In a three-part series, Danielle Rosvally investigates the meaning of “professional” and “amateur” theater, and proposes a model to encourage healthy dialogue between the two.

heart with all you need is love written on itIn my last post I proposed a working definition of “professional” theater. Now, I’ve reached the practical consideration of my theoretics. I began this project with one large guiding question: how can professional theater-makers maintain a healthy relationship with amateur theater? This conundrum, though seemingly superlative, manifests itself for the individual as a relevant and actable quandary: what is a professional theater-maker to do when he finds himself working on an amateur project?

The answer takes two forms which employ the same core techniques, simply considered from two different angles. The approach of a pro theater maker to an am project depends heavily upon the manner in which the professional was engaged with the project.

Contracted workers, individuals recruited to a project, lured via monetary recompense or otherwise, must ensure that the first word of their job description remains intact: “contract.” Most ill feelings about working in theater could be resolved by a kind but frank discussion between an artist and a producing organization, especially if this producing organization is a personal friend of the artist.  

Too often, we think of contracts as being directly linked to money. If no invoice exchanges hands, we assume that no contract is needed (or required). I think that we should re-examine this. Even if nothing goes into writing (though it should be noted that putting an agreement in writing is the best way to ward off potential future troubles regarding that agreement), a verbal contract can go a long way.

Here’s why: the professional worker must always be certain of the expectations upon his time and resources and this is doubly true in the case of a “for love” amateur project. In order for this to occur, especially due to the mercurial (and sometimes volatile) nature of the rehearsal process, these expectations must be discussed beforehand.  

When an individual or organization makes a monetary donation, that donation is carefully inventoried. In the case of professional labor, the donation of time is, essentially, a monetary one. Simply because we don’t charge a project for our labor, it should not devalue that labor. By creating an inventory, the artist can be clear with the project what he can afford to give, and the project can understand what they should expect to receive. Amateur companies must keep in mind that employing a professional (especially without pay) is equivalent to requesting a donation.  It is in poor form to ask any donating party for more than they are readily willing to provide.

In your pre-chat (or, better yet, contract) remember to outline these particulars: how much rehearsal time will be asked of the professional? What “extras” will he be expected to participate in (strike, load-in, build, etc.)? If he is a performer, what will his call time be during performance? What kind of support should he be expected to have from the company (by way of provided makeup, provided costumes, provided hair services, etc.)?  Do not hesitate to outline, to the last detail, the expectations of the company. This could save a great deal of headache and heartache should the situation go awry in the ensuing months.

Theater is stressful, and (especially in the amateur world where jobs get done when volunteers have time and resources to do them) often changing. This can create a great deal of undue friction between artists and producers. Remember that the procedures of a company which seem transparent to regular company members can, to outsiders, remain obscure. Know what you’re getting into.

If you volunteer for an amateur production, make sure that you know the facts (and I mean all the facts) before going in. As I have previously mentioned, an audition is an implied contract. There’s no harm in asking questions at the audition to find out how the company does business (chances are the audition monitor is a company member and, thereby, knows a few things). Google the company; see what their established web presence is like.  If you can’t get answers before the audition, make sure you have them before you accept the part.

Better to ask questions now than to have troubles down the line. Remember that a bad rehearsal situation not only affects you, but also the people around you. If you are not happy, your performance is going to reflect that. A poor performance and/or stressful rehearsal experience does a disservice to yourself, your scene partners, and anyone who has donated their time to the show.

In both cases, the key is to be kind, but firm and clear. Think about how many hours a week you are willing and able to give to the project and stick to that upper limit. You are a volunteer and, while the axiom dictates that the show must go on, you don’t necessarily need to. If the time you have to devote to a project is not enough to do it justice, know when to say “no.” This can be extremely difficult, especially when the recruiter is a friend, the role is a dream, or the opportunity is otherwise good.

But remember that this amateur project is something that the rest of the cast/team is doing for fun in their free time. As such, they deserve the best experience they can get. If you are an absent member of the team, you can really hurt everyone else’s chance at producing a successful product and, by extension, hurt your own public professional image. Remember that this is your job. While your product can be damaged by a bad production, the rest of the cast has much less at stake.

As in any good relationship, communication is key. If you and the company can honestly discuss the tough or uncomfortable issues, chances are you can work through them.  Always remember that your time is valuable, your product is worthwhile, and protecting that integrity should be your top priority both for yourself and for the community at large.