Monthly Archives: March 2013

Playwrights of Color

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Lisa Kang and Dennis Yen in Impact Theatre’s production of Ching Chong Chinaman, by Lauren Yee, directed by Desdemona Chiang. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Like most producers, I’m looking for ways to increase diversity at my company. I’m guessing you are, too. So I put together (with the help of a bunch of awesome people, especially the excellent Sam Hurwitt) a list of playwrights of color from my neck of the woods, the San Francisco Bay Area. All of these playwrights have scripts ready and waiting for you to read, love, and produce repeatedly. There are even some musical theatre and opera composers included.

And just for fun, I included at the end a list of solo performers you should know about, too, just in case a funder gave you a fat wad of cash to bring one of these awesome people to your area.

If you have anyone to add, you can email me at bittergertrude@gmail.com and I’ll put their website on the list!

Hector Armienta

Jeannie Barroga

Eugenie Chan

Christopher Chen

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Christopher Chen

Paul S. Flores

Brian Freeman

Philip Kan Gotanda (Of course you already know his work!)

Imani Harrington

Chinaka Hodge

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Chinaka Hodge

Denmo Ibrahim

Robert Henry Johnson

Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Min Kahng

Cherylene Lee

JC Lee

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JC Lee

Charles Lewis III

Jeffrey Lo

Marisela Treviño Orta

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Marisela Treviño Orta

A. Rey Pamatmat

Geetha Reddy

Andrew Saito

Sean San Jose

Kirk Shimano

Octavio Solis

Michael Gene Sullivan

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Michael Gene Sullivan

Aimee Suzara

Ian Walker

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Ian Walker

Lauren Yee

Torange Yeghiazarian

Ignacio Zulueta

SOLO PERFORMERS:

Brian Copeland

Marga Gomez

Rhodessa Jones

Thao P. Nguyen

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Thao P. Nguyen

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When You Say “Weakens The Institution of Marriage,” You Sound Like An Idiot

equal

I don’t have a lot of patience for stupidity (perhaps you’ve noticed) so I have no quarter for the phrase “weakens the institution of marriage.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? In what specific ways will the INSTITUTION of marriage change when we have marriage equality? What specific weakness do you see in, say, Iowa that you don’t see in Alabama? How is marriage “weaker” in New York (third lowest divorce rate in the nation) than it is in Oklahoma (third highest)? YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW, so stop pretending that that phrase has any meaning whatsoever.

In discussions of marriage equality, “the institution of marriage” is a phrase that specifically refers to the ability of two consenting adults to enter into a legally-binding contract. The law has nothing to do with any church or religion anywhere. You can get “married” in every church, synagogue, mosque, and mandir in the nation, but unless you’ve been issued and then subsequently properly file a marriage license with your county, you are not legally married. “The institution of marriage” is ONLY a civil matter AS COVERED BY THE LAW, and the law is what we’re discussing here, not any religious doctrine.

So “the institution of marriage” is, essentially, two people signing a form and paying $50 to a county clerk who then gives those two people a different form, which those two people fill out later along with two witnesses and any rando licensed specifically for that purpose. The two people are considered “married” when that form is properly filed with the county and entered into the, I don’t know, googledoc or excel spreadsheet or whatever they use now to track these things.

How, specifically, does gender weaken that? Would issuing licenses to two women make the spreadsheet unresponsive? Would issuing licenses to two men make the paper more liable to tear? Are there only so many marriage licenses in the nation, and if TEH GAYS take them all, there will be none left for straight people? Where, specifically, does equality affect this process? SHOW ME WHERE. You can’t, because it’s a bullshit argument, and you KNOW IT. Where, specifically, is the “weakness” created by equality? Nowhere.

Out to destroy the institution of marriage through the twin powers of love and facial hair.

Out to destroy the institution of marriage through the twin powers of love and epic facial hair.

“No, I mean when they’re living married in the world and say they’re married and live together and get to file jointly and drop their kids off at school and we all just have to TAKE IT because they’re CRAMMING THEIR LIFESTYLE DOWN OUR THROATS so when THEY can be married instead of just US, it weakens the institution of marriage.” OK, first of all, no one is shoving anything down your throat just by existing. Secondly, you have no idea who is or is not legally married unless you’ve gone down to the courthouse and checked those records for yourself. The couple last weekend whose wedding you attended aren’t married if they burned the license instead of filing it (so you might want to check before you pay off the crystal decanter you put on the card).

Was this even on the registry?

Was this even on the registry?

Same sex couples exist and have always existed and will continue to exist both inside and outside the “institution of marriage.” Your experience of anyone’s relationship (including your own) is not in the least impacted by the existence of a legal contract, something you take their word for 9999 times out of 10,000 at any rate. When’s the last time you asked to see someone’s marriage license when they told you they were married? Whether that lesbian couple you see at preschool dropoff every morning is legally married or not makes no practical difference to you. You have no way of knowing what their legal status even IS without reviewing their documents. Their legal standing with each other is not visible to you, or experienced by you. Their legal standing with each other, therefore, cannot “weaken” anything for you.

Equality is what America is FOR. The purpose of the “land of the free” and “all men are created equal” is, you know, “freedom” and “equality.” You DON’T have the right to the “freedom” of living without LGBTs. First of all, IMPOSSIBLE (Your brother’s roommate is his boyfriend; your maiden aunt who’s lived with her “dear best friend” for 47 years is a lesbian; your pediatrician, five co-workers on your floor, and your personal trainer are all gay; your boss’s husband is transgender) and secondly, THIS:

The fact that you don’t WANT a certain group to have equal rights, for whatever reason, is not germane to this discussion. Your opinion about what impacts “the strength of the institution of marriage” is not germane to this discussion.

Nor is it Jermaine to this discussion.

Nor is it Jermaine to this discussion.

Nowhere in the constitution does it “define” marriage as “one man, one woman.” Shit, it doesn’t even do that in the BIBLE. Ask Abraham, Jacob, and David about “one man, one woman.”

I'm not even getting into Lot and his daughters. YOU'RE WELCOME. (Painting by Joachim Wtewael, 1595, entitled "Lot and his Daughters."

I’m not even getting into Lot and his daughters. YOU’RE WELCOME. (Painting by Joachim Wtewael, 1595, entitled “Lot and his Daughters.”)

Your OPINION about what rights a minority group should have, and whether that group should have rights equal to your own, is just not constitutionally relevant. It wasn’t for Loving v. Virginia, and it’s not for this.

There are well over 100,000 same sex couples in the US who are already married. If the “institution” of marriage were to “weaken” (and I still believe that YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT THAT EVEN MEANS WHEN YOU SAY IT) it would have happened long ago.

These two look particularly dangerous.

These two look particularly dangerous.

Stop pretending that marriage equality will have any effect on your life whatsoever. We all know you’re lying, you know you’re lying, and we know you know you’re lying. Now you know we know you know you’re lying.

SO KNOCK IT OFF.

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Why Your Play Was Rejected

rejection

I recently received a submission of a play we rejected not two months ago. The playwright attached it to an email directly to me (bypassing my new Literary Manager, the wonderful Lynda Bachman), which is fine. I generally just forward those to my LM unless I have a personal connection to the playwright or to the person sending me the play. But this email was different, and I hesitated long enough to read it, and, unfortunately, respond.

The playwright decided she was going to resubmit her play so soon after its initial rejection because she noticed that I had “replaced” my literary manager (our outgoing LM, Steve Epperson, left to pursue other career options, not because he was “replaced”), and believed that I would better understand her play because I was a woman.

You would imagine in that case the play would be about something specific to the female experience, but it was about writers and mythological characters. My vagina and I read the play together and were able to ascertain almost immediately why Steve had rejected the play: It had technical requirements that were outside of the physical capabilities of our idiosyncratic space and, more to the point, it was poorly written. The playwright showed some promise, to be sure, but the play had all the earmarks of a young writer’s early work– undifferentiated character voices, derivative narrative, clunky dialogue, privileging the “Big Idea” over the stories of the characters.

I gave her some feedback that was honest without being assholic (so I believed, anyway) and encouraged her to work on her craft and continue submitting to us. And of course she responded angrily, which is exactly why we don’t give feedback in rejection letters, even if we could. We receive between 300-400 unsolicited submissions a year, and we just don’t have the womanpower/manpower/level ten cleric power to give feedback to all of them. Then there’s the very real issue that not all feedback is created equal, and feedback you get from some random theatre company that has never met you and has no idea what your vision is or what you’re trying to accomplish with the play will be almost always useless (unless what you’re after is why that one specific company rejected your play).

And I really do understand the anger. It’s hard to be rejected, and playwrights are rejected over and over and over. I can understand why a playwright, in order to stay sane, would look for reasons like, “They rejected me because the LM doesn’t understand my work” in order to avoid having to think “Perhaps my play is not ready to be professionally competitive.”

Part of the problem is that theatres almost NEVER speak honestly to playwrights about why their work is rejected. So I’m going to, right now. If you’ve ever received a rejection letter, the reason is one or more of the following, I guarantee it.

I-Am-Awesome-Close-Up-e13461473446211. Your play is actually awesome, but not right for the company. We have very real limitations that we cannot avoid, such as tech limitations, space limitations, or financial limitations. Some of us have resident actors, and we need shows with solid roles for them. Perhaps your play is outside the theatre’s aesthetic, or outside the theatre’s mission. Maybe your play doesn’t fit well with the plays already selected for the season– perhaps it’s too close in tone or feel to the play already locked into the slot before or after the one for which it’s being considered. Perhaps another theatre company in our area just did a play almost exactly like yours. You would be AMAZED at how many awesome plays get passed over for practical reasons like these. It happens to me multiple times, every single season.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Hang in there. Believe me, when we find a gem that we can’t stage, we’re whoring it out to other companies trying to get someone else to stage it. I’ve done that with tons of scripts. I just sent four out today, in fact, plus two last week. You can also research theatre companies online to see what kinds of plays they do, what their missions are, and what their aesthetics are in order to better target your submissions. If your script is truly awesome, it will eventually find a home. Be patient, especially if it’s very demanding to produce. This can include things like a big cast (very expensive) or difficult tech (requiring two levels springs to mind as a common problem that can be difficult both physically and financially) or challenging casting (such as, an actor of a very specific type who can sing while playing a portable instrument, or actors with specific physical skills, such as contortionists). But even a very demanding play will eventually find a home if it’s truly awesome– look at Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, or Aaron Loeb’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party. So hang in there.

2. Your play is not well-written. The most common problems are all the ones I state above (undifferentiated character voices, derivative narrative, clunky dialogue, privileging the “Big Idea” over the stories of the characters), plus things like lack of continuity, or “therapy plays” (where the playwrights are less interested in telling a story and more interested in working out issues with their mother/ex-wife/abuser/etc). Playwriting is fucking HARD, and even good playwrights write bad plays from time to time. Artistic Directors and Literary Managers will never, ever tell you your play is just not very good because we’re afraid of hurting your feelings and destroying a relationship. Playwrights who start out sending bad plays often end up, after getting some training and/or experience, writing GOOD plays, and we want access to those good plays.

Look on the bright side! At  least you didn't write THIS.

Look on the bright side! At least you didn’t write THIS.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Work on your craft. Read this book. Read every play and see every play you can. See more theatre than film or TV. Yeah, a lot of film and TV are high-quality, and you can get good ideas from filmmakers and television writers, but theatre is a different animal with different demands. Learn how to feed it.

3. The odds are insane. My tiny company, as I said above, gets 300-400 unsolicited submissions a year to fill 3 slots. I recently spoke to someone who works at a large theatre that focuses on Shakespeare and does not accept unsolicited submissions, and she said they still receive about 200 annually. Someone else in that conversation said her theatre gets 900 a year. Your play is one of hundreds and hundreds out there. There are easily 100 plays for every production slot in the country, if not more. Let that sink in: Every single open slot in every single theatre in the country easily– EASILY– has 100 plays competing for it. In order to beat the odds, your play not only has to be VERY good, but it also has to be the right play at the right time for the right company.

NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS.

NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS.

Luckily for you, you live in the WORLD OF TOMORROW, where submitting a play is as easy as hitting “send.” Take a moment to think of the poor playwrights of yesteryear (15 years ago) who were copying out scripts at work when their supervisors were in a meeting and having to mail them out to theatres at $2.50 a pop if they didn’t work in a company with a mailroom (I remember getting submissions from Lehman Brothers regularly). The flip side of the newfound ease of the submission process is that we’re all getting hundreds and hundreds of scripts, all the time. Even if your script is fantastic, is it better for THAT THEATRE at THAT MOMENT than the other 412 the theatre will get that year? Maybe the AD has done three comedy-heavy seasons and is considering moving to a more drama-heavy season the next year. Maybe the theatre is hoping to work with a specific director and looking for scripts that will appeal to her. Or perhaps this director is already involved in the selection process. Maybe this director had a recent personal experience that increases her interest in a certain topic, and although your play is just as awesome, the play submitted right after yours is about exactly that topic. The point is: You don’t know. The variables are endless, and the competition is just insane. When I’m in season planning season (ha) in Dec/Jan, I’ll sit at my computer and open file after file after file, reading plays for hours every single day. I don’t even glance at the name of the playwright or the title of the work unless I’m already interested in moving it up to my contenders file, or if I’m sending an email to my LM indicating which ones to reject. It’s truly crazy how many plays we get, and we’re the smallest dog on the block.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Again, hang in there. Target your submissions. Develop relationships with ADs and LMs. I have personal connections with a few playwrights who know they never have to go through our formal submission process, but can send plays directly to me, AND I WILL READ THEM. They go directly into my personal season planning folder. I know these playwrights are creating quality work and I want to get my hands on it. There are playwrights whose work I have rejected numerous times because it wasn’t the right play for us at the right time who know they can submit directly to me, because despite the fact that I haven’t produced them, I believe in their work and think they’re superstars. If I can’t produce the script for one reason or another, often I’ll send it to someone who I think might be interested. I recently fell in love with a playwright who has a script I can’t produce, and I’ve been sending her play all over the place. ADs and LMs are your CHAMPIONS, not your enemy.

4. Content. This one is rare, but it does happen. We reject plays with misogynistic, anti-Semitic, racist, or homophobic content. We rejected the play that was made up of scene after scene of child pornography.

tshirt-m-gtfo-Green-art-280

I repeat: SCENE AFTER SCENE OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY. ::shudder::

What we’d never do is reject a play because its content is too “radical” or too “challenging of the status quo” or what have you. We didn’t reject your play because we “weren’t ready” to have our “minds blown” or because we’re trying to “silence” your “anti-patriarchal dissent.” We produce in Berkeley, you know? Nothing is “too radical.” That said, I can imagine a theatre in American Fork, Utah rejecting a play that espouses the kind of liberal values Berkeley takes as a matter of course. So who knows? I can’t speak for the theatres in Beaver County, Oklahoma. Would I reject a play that espouses conservative values? I’ve actually never received a play that was, for example, anti-marriage equality, and of course I wouldn’t stage it if I did, so I suppose the answer is a provisional yes. Artists on the whole are a liberal-leaning bunch, so I don’t get plays about why we should fund a tax cut for the wealthy by eliminating food assistance for poor children, but if I did, it’s likely we wouldn’t stage it. So no need to send it to me, David Mamet. But yes, playwright in Utah who recently contacted me with a concern that his play might be too controversial, I do want to read your play about a transgendered person. I want to read it so hard! Theatre is like 99.99% cisgendered, so anything that can address that lack of visibility automatically interests me. I can easily see, though, how that view might not be shared by an AD in, say, Kansas.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: If you’re writing plays with misogyny, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, or child pornography, stop writing plays. For the rest of you, target your submissions accordingly. Online research is your friend. Check out a theatre’s production history. Follow the AD or LM on twitter. There are lots of ways to ascertain which companies might be a good fit for your work.

Again, I want you to remember that there are over 100 plays for every production slot in the country. I have to pass on plays I adore every single season. I have 3 slots for new plays, and we get between 300-400 unsolicited submissions, in addition to the ones I headhunt. The unfortunate truth is that the odds are overwhelmingly against you.

HOWEVER. We are on your side. I’ve dedicated my life to championing new work, and there are hundreds just like me out there. WE BELIEVE IN YOU. That’s why we chose this field. You don’t acquire wealth or power producing nonprofit theatre.  Far from it. Even the highest-paid LORT ADs still make a fraction of what they’d make in a similar corporate job. (My brother laughed out loud when I told him with awe how much the head of a local LORT makes. Having spent my entire career in theatre and academia, I had no idea these salaries were so small compared to the corporate world.) We didn’t start these companies because we thought we’d become wealthy and powerful. We started these companies FOR YOU. If I could stage 20 plays a year, I would. I believe in you and your work. I wake up in the morning and answer emails and hire directors and schedule auditions because your work deserves to be seen.

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Remember that we’re on your side. Remember that a rejection is not always a comment on the quality of your play, and even while you’re reading that rejection, I may very well be sending your play to another AD. Remember that there are so many of you out there that 99 plays must be rejected for every 1 that gets accepted. And always, always remember that we’re here because we love you and think you’re superstars.

So hang in there. Try not to let the rejections get you down. Work on your craft. Create relationships with ADs and LMs, a simple thing to do now that you can facebook friend us or follow us on twitter. (I found an amazing play we’re producing next season through a friendship I developed with a playwright on twitter.) Target your submissions. And KEEP AT IT. We need you, OK?

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What Actors Should NOT Be Doing Online

Haha, you thought I was going to say “Get drunk and post naked selfies.” Nope. Go right ahead. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory or the local unified school district, the theatre is forgiving of indiscretions of that sort, don’t you think? Or they damn well should be, I mean, come ON.

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A selfie I took hiding behind my desk when one student took the entire two hour final exam period to finish a final everyone else knocked out in an hour. It expressed my soul.

No, I’m talking about how to deal with the fact that your facebook profile and email address are getting in the way of you getting hired. Here are some simple, easy-to-deploy tips you can use to make things easier for me and other people like me, who are looking to cast our plays, films, web series, and industrials as painlessly as possible.

1. DO NOT make your email address impossible to find, use, or tolerate. Create an email address that is at least partially recognizable as yours. Do you have any idea how often I use autocomplete to try to find someone in a hurry? About as many times as I have directors, casting directors, and filmmakers email me asking for suggestions for actors, so a scrotillion times a week at minimum. Evidently I’m the non-union actor fairy. So if I can’t type part (or even all) of your name into the field and have your name pop up, I move on to the next actor. If I really, really want you, specifically, I’ll make the extra effort to find your headshot in my files or swing over to your facebook page (more on that later), but generally I’m burning through a list of the first ten or so people I think might be a good fit for that role while the project I’m working on at the moment is on pause. I can’t allocate an hour to answering an email, so if your email address is “singing4lyf@yahoo.com” and the name you’ve connected to it is “SingerStar DramaLife,” I HAVE NO IDEA WHO THE FUCK YOU ARE . If you simply must make your email address “DramaGrrrrrl47@aol.com” you better make damn sure your actual name is attached to that. But seriously, get a gmail address that is at least partially related to your name.

Also, please don’t share an email address with your husband, wife, parole officer, or dog. You are a GROWN UP. Get your own email address for professional use. No one cares if you share an email address with your spouse for personal use (I mean, we care in that we wonder how you manage to function like that, but we’re not judging you). For professional use, however, we need to be able to find you quickly. When I’m trying to locate an actor in order to recommend her to someone who wants to hire her, again, I can’t find Beth Ishikawa if her email address is “mattandbeth@gmail.com” and the name attached to it is “The Ishikawas.” Make your email address “beth.ishikawa@gmail.com” and make all our lives better.

2. DO NOT make your facebook profile picture the Eiffel Tower, a cat, or a dreamcatcher. Make it a picture of YOU. Should I be using facebook as my personal casting garden? Yeah, maybe, maybe not. But we all do it, all the time. Why? Because often we don’t have your headshots in our files and are trying to track you down, plus we’re already on it all the time, it’s easy as hell to find people that way, and we can tell at a glance if you’re still in the area or if you moved to Chicago like we think we remember you telling us once in an email a few months ago. Sometimes I’ll even just browse my facebook friends if I’m particularly stuck in a casting quandary, hoping for a flash of inspiration. Now, you know I love you all deeply and personally, but sometimes in the heat of the moment, it’s hard for me to remember exactly which Mark or Jessica you are. When your facebook profile picture is of a sandwich, YOU ARE NOT HELPING. It doesn’t have to be your headshot, but it should be YOU.

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This should not be your facebook profile picture.

Which leads me to:

3. DO NOT “protect” your email address on facebook. You’re “protecting” yourself from getting hired. Put your professional email address on your facebook “about” page. Create a special email address just for this if you must, but be sure to check it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cruised over to a facebook page to find contact info for an actor whose headshot isn’t, for some reason, in my files or in TBA’s talent bank, only to find that their information is “protected.” YOU’RE AN ACTOR. There should be some way to contact you prominently displayed on your every public profile. I will, more often than not, just move onto the next actor rather than leave a facebook message unless we’re already facebook friends because I know you don’t check your “other” folder.

5. DO NOT forget to check your “other” messages folder on facebook. This is where messages go when they’re from companies, or people you don’t know. Chances are you all have a fourteen-month-old message from me in there asking you to come in and read for a role.

6. DO NOT forget to update your TBA Talent Bank info. If you are a Bay Area actor, you should be a member of Theatre Bay Area and you should have current info posted in TBA’s Talent Bank, because we use it all the time.

7. DO NOT forget that everything you post on the internet is ON THE INTERNET. Yes, I know some of you still believe in Santa Claus, the Chupacabra, and Facebook Privacy, but rest assured that if you post it on the internet, at some point, every human on earth will eventually see it. Again, I’m not referring to drunken naked selfies (go on with your bad self). I’m more referring to things like, “I love this show! This is the best director I’ve EVER worked with!” or “This theatre is my favorite place to work!” Now every other director and every other theatre you’ve ever worked for has the sads. Conversely, don’t think you can post “Grrr! I hate this costume! It looks like barf!” without your director, costume designer, and castmates all seeing it within the hour. Every human has been guilty of this at one point or another because humans have EMOTIONS and emotions make us ACT OUT, but this is what the delete function is for.

That’s all I have for now, based on the flurry of casting I’ve been doing over the past few weeks. My usual “Wow, this is a lot of casting” level has been dialed up to “ZOMG I HAVE SO MANY THINGS I HAVE TO CAST RIGHT NOW THIS SECOND AND TEN EMAILS JUST CAME IN ASKING FOR EVEN MORE ACTORS.” So help me find you! Because you know I want to.

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Defining “Professional”

It's a question of lust; it's a question of trust; it's a question of-- oh wait, no it's just a question of money

It’s a question of lust; it’s a question of trust; it’s a question of– oh wait, no it’s just a question of money

How we define who is and who is not a “professional” in the theatre community has always been a hot-button topic, especially when you throw companies into the mix. When you start discussing this topic, a lot of people will immediately open their mouths to pour out a response that has something to do with money. This makes no sense whatsoever in the theatre community.

Sure, we could define “professional” as “making enough money at theatremaking to cross a predetermined threshold” (such as hiring AEA actors, or making your living solely as an actor as opposed to a waiter/massage therapist). This is, however, a problematic definition to say the least. Many people who are in love with using this definition for theatre companies do not pass this definition in their own careers as artists. If we’re going to define “professional” for theatre, it needs to have a single definition for us all, not one for producers, one for actors, one for designers, and one for theatre alley hobos.

If an actor lands a role that makes her AEA, and then, as is all too common, sits for two years at home working out every possible ending of Dragon Age but never landing any roles, is she still a “professional”? While the money-based definition above says no, I say YES, and I bet you do, too. She’s still auditioning, maybe taking classes, certainly attending theatre to see others’ work. She’s working at her chosen profession, just not making money at it. Her experience, training, and dedication do not evaporate just because she can’t get hired. That actor is still an actor, and I would call that actor, without question, a “professional actor,” despite the fact that it says “lab assistant” on her 1040.

I really should work on that Rosalind monologue at lunch

I really should work on that Rosalind monologue at lunch

If an actor can retain the label “professional actor” without actually making any money as an actor, then it makes no sense for anyone to be held to a money-based definition, including producers and companies. Either “professional” means meeting specific financial criteria, or it does not.

In an industry where very, very few people are making their living solely as theatremakers, and almost no theatre in the nation is generating enough earned income to pay their bills (most of their budgets coming from donations and grants), what is the point of a financial threshold? What MEANING does money have? Are we honestly going to grant “professional” only to those artists who get hired frequently, and withhold it from those who do not, disproportionately shutting out women and people of color? Are we honestly going to grant “professional” only to those companies that sell lots of tickets or land high-value grants, disproportionately shutting out small companies that do experimental work or serve low-income communities? This is an arts community that purports to have The Art as its primary consideration, and yet so many of us are distressingly willing to make money the most important consideration.  But only for others, amirite? Because while plenty of people condemn other artists and companies with “not professional,” they still consider themselves professionals even though they’ve done nothing but 2 waiver shows and a staged reading since the Bush Administration.

No, we can’t draw financial lines for each other and say, “You must be this wealthy to ride this ride” because it leaves far too many worthy artists and companies out. We need a single definition, and it can’t be money. An artist for whom money is THE most important consideration in the definition of “professional” is an artist who is deliberately shortchanging the worth of other artists and companies. Gross.

So money is out.

What about using quality as the defining factor? “Professional” implies a certain level of quality, does it not? Perhaps, then, we can use excellence as the defining factor. Let’s consider that more deeply. OH WAIT. We already tried to define “excellence” and failed. Remember when the entire national theatre community suddenly started talking about holding each other accountable for “excellence”? It went nowhere because no two people can ever completely agree on what makes a work of art “excellent.” This is ART, and one person’s heartbreaking, brilliant, moving production is another person’s self-important, pretentious dreck. So using “professional” to mean “always high quality” doesn’t work for companies.

It doesn’t work for individuals, either. I know many like to draw the line for actors between AEA (“professional”) and non-AEA (“amateur”). But anyone who has spent more than five minutes in casting knows that union affiliation is no guarantee of quality for an actor. Sure, in the aggregate, AEA actors are “better” than non-AEA actors, because the class of “non-AEA actors” includes those with little or no experience, and those who think they are actors but will shortly discover they are directors or playwrights. Or audience. Or donors! (THINK POSITIVE.) But we can’t cast in the aggregate; we have to cast individuals, and when you compare one individual to another individual for any specific role, union affiliation is not going to indicate anything useful to you about which individual actor is more “excellent,” or more anything else, for that matter. This is why we have auditions. There are stunningly brilliant nonunion actors, no question, just as there are stunningly brilliant AEA actors, and jaw-droppingly mediocre actors both union and non. It’s useless as an indicator of INDIVIDUAL excellence. And of course, even if we wanted to use union affiliation as a marker for excellence and thus “professional,” what about all those people who are directors, designers, playwrights, art directors, and so on, for whom union affiliation is a completely different ball game? Union affiliation is useless as a definer of “excellence” for individuals. In the end, though, it matters little because “excellence” is useless for defining “professional.” We can’t all agree on what “excellence” is.

You may actually believe that all AEA actors are always “better” than all non-AEA actors (because of course all actors automatically go from sucktastic to brilliant the moment they sign, right?), and who would be able to prove your opinion of nonunion actors wrong? It’s your opinion. You may actually believe that a big, expensive set or a full orchestra make a show “excellent,” and who could argue with you? That’s what you enjoy, and therefore it’s “excellence” to you. My point here is: when you can’t pin down a definition for “excellence,” you can’t use excellence to define “professional.”

So money is out and “excellence” is out. Then what the sriracha-flavored fuck CAN we use  to define “professional”?

I'm still trying to work out "sriracha-flavored fuck"

I’m still trying to work out “sriracha-flavored fuck”

I have an idea! I baked it just for you and I hope you like it. I made it out of my lifelong obsession with etymology and my need to accrue respect to theatremakers of all income levels.

So, no surprise, I own a copy of the OED. I cracked it open (any excuse, right?) and looked up “professional,” “profession,” and “profess.” Yes, I know that a dictionary definition is going to have limited applicability on its own in this context, and there is something obnoxious about using a dictionary definition in any argument, but bear with me for a second. The main concepts throughout all the definitions of “professional” in the OED (and Webster, which I also checked for fun) are: professing (self-declaration), depth of commitment (making something your main daily activity; your “profession”), and expertise.

So how about this: “Professionals” in theatre are those people who are openly dedicated primarily to the activity of theatremaking. A “professional” individual in theatre is someone who has made a commitment to the art of theatre, and has made that his or her primary daily activity, or has theatre as a primary daily activity as his or her goal (we don’t want to leave out that AEA lab assistant). A “professional” theatre is one that is staffed with such individuals, regardless of what that theatre pays them.  “Theatre professionals” are people who have made theatremaking their lives, and “professional theatres” are the companies that are staffed with those people.

I believe that resistance to this idea, and assertion that “professional” must have strict financial criteria, comes from a place of elitism. It comes from a place of wanting to protect one’s own privilege, and not have to share it with others one has previously been able to keep out. I don’t think those are useful concepts in theatremaking, so I hope to see the day they’re discarded in favor of becoming more inclusive and diverse.

MAKE ROOM FOR OTHERS. They deserve to be there. Honor the artists and companies around you, no matter how much money they have. Think of looking at the world, and at our art, in ways that do not privilege money over everything else. Yes, we all have to make a living, pay bills, and buy Dragon Age 3, but we do not need to make financial considerations the centerpiece and main defining characteristic of our art. Leave that to Scary Movie 12, porn, and A Doll’s House on Broadway starring Kanye West as Torvald and Kim Kardashian as Nora. (YOU KNOW IT COULD HAPPEN.)

Imma let you finish, but the Tarantella is the BEST DANCE OF ALL TIME

Imma let you finish, but the Tarantella is the BEST DANCE OF ALL TIME

Before I go, I want to say a word about “community theatre.” “Community theatre” is a wonderful, precious resource that exists to allow people who are not professionals to participate in making theatre. My wonderful former father-in-law, a retired chemist, spent the last years of his life acting and building sets at a truly excellent local community theatre. It enriched his life greatly. He had no intention of becoming a professional actor, but he wanted to participate in theatremaking. I truly adored watching him onstage. He was terrible, but he loved to be there, so he was a joy to watch. When he died, they renamed the theatre space after him in honor of the many ways he had contributed to that company. THAT is what “community theatre” is. It’s valuable, and important, and I won’t hear another word about it being somehow “lesser” than professional theatre. When I hear “community theatre,” I see a retired chemist, grinning from ear to ear, on a stage full of people thrilled to be there.

UPDATE: A couple of people have asked me if I’m referring to specific AEA language that appears in some of their documents. Let me explicate: No. I’m discussing how theatremakers talk about each other. If I were discussing specific AEA documents, I would have said so. I’m not really coy about these kinds of things. AEA is one union that represents one segment of theatremakers, and I’m discussing us all.

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