A Different Kind of Professional
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one astounded at Arena Stage’s effort to broadcast their New Play Convening, held this past January, online. I was incredibly heartened by Arena’s desire to make the convening an accessible and inclusive conversation. Which is why I was all the more troubled by a trend I noticed in the various articles, interviews, and manifestos the convening inspired: the ubiquitous use of the term “pro-am,” which is meant to describe people who create art but make a majority of their income in another profession.
As soon as I read the term, it felt exclusionary to me. It felt like a reminder to the many theater artists who might consider their work to be of “professional” quality that they are not in fact “professionals.” To be sure, theater artists and administrators don’t always employ pro-am in order to exclude. In her essay Theater of the Future, Meiyin Wang affirms her belief that pro-am theater artists can “assault our traditional notions of cultural authority” thereby transforming our values as a community. Yet I still wince every time I read the term. And when I read Ronald McCants’ An Endangered Playwright of Los Angeles on HowlRound, I immediately understood why. In his article, McCants asks if he just completed an MFA “in a hobby” because he’s been unable to pay his bills writing plays. I had the same reaction to McCants’ use of “hobby” as I have to the use of “pro-am.” Each of those word choices implies a strictly capitalist definition of professional, one that only includes artists who pay their expenses solely from their art. Why are we still giving capitalism such power in shaping our definition of theater professional? Especially when capitalism is so antithetical to how most theaters in the U.S. operate? So antithetical to the real conditions within which we generate theater in the U.S.?
Neo-liberal capitalist societies such as the contemporary U.S. are founded on the belief that markets are the best tool for determining the value of a good or service. Yet most theaters in the U.S. are not-for-profit entities created out of the recognition that we as an industry can no longer say profit is the best indicator of artistic quality. Not-for-profit arts institutions still rely on ticket sales for revenue because they must grapple with the larger capitalist society to which they belong. But those same not-for-profit institutions were founded, as NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman said at the same convening, out of a desire "to work outside the exigencies of the box office … to do work that otherwise wouldn't exist." Our industry created not-for-profit theaters to shield artists from the fickle nature of markets. Even the processes by which we generate theater in the U.S. run counter to the very fabric of capitalism.
If so much about theater in the U.S.—including institutional missions and the processes by which we generate work—is antithetical to capitalism, why do so many theater artists and administrators still rely on its assumptions when defining theater professional?
During my undergraduate study, my economics professors constantly reminded me that the capitalist countries that have historically experienced the most robust economic growth (and, therefore, most successfully employed capitalism) have had the strongest traditions of property rights: laws clearly delineating who owns what. These laws make the transactions that drive markets simple and easy. You can’t, after all, sell a product or idea if you don’t know it’s yours to sell. But the collaborative nature of theater makes it nearly impossible to determine who owns what ideas in a work. Take for example the debate about subsidiary rights gaining so much attention in the U.S. theater community. At its core, the controversy surrounding sub rights is about ownership. It is about who owns the various ideas that give life to a piece of theater.
The debate is so contentious because of how difficult it is to designate individual ownership over the different ideas in a theatrical work. And the sub rights controversy centers on playwright-driven work, on processes in which each collaborator has a clearly defined role. If it's so difficult to designate ownership of ideas in playwright-driven processes, imagine how difficult it is to do so in devised or ensemble-driven processes. Is it because the strictest definition of professional refers only to those who make a living from their chosen discipline? Are we afraid that applying the term to anyone else is misleading? When I consult dictionary definitions of professional, I do find “a person who earns a living in a sport or other occupation frequently engaged in by amateurs.” But I also find the simpler definition of “a person who is expert at his or her work.” And when I dig into the etymology of the term I find a more complex history.
The root for the word professional is the verb “profess” which originally meant, “to take a vow” of a religious nature. From profess we get the word “profession” meaning “occupation one professes to be skilled at.” It wasn’t until 1798 that professional became linked with remuneration and capitalism. The word professional historically connotes expertise, as well as someone who has chosen a certain discipline as her vocation. These connotations still hold true today. So when we use such a narrow definition of the word professional, do we risk inherently saying those who don’t pay their bills with their art aren’t experts? Or those who do pay their bills with their art inherently possess more skill and commitment to the field than those who do not? Are we comfortable using a definition of professional that inherently implies the book writer of a hit Broadway musical possesses more skill and commitment than someone who has dedicated their life to creating experimental work?
A rigidly capitalist definition of professional also begs the question of who fits such a definition. Take for example my own discipline of playwriting. Many of the most successful U.S. playwrights have to supplement their royalties with the steady salary and health benefits of a university teaching position. These include some of the most produced playwrights in the U.S., as well as playwrights who have won some of the most prestigious awards in the field. Only a handful of playwrights pay their bills solely from royalties and commissions. Is it useful, then, to employ a definition of theater professional that includes only a handful of playwrights while excluding so many of our nation’s most accomplished playwrights? Perhaps it is, if we can use such a rigid definition to draw attention to the economically challenging state of our profession. But is that the reason we continue to use our current definition of professional? I’m not saying we should ignore the very real constraints capitalism places upon our community. These constraints are ones we must reckon with every day. But that doesn’t mean we need to give capitalism such unchecked influence over the one thing we can truly control: how we define ourselves. It seems that, in using such a strictly capitalist definition of professional, we apologize for the fact that many expert theater artists don't pay their bills with their art. If, however, we use non-capitalist parameters when defining professional, we can make our use of the word a point of pride.
We can use it to proclaim our belief that many expert artists do not receive sufficient recognition or compensation for their important contributions to their communities. Of course, dispensing with a capitalist definition of theater professional opens up the thorny question of how exactly we should define the term. If we take the term professional to mean “expert,” how do we define expert? Is an expert someone who possesses a certain level of education in the field? Someone who has won a certain prize? Someone who has a certain amount of experience? Someone whom another expert labels as such? Or should we dispense with the word professional altogether? The word does have a two-hundred-year bond with capitalism. And, if the language we use inherently shapes our values as a community, do we, therefore, need new terminology to describe levels of artistic accomplishment? If so, what terminology should replace professional? How do we describe theater artists who are experts at their discipline? How do we describe artists who have decided to make the theater their vocation? I don’t know. But it’s a conversation well worth having.