Letting the Love Love You

Navigating the Gray Areas of a Love or Money Industry; Part Two: What is “Love”?

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.

 

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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.

 

Neither money nor quality alone are sure-fire indicators of the boundary between “amateur” and “professional.”

 

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.

 

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A series examining the meaning of "professional" and "amateur" theatre, and proposes a model to encourage healthy dialogue between the two.

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I appreciate where you're going with this definition, and I agree with most of it, but as a professional I keep getting stuck on an intangible quality: respect. I think union contracts or payment are tangible metrics of this, but can't be taken in an either/or manner. I worked with a small theatre here in Seattle, for instance, that prided itself on SAG and Equity affiliations, but, due to misreading of tax law, refused to offer any kind of contract and paid artists based on box office yield, which was always small, putting all marketing and fundraising in the hands of the actors and crew, where it manifestly does not belong. Later I worked with another company that focused on building a strong board and donor base so they could offer financial support n some form to artists they worked with. They never had union affiliations, and never sought any. From personal experience, I don't think union affiliation alone is a good metric of respect and professionalism, but the process behind gaining or having those credentials would be.

I agree with Jeff Wolf Zinn that intention is a bright line between professionals and amateurs. Growing up, I did a lot of work with local community theaters, and the word "professional," to them, meant "excellence." They had no intention of being a truly professional theater, but when people walked into the lobby they wanted the whole experience--from dealing with the box office through enjoying the show--to feel just like it might at a professional theater. It was a point of pride, but not at all a real-world designation. We were all butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers (and high school students) first and foremost. They were not applying for NEA grants or joining TCG or doing outreach inside the local professional community--they were coming together to make the best damn show they could pull off. That was the satisfaction of it. That was as far as it had to go. As a kid aspiring to indeed be a theater professional someday, it was a great atmosphere. People really cared to do the best work they could for an audience of their family and friends. Again--no serious audience development and outreach. It was a community theater: it already had a community! And it was happy to stay inside that.A few years into my playwriting career, I was introduced to the head of community theater in the DC area. He wanted to do an original play, and he made it very clear to me that it had to be "a world premiere." And he intended to bill it as such. If I was confronted with this request now, I'd probably engage in a conversation and ask him why it was important to him that his community theater do a world premiere and did he see his theater transitioning to a professional standing? Being young and thrown quite off guard by this adamant demand, I just smiled, nodded, and made vague noises about looking up his theater. Because that's ridiculous, isn't it? Is it? I thought so. I thought that crossed the line, making a professional demand in an amateur setting. Giving a theater one's world premiere is fraught enough in the professional world. Why would I let a community theater trumpet the world premiere of one of my plays? How the heck would I ever get it produced again? I don't think this man realized what he was asking for--because he was not, in fact, a theater professional in any sense.

Cape Cod, where I have made my personal and artistic home for 25 years, has many theater companies (more than 20 at last count) some that proudly call themselves “community” theaters and some that are – or claim to be – “professional.” As the longtime artistic director of one of those (Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater or WHAT) that deliberately shed the community theater tag early in its history, I have given a lot of thought to this subject: what is the essential difference between the two designations?

Money has little to do with the matter in my opinion. There are theater companies and individuals who are making (or distributing) very little money and yet succeed at the highest levels of professionalism. The new Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet is a great example. The 6 founders, each wearing too many hats as they go about the business of creating and administrating, are surely not making more than a subsistance living, if that, and are charging just $20 per ticket for admission which is less than some local community theaters. They do operate on an AEA contract since they are all union members. Clearly they are professionals.

I have concluded that the real division between professional and “community” theater comes down to the intention of the company in regards to how it serves the local audience. A true community theater exists for the purpose of providing a theatrical experience for members of the community. That is, it provides a platform for local amateurs to act, direct, design – sometimes even write – plays. These plays are then presented to the local audience who turn out to witness and share in the fruits of their neighbors’ efforts. These productions can be amazingly “professional” in their quality, but this is an accident and not quite the point of the enterprise. The essence of community theater is to provide the community with the opportunity to make theater. It is – or should be – entirely about that process. The result, the “product,” if you will, is not the point.

A ”professional” theater company exists for the purpose of providing the community with the best possible production. Regardless of how much money the actors, directors, writers, designers and technical staff actually earn for their labors (yes, they may do it for the love of it) the goal is to provide a first rate experience for the audience. They seek out the best artists they can find and set about making it happen. Sometimes in the young life of an aspirationally professional company we find union talent working under assumed names because the company is not yet able to forge those formal commitments with the union. This is not about “exploiting” the talent; there is no money for anyone, yet. Inevitably the transition will be made to full union status.

Sometimes there is confusion on the community theater level. The “accidental amazing” I described earlier is intoxicating and induces those in charge to attempt to capture that lightning in a bottle: no longer is casting done with the intention of providing that theatrical experience to the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. We look for “ringers” – ex or current pros who might be inveigled to join. This, in my opinion, is a violation of the community theatre mission.

I think this is a great distinction, Jeff, and goes back to a core issue with most theatres of all kinds - *What is your mission?* Most theatres use vague language in their mission about 'quality' that dodges the issue and then don't stick to what they're really about.

But a question - where would you place a theatre company that exists specifically to allow 'pro' artists to have a place to experiment, work and grow as their mission? That seems to split the difference here about being not about 'product' or audience first, but not being about a place for the 'butcher' to try out theatre either.

Is an artist playground where choices are made to let artists do their thing over the pure integrity of the product a 'professional company' or a 'community company'?

A professional company that focuses on process, despite not delivering a "product" to the community, is still serving that community in the same way a research scientist may not produce a usable drug for years and years. Which is not to say that a community theater could not also provide a lab for amateurs to experiment and grow as artists.

So then, really, is the distinction just the intention of the people creating the work? If they are working a day job but their intent is to be a professional artist, and they're working on their process, which will pay off later, that would make them professional - but if they are working a day job and self-identify with that, and are just doing theatre for 'fun' then it's not professional?

Whether someone chooses to think of themselves as a "professional" artist is rather personal and subjective and has little to do with the necessity for a day job. I'm reminded of a recent interview with David Sedaris on "Fresh Air" where he told Terry Gross of his early days as a writer while cleaning houses for a living. One activity had little to do with the other.