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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15 thoughts on “Defining “Professional”

  1. If this post were nothing but that Tarantella caption it would still be my favorite thing.

  2. Mark Fossen says:

    One person I debated this with loved to state that it came down to your income tax. That is over 50% of your year’s income was from theatre, you were “professional”.

    I’m with you – professional is an attitude. Are you active in it, working at it, making a vocation of it? Do you act like a professional – showing up ready to work, memorized, on time, baggage outside the door? Then you’re a professional.

    I think part of the difference in “community” theatre is the balance between process and product. Community productions are as much as about the making as what’s made, where a “professional” production is more focused on the product itself. (It’s a gross oversimplification, but it seems to work.)

  3. Garrett says:

    Thank you for a great and insightful article. I have always attached “professional” to the idea of a paycheck – regardless how big or small. Payment to me indicates an employer/employee relationship – ergo a “professional” environment. The converse is true (with regard to producers) do you employ people? Guess what? You’re a professional.

    I think the real problems that all too often I hear (especially in the theater community) the term “professional” used to describe “responsible” behavior, or as a way to cleverly insult someone or a situation. I.e. “They are so unprofessional; they showed up five minutes late to rehearsal” in that case I think it better to say “they were so disrespectful that they showed up five minutes late for rehearsal.”

    Professional in my book does not mean better, it means simply that money changes hands and as such there is a contract or understanding of expected behavior and services rendered.

    A “professional actor” in my mind is someone who is paid to perform – given that there may be some time between performances. Such is the nature of any artist. if you are paid for your art you are a professional, if not then you are a hobbyist. A professional theatre company is one that pays it’s performers. Period. There are good companies and bad companies. And just because someone is a professional actor does not mean that they are any good: although it is hard to get hired if you suck…..

    • Thanks! It’s much more common for people to label companies who pay $X and under “not professional” and companies who pay $X and over “professional” than to label companies who pay anything “professional.” It gets ugly and stops being useful about 3 seconds into any debate, so I’m proposing throwing it out entirely in favor of something more accurate to how we actually function, both as companies and as individuals.

  4. Kathleen says:

    I once asked a favorite playwright, who has written plays in the canon, how many playwrights she thought made a living just from their work, and she said “about five.” I think that’s a reasonable estimate.

  5. Ah, the eternal “professional” vs. “non-professional” definition debate. Never ceases to fascinate me.

  6. George Sapio says:

    Professional refers to the amount of effort and heart you put into anything. If theatre is really all that important to you and it makes you happy doing it (despite submission replies like this one:, then you qualify. I do it. I love it. Yes, I need serious help, but I’m a professional.

  7. docsonk says:

    When directing a various small theaters or colleges, I’ve heard the term professional being defined as “paid actor.” I start those 1st rehearsals with each actor, designer, and technician being handed an envelope with a dollar bill in it. My comment to them is “If you think being paid is the definition of professional, then now all of you are professionals because you all have been paid.” It’s a gesture on my part to say that the money can’t be the reason we create theater… it comes down to your intent as a craftsman.

    In other words, I love your article — it’s how we choose to define ourselves and our intentions that really matters.

  8. T. Antonio Rivas says:

    There’s also the fallacy that when a professional enters academia (whether as adjunct, lecturer or tenure-track) to earn $, you’re no longer ‘professional’ … which, of course, is utter B.S.

  9. Julie Kuwabara says:

    I loved reading this,it’s a debate I’m now becoming more familiar with. I really enjoyed the last section about Community Theater, it really touched my core of why I keep doing what I do. The love for telling story and working with others who have the same passion and drive. Its for the love not the money.

  10. Doc Madison says:

    I’ve read your article, and I agree. This distinction has always bothered me. I admit, that I do regard my first paying gig as my first real professional job. But that was way back in the 80’s, and since then I’ve grown as an artist, and done plenty of jobs for free, or for close to nothing. It really isn’t about the money, it’s about the commitment, and how seriously you take it. Theatre is, in NO uncertain terms, a vocation. If you are “called” to do this thing, you will answer that call. A true professional, cannot turn their back on that call. So, I think, perhaps, we could define a “professional” as someone who, no matter what the situation might be, simply has no choice in their soul, they must answer when called.

  11. Megan Reilly says:

    Thank you so much for this. I was told this past summer that I should not be billing myself as a professional designer because “Ken Billington is a professional, and that’s what people will think you mean.” It hurt a lot and made me angry. I was told (same conversation) that if I did not make my entire living through lighting design, then I was not a professional. This was coming from someone who was a college professor teaching lighting design, ironically. And last week, I was told by the ME at the Rollins Theater in Austin (where I just loaded in what is probably the largest, most complex design of my career) told me “professional means you make money.” Flat out, no equivocation, he was that sure of it. For me, personally, I consider myself a professional based on my commitment to the art, the quality of my work, my training, and my attitude towards every project. I try not to care much if that definition doesn’t match some else’s. I’ve started to feel that using the term “professional” to describe anyone else but yourself more often than not means “you are not the artist I am,” and less often a reflection of commitment/quality/finances.

    And I think I might carry around a copy of the OED from now on for the people who like to claim that the dictionary definition is a financial one…

  12. John G says:

    This article’s getting some more attention in the wake of an incident that is basically causing battle lines to be drawn over what constitutes professional theatre, and by extension, professional theatre makers.

    theatreWashington, a DC-area organization that among other theatrical support services, offers adjudication for consideration for their annual Helen Hayes Awards, in addition to anointing productions as “Helen Hayes Recommended,” which is a rather valuable marketing tool, recently announced new eligibility requirements based on compensation for actors, directors, and designers. New requirements that many heretofore eligible smaller companies will struggle to afford, even though DC’s non-Eq artists are already, on the whole, compensated far better than in other large markets.

    A worthy question is why they’re doing this. Maybe they’re concerned for the well-being of the struggling theatre artists of the DC area, or maybe they’re re-focusing their finite resources on a smaller pool of theatremakers. Either way, it’s dredging up a whole lot of discord in an otherwise relatively unified scene.

  13. Patricia says:

    As a playwright, I believe it’s painful to many of us theatre makers that it’s so hard to earn a living in this profession. Anton Chekhov was also a doctor, I tell myself. Anyway, I was inspired by an actor I know (who appeared on Broadway) and always put in her program bios that she is a nurse. “Dammit,” she said, “I’m proud to be a damn good nurse.I’m a professional actor, and a professional nurse. That’s more than most people can say.”

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