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


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 ( 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

  • January 28, 2011
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