You’re in the Profession, But Are You a ‘Professional’?

01.28.11 | 2 Comments

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You’re in the profession, but are you a ‘professional’?

I like to read mission statements.  In particular, I find it interesting to compare how a company self-identifies against what kind of work it programs.  Just recently, however, while reading the mission, vision, and plans of Fusion Theatre in New Mexico, I found myself taken with something else—the extensive emphasis on the equation between ‘professional’ theatre and Equity.

What makes a theatre company a ‘professional’ one? Are there degrees of professionalism within our profession?  Or is it settled—you’re either in or you’re out? Is the negotiation of AEA contracts the single greatest measure of a company’s professionalism? Or do other factors figure in determining a company’s ‘professional’ legitimacy, factors such as the following:

  • the education, training, and/or experience of members and affiliated artists;
  • the type, frequency, and/or quality (a somewhat subjective matter) of the work produced;
  • a designated performance space—a home base;
  • 501c3 status;
  • budget size, profit margins, wages, stipends, funding sources (state, federal, subscription, donation, other);
  • audience and critical affirmation;
  • artist and/or play development initiatives;
  • community and educational outreach programs;
  • something else?

Many new or indie companies do not have union contracts; does this preclude them from assuredly designating themselves ‘professional’ companies and relegate them to the status of other, non-professional, pro-amateur (the term Isaac Butler opts for in this June ’09 post on Parabasis), showcase (the term Jason Grote prefers over pro-am in Butler’s aforementioned post), or community theatre outfits?

The idea that a union contract is the barometer of a company’s professionalism rests on the premise that union membership is the measure of an individual actor’s professional status.  AEA, as well as UK and Irish equity, all avow that membership makes a positive statement about one’s commitment to the vocation and ensures international recognition of one’s ‘professional’ status in the industry.  Yet there are plenty of dedicated, talented, educated/trained/experienced, non-Union, working actors that, I believe rightly so, would identify as ‘professional’ actors.  In querying actors that fit this description in my immediate theatre community of South Florida, it becomes clear that AEA ties can limit one’s castability and that actors desirous and worthy of steady work may fair better by remaining non-Equity—a point that speaks to the geographic differences in the benefits of AEA.  When I asked the non-union actors with whom I spoke, all of whom I consider ‘professionals’, if they considered themselves ‘professionals,’ they provided a range of responses, from a confident ‘yes,’ to a modest ‘I don’t know. I’m definitely not an amateur,’ to skirting a label altogether.  While labels can be discriminatory, misleading, restrictive, and all-around sinister, they remain necessary for conveying a sense of identity. The ‘professional’ tag just so happens to be a particularly contentious one, especially in the theatre. The widespread emergence of specialized post-grad degrees in theatre has, no doubt, made the matter of theatre professionalism an even more complex matter.  Try telling someone with tens of thousands in student loans from an MFA or PhD program that he or she is still not a professional.  Yet, at the same time, many have argued that the academic institutionalization of theatre has simply given birth to another elitist membership system.

Most actors (both union and non-union) that I talked to felt, AEA aside, that the ‘professional’ tag should be reserved for those who earn enough from their work in the theatre to feed, clothe, and house themselves. While this post has focused on companies and actors, it can and should be extended to discussion of others in the field: designers, directors, dramaturgs, producers, stage managers, and, of course, playwrights. A Theater Development Fund study last year found that the average playwright earns $25,000 to $39,999 annually from all income sources, with 62 percent making less than $40,000 and nearly a third making less than $25,000.  Does professionalism in theatre, then, all come down to money?  And is this argument feasible in a time when so many people are barely able to support themselves through their work outside of the theatre?

In this post, I realize that I’ve posed many questions and offered virtually no answers. My aim is simply to (re)open this conversation so that we might further investigate the criteria with which we judge ourselves and others in our profession, taking into account the current conditions—economic, political, social, technological, and so on—of the world in which we live.  The conversation would also greatly benefit from more international perspectives: what constitutes theatre professionalism outside the U.S.?  As Kate Foy (http://twitter.com/dramagirl) has pointed out to me, in Australia there is no such thing as non-union, which, if I am understanding her correctly, makes the matter of union membership there a common denominator rather than an exclusive status marker such as it is here.  Bottom line: it’s complicated. Let’s discuss.

"The Spirit of Equity"

Photo credit: Ethel Barrymore, 1916 http://actorsequity.org/AboutEquity/timeline/timeline_firstyears.html

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Nicole Stodard

Nicole is Artistic Director of Thinking Cap Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, FL. She blogs at http://dramadaily.wordpress.com

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  • Pete Miller

    The word profession has been heavily fogged over the last few decades. It used to mean very specifically that the line of work was overseen by a self governing organization that certified, evaluated, and policed its members. Typically each profession had stated requirements for admission, conduct, and continuing professional education. Medicine with the AMA. Law with Bar Associations. The military with courts martial. In most cases, civic law also recognizes membership in one of these professions as permitting certain activities and lack of membership as forbidding certain activities.

    By that standard, making theater is not, nor should it probably ever be, a profession. Who wants the government to be able to fine or jail someone for making a play without a license? Who wants a board of experienced lighting designers voting on whether an aspiring lighting designer is allowed to aim lights? I think we’re all better off not having a strict profession.

    Over time, the word profession has broadened to refer to any line of work that the incumbent takes or is expected to take as seriously as if she or he were a professional. Practitioners are expected to have some academic preparation or extensive practical experience in lieu. They are expected to adhere to some code of conduct, understand some shared language and practices, and extend to other practitioners certain courtesies. In the spirit of the dignity of all humans and all work, there is a growing trend to view any work as a potential profession and to view a doctrinaire division of work into professional and non-professional as elitist.

    So I’m an elitist, because I do have a bit of a “Know it when I see it” division between professional and community theatre. I think theatre is professional if most of the involved artists have material academic preparation, if at least some compensation (whether a ludicrously small union scale wage or a basically-refunding-transit-fare non-union stipend) is given, and if the people producing the work are generally recognized by other practitioners in the community as professional. This is a haphazard characterization I know, but in my experience, I’m likely to get a much more satisfying performance out of a production where these things are true than one where they are not, so it is a distinction that matters to me.

  • I really like Pete’s last para and am in agreement with it, and I’ll repost here what I commented on Nicole’s Facebook page (which I added a little more to):

    AEA should not be allowed to totally co-opt the label professional solely for their membership. Case closed. Until they find a way to adequately balance major hubs against smaller regions, they are shooting themselves in their own foot and only further perpetuating bias that there’s New York, the few other major markets like Chicago and so on, then everything else. It’s shortsighted in today’s world and frankly I believe their tactics do more harm than good.

    I have tried for years to work with them in Florida and I’ve been given no other impression than that they simply do not care. As a producer I sometimes hire AEA talent, but it’s a huge strain and really only feasible in a cast of 2 or 3.

    As a professional actor, I dropped all ties with them years ago because of the way they treat a state like Florida. I couldn’t even find a way to work on shows I was producing myself trying to get a theater company started. No thanks.