Who’s An Amateur? Shows for Days and The Evolving Definition of “Professional”
There’s confusion at the heart of Shows for Days, the new play currently at Lincoln Center written by Douglas Carter Beane that stars Patti LuPone as the diva-in-charge of a theatre in Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s a confusion visited upon the theatre in general these days.
Michael Urie, as the stand-in for the playwright, explains how at age fourteen he first learned about theatre when he stumbled upon this “amateur troupe.” We see Urie both as the adult narrator and as the teenager who enters the former hat store that has become the (fictitiously named) Prometheus Theatre. Within minutes he is put to work painting the set. Within hours, he is pressed into service as the Butler in the Philip Barry play opening that night, because the actor who normally plays the role can’t get a ride into town. Within weeks, he’s ordered to write a play for the company—his first.
Much of the humor in the play (and some of the horror) involves the lengths to which Patti LuPone’s character Irene goes to keep the Prometheus Theatre not just alive but on fire, all the time kvetching about her lot in life: “But for the curse of my loveless marriage, I’m stuck here amongst the Amish trying to put on Ionesco.” She is full of dubious pronouncements about Art. “There are no enemies when it comes to people who do theatre,” she tells Car (Urie), when talking about a rival. “There are assholes we refuse to work with, but never enemies.”
Shows for Days is a largely loving portrait of a group of oddballs, misfits, and dangerous narcissists who band together to do what Beane explicitly labels community theatre. The playwright even works into the script a quotation from Tennessee Williams:
Community theatres have a social function, and it is to be that kind of an irritant in the shell of their community…Eliminate them, however—bully them into conformity—and nobody in America will ever be really young any more and we’ll be left standing in the dead center of nowhere.
Beane took this from an essay by Williams that serves as the introduction in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton: And Other One-act Plays. It is Williams’ valentine, written in the 1950s, to his own apprenticeship in the 1930s at a community theatre called the Mummers in St. Louis, and it is worth quoting more of it than Beane does in his play:
Most of [the Mummers] worked at other jobs besides theatre. They had to, because The Mummers were not a paying proposition…Many of them were fine actors. Many of them were not….I guess it was all run by a kind of beautiful witchcraft. It was like a definition of what I think theatre is. Something wild, something exciting, something that you are not used to. Off-beat is the word….They put on bad shows sometimes, but they never put on a show that didn’t deliver a punch to the solar plexus…
Looking at Williams’ description of a community theatre from the 1930s—and Beane’s dramatization of a community theatre in the 1970’s—one feels forced to ask: How are these community theatres different from most theatres in 2015 that call themselves professional? And that’s the confusion: Where is the line between the professional and the amateur these days? Does it exist?
The recalibration of amateur and professional is playing out in the theatre in at least three ways:
1. Would Shakespeare even have understood the concept of a “day job”? He wrote plays to make a living. In the last century, theatre artists worked day jobs until they were able to make a living with their art—Tennessee Williams worked in a shoe warehouse; Arthur Miller was a ship fitter's helper in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But in an interview four years ago, Tony Kushner, who is surely the heir to such great American playwrights, said: “I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.” The day job has become such a necessity for theatre artists that some have turned it into an advantage: Having a day job, actor and playwright Melissa Bergstrom wrote in HowlRound recently, helps her not just to gain financial stability “but on a deeper artistic level, having a day job has thrown me headfirst in the world in which I live.”
Would Shakespeare even have understood the concept of a ‘day job’? He wrote plays to make a living.
Last week thirty-three-year-old playwright Samuel D. Hunter, author of A Bright New Boise and The Whale, and a recipient of a generous MacArthur Fellowship, said in response to my question to him in the weekly HowlRound Twitter chat: “When I started out I never expected [playwriting] to make me any money. When it started to it was a complete surprise. I’m actually glad that I made that assumption. It allowed me to not resent it when it didn’t make money.”
Given the economic reality, don’t we have to come up with a definition of “theatre professional” that doesn’t exclude people who make their living in other ways?
2. Whether or not theatre criticism is dying, or actually expanding, it is certainly changing. As I’ve pointed out, when at a recent conference, the chairman of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the only national organization of American theatre critics, asked the members how many made their living entirely as a critic, only three out of the fifty present raised their hands. Are the ones who kept their hands in their laps no longer professional critics? How will publicists determine who gets free press tickets?
3. The Public Theater’s new season will begin in September with an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, conceived and directed by Public Works Director Lear deBessonet, which they’re calling a “community event”—it will include performers from community theatres across the city. Last year Public Works staged something similar with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, featuring “over 200 actors and community members.”
So, it seems “community theatre” is being incorporated into “professional theatre.” Involving the community is the lauded aim of many professional theatres, or at least a generally accepted buzzword. So, what distinguishes the two?
It’s not apparently a salary, if “professional theatre” can encompass such companies as the Bats, the actors who work without pay at The Flea Off-Off Broadway. Is it quality? Seriousness of purpose? Membership in “professional” organizations?
Given the economic reality, don’t we have to come up with a definition of ‘theatre professional’ that doesn’t exclude people who make their living in other ways?
Twink Lynch of the American Association of Community Theatre tells us that one Louise Burleigh coined the term “community theatre” in 1917, and suggests it was part of a movement that protested against the feebleness of commercial drama. Don’t most regional and not-for-profit theatres position themselves in much the same way today? Why don’t they call themselves community theatres? You might as well ask why they don’t call themselves amateur.
A few years ago, Sky Arts in the United Kingdom put on a show called Nation’s Best Am-Dram. Even the British couldn’t bring themselves to say “amateur,” substituting a cringe-inducing term as the label for 2,500 companies that present some 30,000 productions every year.
Shows for Days didn’t work for me at the end, collapsing into a melodramatic mix of betrayal, sexual scandal, and mendacity. Most implausible of all, there’s a climactic conflict over “selling out,” pitting pure art against compromise and commercialism. These are theatre people who take their storefront theatrics with deathly seriousness—with professional seriousness, as is made clear near the end, when Irene explains she has a terminal illness. Her main gripe doesn’t seem to be that she’s dying, but that her prognoses vary so widely, one giving her as much as five years, another as little as fourteen weeks. “Oh these doctors are such amateurs!”
Want to discuss this topic further? Join the Weekly Howl Twitter chat, Professional vs. Amateur: What’s the Difference? on Thursday, July 23 from 2-3pm EDT on #howlround.
Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of every month. Find his previous pieces here.