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.

Sign reading: Love? What is it?

The biggest issue with the theatrical gray area discussed in my first post is the lack of an accepted definition of “professional” in theater. Such a definition must engage with many conversations and must address two important facets of the term: as applied to an individual, and as applied to a project/organization. Melissa Hillman recently posited a working definition that deals with both these facets: “‘theater professionals’ are people who have made theatermaking their lives, and ‘professional theaters’ are the companies that are staffed with those people.” Hillman’s definition, while a starting point, requires some expansion.

In the Boston area alone, there are several community theaters which would fall within her parameters of “professional”; these theaters are run by dedicated staff of long-term volunteers, some of whom have made theater their “life” but not their vocation. Herein is the distinction we must establish: we need a definition that will more clearly delineate where “life” ends and “vocation” begins.

To address the simpler facet of the issue first; to me there is no trouble with an individual self-identifying as a “professional theater-maker.” So long as the individual is realistic about his level of involvement (and the serious artist generally has to be), he has the necessary qualification to declare his vocational status. Though this may seem haphazard, consider that there is less at stake in the individual definition than the organizational one.

One person mislabeling himself as a “professional” will perhaps create trouble in the short-term, but because of the insular nature of the theater community this individual’s reputation will quickly catch up with him. He then has two options: either relinquish his claim to professional status, or adjust his behavior to suit his desired designation. Either way, the integrity of individual professionalism remains in the hands of the individual to protect.

While slightly more complicated for designers/backstage personnel (vocations which require quantifiable trade skill and specific training), the “looks like a duck” model still works. If a designer can fulfill his job obligations and has the portfolio to back his claims to “professionalness” (keeping in mind that, especially for new designers, previous experience does not always necessarily mean previous professional experience), he has a right to claim professional status.

But what about the organization? How can we discern levels of “professional” in instances of larger projects/groups? Hillman points out many of the troubles with conventional determining factors. She concludes, through a process of induction, that neither money nor quality alone are sure-fire indicators of the boundary between “amateur” and “professional.”

I would like to posit a new model to help determine this boundary. This model is based on a series of credentials.

There are two “trump” or cardinal credentials. If either is true of a project or organization, that entity is unavoidably professional:

  • Union or trade organization affiliation/recognition (be it AEA, LORT, IATSE, etc.): Does an entity have a formal relationship with a recognized union or trade organization?
  • Monetary transaction: Is money exchanged between an artist and the production company? I should note an individual case pertinent to this credential: when a professional theater-maker is hired to work on an amateur project. But there are instances when a show will bring in one or several professionals and pay those individuals for the contract while the rest of the cast remains unpaid. This instance, clearly outside of my paradigm, is difficult to define within any set of neatly applied standards. Generally, if payment is involved, the project will also conform to my secondary set of qualifications. When in doubt, those can certainly be applied as a crosscheck, but borderline cases like this may have to remain exceptions which prove the rule.

If a project or entity doesn’t exhibit either of the cardinal qualifications, it isn’t necessarily unprofessional. A show or company can also fulfill professional standing credentials if it meets two out of three secondary requirements:

  • Comportment of the project/company according to accepted standards of professionalism: is it being run on pre-established, written-down rules (whether those rules are equity rules or house rules)? Is it fully staffed as per standard theatrical practice? Do the individuals who hold power behave with professionalism and expect the same of those around them?
  • Pre-contract: Did participants sign any agreement about the amount of time they are expected to put into a project, the rules of engagement with the project, or recompense for the project? This qualification extends to intention; if the company intends the production to be “professional,” that intention (once communicated to the artists involved with the project) becomes an implied contract requiring standards of professional behavior and engagement.
  • History of the performance space/production company: is the project or company utilizing space traditionally dedicated to professional enterprises? This may extend to non-conventional spaces; there are certainly coffee shops and restaurants that regularly host professional entertainment. How about the producing entity, is it normally dedicated to professional productions, or is it an amateur venture? If the company is a new company, what does their mission statement look like? Do they have a polished website with its own domain name?  Have they filed for appropriate legal status as a business entity? In the case of a new company, this third qualification falls very closely in line with “intentions” and “pre-contract.” The key difference is action: what have they already done, and what are they intending to do?

Professionalism is a ground-up enterprise. Ideally, a professional project would meet all of my qualifiers, but the world does not always function on ideals. This model also can’t hope to cover every single niggling instance; there will be exceptions (I’ve already given an example of at least one). It can, I hope, provide a firm basis upon which to stage discussions and utilizing it to do so will be central to developing a healthy relationship between amateur and professional theater-makers in the world at large.