur Musical Players (LAMPS), tells us how the town’s culture is changing and what the closure of the Royal Victoria Hall Theatre in Southborough has meant for this historic group…
Tell us about the background of the society
Lamps was started in 1928 as a fundraising initiative for Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club, but didn’t really form until 1949 when they did their first show. Originally, we only put one show on a year, but then moved it up to two in the late 80s and early 90s. I got involved ten years ago and have mostly been acting, singing or dancing. I’ve done set-painting, do all their graphic design artwork and have directed two shows myself. I then took over as chairman three and a half years ago.
What kind of productions do you put on?
We’re a solely musical society and we only ever put on musicals that are already in existence. We’ve done three variety shows in the last three years and try and ride on the back of what’s going on in the world at the moment; there’s a demand for comedy, musicals and shows that are a bit more risqué. For a relatively small theatre group, we like to try and push the boundaries as much as we can and do interesting things. We perform at a small theatre and have relatively minor budgets, which can be anywhere between £5,000 and £25,000.
How did the closure of the Royal Victoria Hall in Southborough earlier this year affect you?
We’ve performed at the RVH for 59 years, so that’s where we’ve been for two-thirds of our life. We had to cancel our spring show and are looking for an alternative venue with a similar price range and flexibility. We’re in negotiations with the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge to hopefully perform there – because we’re a Tonbridge-based society, it would be lovely to go back. At the moment we’re very much in limbo and hoping that either the RVH will reopen or an alternative space will come along.
Can you tell us more about what went wrong with the RVH?
I support the Friends of Royal Victoria Hall campaign and it’s our belief it’s been left to run down to the point where it’s now going to cost tens of thousands of pounds to repair instead of doing the running repairs as they need to. They’re holding the reins a little too tightly and I think they see it as a noose around their neck. It’s a lovely venue; it’s just a shame it has been dug into the ground.
Is LAMPS run professionally or voluntarily?
It’s solely run by volunteers. Sometimes it can be as low as 30, other times it’s as high as 100 members – it really depends on the type of show. The only people that get paid on a per-show basis are the directors, choreographers and musical directors, who usually get a nominal fee. We know they’re few and far between, so you have to provide a small financial incentive to certain areas. You can’t run everything on volunteers; it’s just not possible.
Where do you receive your funding?
Financially, we operate in two or three different ways. Principally, we’re self-funded, so a show we put on has to generate its own budget back. That money would then be put into the next show. We’ve had grants from the council and we won a cash award a few years ago. You might get £1,000 here, £1,000 there, but principally, we work on our own funding.
Does being so close to London affect the society at all?
It has a very real impact in that we can’t perform any shows on in London. There’s an amateur licensing agreement that any show being professionally performed in London can’t be performed within a 50-mile radius.
What measures do you take to appeal to a younger audience?
It’s always fairly mixed. We generally put family shows on, as most musicals tend to be written for family audiences anyway. We try and make sure shows are well-rounded wherever possible.
Has the recession had an impact on you?
People are still reeling from not having huge excesses in their pockets to go and see a show. It’s fine for a single person to go but when you’re talking about a family, they can easily splurge £50 and people don’t have that for an evening all the time. It’s tough and it really has impacted hugely.
Have you come up with ways to combat this problem?
The reason we put on variety shows is purely fiscal-based. If we do a variety show, we don’t pay any rights and we don’t have to have an orchestra, so we reduce our costs. You also reduce rehearsal space because you might only rehearse once a week in a venue rather than three times. The first variety show we did came in somewhere in the region of £4,000 or £5,000 and it brought in a similar amount of profit, but that’s almost unheard-of and we were very lucky, so we’ll always bring the budget down accordingly if need be.
Can you elaborate on how you do that?
We’ve had to do analysis of budgets from the last five and ten years to see what shows are working. We plan accordingly and try and build up a programme for the next two years; if we see after a year that it’s not working, we readdress it. It’s an evolving catalogue.
Has Tunbridge Wells culture changed in recent years?
I’ve definitely seen an improvement in the diversity of the way Tunbridge Wells operates. There’s a wider variety of things people can go to and don’t have to pay for. That’s quite key; people have recognised there’s a value in social interaction above and beyond ticket costs. People are trading things rather than money. When people donate something – a performance or a piece of art – those who watch it are much more likely to be generous with what they give.
What are your most profitable shows?
In the last five years, the shows that have made the most money versus cost have been the variety shows, but they also have cost because they’re hugely time-intensive. You’re not only rehearsing for two or three months, you’re spending three or four months before that creating and putting the show together, and there are only so many people with the experience and skill to do that well. It’s not just a case of putting a few songs in order and stringing them together – that doesn’t make a show anyone wants to watch – so you have to find the right person who wants to do that.
Where you would like the society to go in the future?
Every single person who does it loves being involved in a group effort. One of the reasons I do it is because you can turn a piece of paper into an emotion. If people come with absolutely no expectations and walk out beaming or wanting to tell their friends about it, we’ve succeeded. With a musical, you can make people laugh and cry; it’s like going into sixth gear in theatre. With a play, you need to work the audience really gently to make them laugh or cry, but in musicals, there’s something about the way that you can sidestep and accelerate that process; you can have someone laughing in one song and crying the next. From my point of view, I just want to be able to carry on doing that with our society.
What challenges do you face and how do you deal with them?
The challenge is engaging people’s imaginations. You have to engage your cast and get them on the same side as you, and then keep doing that. You have to make sure they’re giving you what you want and you have to get that through to the audience and engage with the public to come and see the show. It’s about engaging at every step of the journey, otherwise you’ve failed, because you won’t sell a show that’s not engaging. Everything is shouting these days visually; it’s bigger, bolder and brasher and there’s more money available to spend, so you have to box clever and try and find an angle.
LAMPS (Local Amateur Musical Players)
TEL 0845 241 2573
ANNUAL NUMBER OF SHOWS 2
MEMBER OF Noda (the National Operatic and Dramatic Association)
ANNUAL PATRON MEMBERSHIP £35
FORMER PERFORMANCE VENUE Royal Victoria Hall Theatre, Southborough, Tunbridge Wells
SUPPORT Friends of Royal Victoria Hall – www.friendsofroyalvictoriahall.org.uk