How do we define professional when it comes to theatre or, more broadly, the performing arts in general?
It’s a question I’ve tussled with on many occasions and one where I find myself constantly refining and changing my answer. If we look to dictionaries, they tend to define professional as being the level or standard of competence expected of a professional, which means professional work in theatre is about the quality of the work.
But, for most theatre makers, professional is about being paid. You can profess your love for your chosen profession, train in it, improve your skills, collaborate with like-minded theatre makers and put on quality shows but if you don’t see a cent for your efforts then it’s a passion rather than a profession.
For me, I think professions have to involve payment for skills and expertise. In Australia we tend to categorise theatre as professional, pro-am or independent and amateur.
Professional theatre normally pays its artists at least the Equity award rate. It often recognises longevity, skill and years of service by paying higher rates for longer established artists.
Pro-am, independent or profit-share companies tend to be unfunded companies or collectives of artists working for nothing but with an intent to pay everyone involved. This means if the show makes money, that money will be split between the artists.
Amateur companies normally don’t pay their artists and any money made in the production goes to the company rather than the performers.
Things get blurry because a professional actor might work in all three sectors in one year and an amateur company might employ a star for a show and pay them while everyone else in the show works for nothing.
When I go to the theatre, the most important thing in my mind is the quality of the work. But I do find that I pre-judge shows depending on where they sit on the scale of amateur to professional.
I find myself in a conundrum. I want my artisans to be paid. I don’t want to buy clothes that have come from a sweatshop. And yet I’m quite happy to go to shows where I know that no one involved has been paid a cent and most have had to forego income to be involved. I want to support those artists for their dedication and effort. But if we keep seeing excellent, professional quality theatre created with blood, sweat and tears and not a drop of finance, then does that make that the norm?
My concern is that funding bodies and professional theatres who include unpaid, independent work in their seasons will come to think they don’t need to pay artists when they can get the passion, dedication and professionalism for free.
I know many of us create theatre for the love of it, but all love and no money adds up to burnout in my book.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d like to know how you define professional and amateur and whether you think the distinctions are still important in the performing arts today or if it’s just a matter of semantics…