ED2019 Caro Meets ED2019 Interviews ED2019 Theatre

Hannah Maxwell: I, AmDram

By | Published on Thursday 22 August 2019

I can’t help thinking that almost anyone who attends this here Fringe Festival on a regular basis – whether as a punter or a performer – has probably had a brush with amateur dramatics at some point. Whether it was here in Edinburgh or somewhere else entirely.

Those of you with an amdram connection will, I am sure, be intrigued by the sound of this show. But I also feel sure that a lack of experience in this area won’t diminish your enjoyment of the play, given that it deals with some fairly universal themes.

‘I, AmDram’ is the work of Hannah Maxwell, writer, performer, storyteller, podcaster and stand-up comedian. I spoke to her to find out more.

CM: Can you start by explaining what manner of show to expect from ‘I, Amdram’? How would you describe this in terms of a performance style?
HM: I guess it primarily follows the form of storytelling theatre; a lot of monologues strung through different ‘scenes’, interspersed with some moments of musical theatre and nods to Live Art. It’s been mistakenly described as stand-up before, as people do find it quite funny and I am standing up for significant periods.

CM: What is the show about? Does it have a linear narrative?
HM: It’s about my family’s superlative amateur dramatics heritage – at the helm of the Welwyn Thalians Musical And Dramatic Society through 90 years and four generations. There’s a glut of material already from unpicking that legacy. But more than that it’s about my relationship to that lineage; to my family, my home town – Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire – and the absurd and adorable tropes of amdram and classic musical theatre.

The story is strung along this idea of a train journey to and from WGC from London, where I live now. It jumps around in time a bit, but focuses mainly on 2010, the year of my last appearance with the Thalians in ‘My Fair Lady’. I wanted to be Freddie, failed to get Eliza, and ended up as Harmonising Servant Number Four. Though it’s ridiculously specific to me, it does hopefully have some wider resonances about how your relationship to where you’re from changes when you leave, and how that distance gets harder to bridge as you get older. Particularly for lefty queers such as myself.

CM: So to what extent is it autobiographical?
HM: It’s totally autobiographical, though a friend’s mum recently saw the show and wondered if it was fiction. I don’t think you could make it up. I talk a lot in the show about the different feelings I experience when I take the train back home – a general anxiety about being a gender-nonconforming person about to walk through a town centre in a Tory heartland; a less tangible sort of ‘hardening’, being on the look-out for small-town-mindedness; an arrogance and disdain for suburbia, justifying my moving away. I’m still keenly aware of those emotions whenever I take that journey.

CM: What themes do you explore through the show?
HM: Different kinds of distances. Between suburbia and city, ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ art, younger and older generations, queer cabaret and, I don’t know… panto? It’s about mapping those distances with humour, nostalgia, criticism, frustration, musical theatre references, 236 train tickets, and finding a kind of reconciliation and harmony in that distance.

CM: What made you want to create a show tackling this subject? What inspired its creation?
HM: I didn’t really want to make this show. I want to make shows about the pressing questions of our riven political moment. I just had to make this one first. Get this story about Welwyn, and Mum, and Nan, and Peter Farrell – the pianist – out of my system. Before I forget what that world felt like, and that I loved it before I laughed at it.

CM: What was your creative process: did you sit down and write it, or was it more complicated than that?
HM: I’ve been writing snippets of the monologues since 2015 for various scratch nights in London. I was then lucky enough to get onto the Starting Blocks artist development programme at Camden People’s Theatre in 2017, through which I created half an hour of stuff. I don’t think I would have finished the show without their support.

I thought about what I wanted to explore and what references I could make and connections I could draw and moments I could create, tried some of it, binned most of it. Every time I made something new I showed it to some queer art pals in London AND to the Thalians – before their rehearsals for ‘Pirates Of Penzance’. I wanted to make sure it would mean something to people who knew nothing about amdram but would still entertain the community it was about, with any jesting staying warm.

CM: What made you decide to bring the show to Edinburgh?
HM: Masochism.

CM: Hmm… but how has the run gone so far? Are you, um, enjoying being here? What do you enjoy (if anything) about the Fringe?
HM: The run’s going fine. I have had some nice reviews and very nice audiences. I can’t decide if I’m enjoying being here. I’m not not enjoying it. I’ve decided I will definitely look back on it fondly, and that will do.

I love that I’m in Edinburgh. This city is so astoundingly beautiful. With all the manic flyering, doing shows, seeing shows, lager in plastic cups, walking, Twitter, cough syrup and anxiety, there are still these moments when you get that late sun in the cloud-scudded sky over those proud stone town houses and you think maybe this isn’t the worst month of your life.

CM: Have you been to see other shows? Is there anything you would recommend?
HM: I tend to only like things my friends are in. This is a hangover from my amdram upbringing, I think. As such: ‘Ginger Johnson’s Happy Place’, ‘Oh Yes Oh No’, ‘Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats’, ‘Moot Moot’, ‘Your Sexts Are Shit’, ‘Kill The Princess’, ‘Baubo Goddess of Filth’, ‘Post Popular’, Scottee’s ‘Fat Blokes’ and ‘I’m A Phoenix, Bitch’. And if you missed ‘Tricky Second Album’ you have my sympathies.

CM: It sounds like your relationship with performance goes back a long way, of course, but did you always want to be a performer for your job? Did you always think this would be your career?
HM: I was dead set on attending Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and being a human rights lawyer, until I was seventeen. Then my school came first in the 58th Welwyn Youth Drama Festival and I veered off to study Contemporary Performance at Queen Mary, University of London. This was of course a foolhardy decision and I regret it to this day.

No, of course I’m very happy where I am and with the experiences I have had these past few years. I am also very tired and poor but I think that’s supposed to be part of the fun or an inevitable side effect of sustaining freelance employment in an arts industry skewed in the favour of institutions by venture capitalism and Conservative governments. I do have fun, though.

CM: Where do you see yourself headed, career-wise? Your CV is pretty eclectic – is there any one thing you prefer? Are there other avenues you’d like to explore?
HM: I think it’s healthy to not have a ‘thing you want to be’ kind of ambition. Because then you will only ever end up either being that thing, or not being that thing, and both options are unthinkably awful. I definitely want to keep making things and writing things, and to be able to fully support my extravagant lifestyle through that would be wonderful. I’m just going to try and do things with slightly more deftness and aplomb with each new project.

Though how old is Sandi Toksvig now?

CM: What’s next for this show? Do you have plans to perform it elsewhere?
HM: I’ve got some Rural Touring gigs with Creative Arts East in the autumn to spring next year. Tooling around village halls which should be a right laugh. The show is back at Camden People’s Theatre for a week at the end of November and I’m hoping to do some regional touring in 2020. Maybe even some international gigs? Here’s hoping. Though at some point I would really like to stop talking about my mother onstage.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after the Fringe?
HM: Sleep. And then I’m working with my uncle – playwright Glyn Maxwell) – on this nonsensical parlour game / performance / podcast called ‘Best Day Ever’. We’re still piloting it at the moment but it’s definitely going to be on Dave really soon, unfortunately.

‘I, AmDram’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2019.