This piece was written in response to the conversation around the definition of “professional” theatre prompted by Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece, Shows for Days.

Hi. My name is Eli Keel. I do community theatre.

I grew up in a theatre family. My earliest memories are of falling asleep curled up in a theatre seat, listening to my mom, the director, give notes after a run.

My parents worked in a string of academic and community based theatres throughout my childhood—the Gingerbread Playhouse, Coffee High school's tiny drama program, Paducah Community College, the Youth Performing Arts School, and dozens of other companies and schools.

Sometimes they did theatre for money, sometimes they did it for love, and eventually all of my siblings and I ended up doing theatre, too.

And by God, whether we were getting paid or not, we considered ourselves professionals.

Our behavior, our standards, the way we were taught to always show up fifteen minutes early, always warm up, and always have pencil: this is what made us professionals.

I couldn't have described it then, but the word itself was a talisman. Professional. Sure, my mom taught English classes, my dad worked odd jobs between building sets, and it would no doubt take a team of detectives, a certified accountant, and a time machine to figure out if the majority of my parents' income over the years came from theatre. But the word meant something.

The social sciences have the phrase "achieved identity" to describe how people come to see themselves throughout their lives. Achieved identity is incredibly important to people, emotionally   and psychologically.

I do my best to respect others' achieved identity, and for actors, authors, and artists all over the world, "professional" is deeply rooted in how they see themselves.

But not me. Not anymore. Somewhere in my twenties I flaked out. In terms my parents would have used, I became "undependable," which in my house was the direst, most horrible thing you could say about a theatre person.

The exact journey is unimportant, but I quit doing theatre for about five years. I realized I was never going to be famous. I was never going to be rich. My relationship with rejection would probably keep me from even ever really making my money off theatre, or dance, or writing.

I was not a professional. This tore away a fundamental part of my achieved identity. And it hurt like hell.

In the absence of theatre, I became more interested in communities; social justice communities, business communities, the non profit community, and the child care community. I made my living doing other things.

One day I realized I missed doing theatre, and I started going to auditions again. But I didn't stress it too much.

an actor in a stunt on stage
Eli Keel as Richard, and Joe Hatfield as Tom in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's  Hunter Gatherers. Production by Theatre[502], photo by Bill Brymer.

I still do all the things my parents taught me were the hallmarks of a professional. I show up early, I warm up. I usually remember to bring a pencil.       

But I'm not a professional.

I started writing again. I work hard, I turn in drafts, and my plays are getting produced around town.

But I'm not a professional.

Weirdly, I am now making much of my income as a theatre and cultural critic in my chosen town of Louisville, Kentucky. I'm getting some small paid theatre gigs, too. I'm making more money off theatre than I ever did as "a professional."

But I'm not a professional.

Somewhere in there I realized that the word "professional" had become toxic to me over the years. The amount of self-shaming I did for the money I was or wasn't making as a "professional" had contributed to a downward spiral, until, halfway through my junior year in a liberal arts college, I realized I was never going to be a professional and sat in the public stairwell of the Creative Arts Center for half an hour and cried.

And I do my best to respect the achieved identities of the theatre professionals around me. The word is still important to many of them. Sometimes they change it to “semi-professional,” and I hear students and academics call it “pre-professional.” “Pro-sumer” is a combination of “professional” and “consumer” that I suspect is really only used by advertisers. But if you wanna call yourself that, mazel tov.

This isn't about me criticizing people who self-identify in any of those ways. Happy creating to each of you.

But professional is a word that hurt me, and communities are the things that healed me.

Not for nothing, but we are living in an age when we get to choose our communities. I could be a sports fan, or a gamer, or build houses for Habitat for Humanity, or a zillion other things. But my real friends, my chosen family, my loved ones, they almost all do theatre. Many of them get paid. Many of them don't. The ones that don't make theatre are board members, boosters, donors, and most importantly, an audience.

That's my community.

If I continue to make money writing about theatre, or if I make more money as an actor, or if I start getting paid for my theatre writing, I will still proudly say:

My name is Eli Keel. I do community theatre.