I live in an area which is fairly unique in the way its community theatres run. Shows are on 5 to 6 days a week, sometimes putting on shows twice in the same day. Production staff who work at the local Equity houses likewise direct and design for the community set. There’s a much closer amount of crossover than I’ve ever experienced, at least. Which may be why there’s so much tension around the word “professional” hereabouts.
There has semi-recently been the start of a discussion about what “community theatre” means, so to steer clear of that particular murk, I’m going to be talking about volunteer actors and paid actors. It’s a cleaner line to draw, especially as regards where this is all going.
Back on the professional front, however: yes, absolutely professionalism is not limited to paid professionals. Volunteer performers still need to have respect for one another, still have to take pride in what they’re doing. There are noses and grindstones which need introduction. Anyone who wants to have a six week picnic would, in all cases, do best to find something other than theatre–community or otherwise–upon which to spend time. So, yes, “professional isn’t just paid.”
It is, however, willfully wrong-headed to believe and expect that volunteer actors make their show decisions the same way as someone who pays his or her bills through acting gigs. Professional (as the -ism) is not the same thing as professional (as the job).
It is professional (as the -ism) to avoid responding to directors’ casting rejections as insults. Rejection in this context isn’t personal: they don’t hate us, they just feel the show they want to make would benefit from a different choice. That’s the job. It’s not the director’s job to make everyone happy.
Mind you, it is only fair for directors to accept that the reverse is true: the responsibility of a volunteer performer is to choose shows and roles he or she finds fulfilling. It is not the onus of any given volunteer to ensure a director gets the cast he or she prefers. That’s not personal, either, and a volunteer’s choices are not stupid or wrongheaded just because they hamper a director’s desires. Nor, more importantly to my point, are those decisions necessarily going to align with the expectations of a professional (as the job).
It is professional (as the job) to accept good, paying gigs when they’re available, because this is one’s career. There are career path considerations to be made, of course: the prominence of the venue, of the role, of the production personnel, and a host of others I can’t begin to guess. But–again–you’re making them as part of the job.1
Volunteer actors don’t have to make those considerations. Or, at least, I don’t believe anyone should treat us as if we do. We are professional (as the -ism), not professional (as the job). The ONLY payment a volunteer actor receives are those ephemeral whatsits which drives us to be in a show. For some people, that’s solely the camaraderie of having a communal experience. For others, it’s the last bow. Or it’s the cathartic release of harsh emotions in a drama, the air of lightness and laughter from a wonderful comedic turn, the giddy moment when you hit that money note and everyone is listening. And any one of those things might simultaneously be something another volunteer actor wants to actively avoid.
I’m missing about as many reasons as there are people, as well as their various combinations, but the point is: our individual, ephemeral reasons are the sum total of our compensation. They are, without qualification, our reasons for being here. And because that is what we’ve decided we’re after (for whatever value of “that” we personally choose), because we have eschewed traditional payment or career pursuit but are nonetheless still here, the choices of professional (as the -ism) volunteers cannot and should not be judged using the same measures and gauges as one uses for professional (as the job) performers.
It’s all well and good to play this game of qualitative comparison between community and professional (as the job) theatre, but I think the real fracture between folks from one world and another is a far more fundamental paradigm shift. Comparing the choices of a volunteer performer to those of a working actor is comparing apples to Martian plutonium, folks.
“That’s the lead,” “That’s a big role,” “That’s a huge opportunity,” are the kinds of things you say to someone trying to make a living as an actor. They’re the kinds of things which should always hold influence in that context. But for volunteers, if that lead happens to be comedy relief when our personal pay scale requires drama, if it’s something we’ve done a hundred times before when our bottom line needs variety, outside our comfort zone when we act for comfort, if it’s older or younger than we want to feel, if it’s too many costume changes, not enough costume changes, difficult or easy music … for whatever reason it doesn’t trip our triggers, it doesn’t matter how “big” a role is, how “brilliant” the show is. It won’t be enough. It is impossible to pay us enough to do it because we aren’t getting paid money.2
Put in another context, I don’t often hear anyone clamoring that folks are uppity for not auditioning for a given show in the first place (my own heckling notwithstanding). Those just aren’t our shows, and that’s okay.
How is that qualitatively different from thinking that bloke in the corner who has one brilliant-but-short moment is more interesting than the whiny lead role whose actor gets the last bow?
So, yeah. It would be ever so lovely if we could start parsing our professional definitions for context. For some of us, it’s not a job. And there’s nothing wrong with that if only because, if it was a job for all of us, the community theatre personnel would be out of theirs.
1. None of this is meant to minimize a paid actor’s love of theatre, or the existence of dream roles and beloved shows. My point is, however, that a true, working actor can rarely ever make decisions without also taking far more concrete concerns into account.[back]
2. There’s a clear exception to be made for those folks — and there are more than a few in the area — who mix volunteer and paid gigs. I drew that very thick line between paycheck and no paycheck for a reason, though. Even those people will only volunteer for shows and roles which meet their volunteer pay scale. That they have a second job as an intermittent paid performer doesn’t negate the point here; rather, it makes it. You have to put them in another category of performer to get them into something that doesn’t meet their volunteer needs.[back]