Who’s an Amateur?!

Vinny from Jersey Shore, Bill Gate, Patti LuPone in Shows for Days, the Bats in The Mysteries at the Flea.

When he was in the cast of “Jersey Shore” (and making $100,000 an episode) Vinny Guadagnino described himself on his Twitter profile in six words: “I get paid to be me.” He  was proud to call himself an amateur actor. Few people in the theater embrace the word “amateur” so straightforwardly (nor earn a living wage from their profession, much less what Vinny made.)

A changing economy and a shifting culture, spurred in part by new technology, especially the rise of the Internet, has blurred the very definition of such seemingly concrete concepts as work and expertise in a whole host of fields, and confused the distinction between professional and amateur.

In an article I wrote on HowlRound about the evolving definition of professional, I point out that the recalibration of amateur and professional is playing out in the theater in at least three ways:

Day jobs? Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller
Day jobs?
Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller

1. Would Shakespeare even have understood the concept of a “day job”? He wrote plays to make a living. In the last century, theatre artists worked day jobs until they were able to make a living with their art—Tennessee Williams worked in a shoe warehouse; Arthur Miller was a ship fitter’s helper in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But in an interview four years ago, Tony Kushner, who is surely the heir to such great American playwrights, said: “I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.” The day job has become such a necessity for theatre artists that some have turned it into an advantage: Having a day job, actor and playwright Melissa Bergstrom wrote in HowlRound recently, helps her not just to gain financial stability “but on a deeper artistic level, having a day job has thrown me headfirst in the world in which I live.”

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter, author of A Bright New Boise and The Whale, and a recipient of a generous MacArthur Fellowship, said in response to my question to him in a recent weekly HowlRound Twitter chat: “When I started out I never expected [playwriting] to make me any money. When it started to it was a complete surprise. I’m actually glad that I made that assumption. It allowed me to not resent it when it didn’t make money.”

Given the economic reality, don’t we have to come up with a definition of “theater professional” that doesn’t exclude people who make their living in other ways?

George Sanders as critic Addison Dewitt in All About Eve
George Sanders as critic Addison Dewitt in All About Eve

2. Whether or not theatre criticism is dying, or actually expanding, it is certainly changing. As I’ve pointed out, when at a recent conference, the chairman of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the only national organization of American theatre critics, asked the members how many made their living entirely as a critic, only three out of the fifty present raised their hands. Are the ones who kept their hands in their laps no longer professional critics? How will publicists determine who gets free press tickets?

Christopher Fitzgerald (with guitar) in  Lear deBessonet's The Winter's Tale
Christopher Fitzgerald (with guitar) in Lear deBessonet’s The Winter’s Tale

3. The Public Theater’s new season will begin in September with an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, conceived and directed by Public Works Director Lear deBessonet, which they’re calling a “community event”—it will include performers from community theaters across the city. Last year Public Works staged something similar with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, featuring “over 200 actors and community members.”

So, it seems “community theater” is being incorporated into “professional theater.” Involving the community is the lauded aim of many professional theatres, or at least a generally accepted buzzword. So, what distinguishes the two?

It’s not apparently a salary, if “professional theater” can encompass such companies as the Bats, the actors who work without pay at The Flea Off-Off Broadway. Is it quality? Seriousness of purpose? Membership in “professional” organizations?

scene from Shows for Days, play by Douglas Carter Beane about his memory of a community theater
scene from Shows for Days, play by Douglas Carter Beane about his memory of a community theater

We followed up with a Twitter chat; Samuel French and I served as co-hosts.  Some excerpts (heavily edited/rearranged for clarity):

How do you define professional? And amateur?

Theatre Ontario: We use the Ontario Arts Council definition:

“Professional artists:

    • have completed basic training in their artistic discipline or field, either through formal study or by teaching themselves;
    • Are recognized as professional practicing artists by other artists working in the same field;
    • Have a history of public presentation or publication of their work;
    • Spend a significant amount of time practicing their art.”

Kate Powers: Professional’, to me, connotes a level of commitment, training, focus, and possibly but not always compensation.
Todd Backus: Generally (and I know people hate this) I define your profession as the thing you do that pays your bills. This is not to say one can’t comport themselves in a professional manner.
David J. Loehr: By that measure, there are and have been few professional playwrights.
Rachel Delmar: Being a barista is what paid my bills for years. I would never consider myself a professional barista. There are professional baristas. I wasn’t. I had no intention of putting time/passion into being great…If having a survival job means we aren’t professionals there isn’t a professional actor in Seattle theater.
Samuel French: Amy Herzog, Sarah Ruhl, Tina Howe, Paula Vogel, Annie Baker have all taught. Where would we classify them?
Todd Backus: If your income is coming from being a teacher (even a teacher of playwriting) I’d say you’re a professional teacher at that point

J Adrian Verkouteren A professional gets paid; an amateur does something for the love of it (and likely does not get paid)
Samuel French: Does “get paid” mean they have to make a full living?
J Adrian Verkouteren: No. Lots of people (particularly today) have multiple part-time jobs. They are still professionals.
Kathleen Moye: I would consider myself someone who has been both an amateur and a professional actor, depending on the gig.
J Adrian Verkouteren: I don’t think you can  bounce from professional to amateur day-to-day. A professional does not become an amateur because s/he volunteers.
J Adrian Verkouteren: Perhaps people want so much to equate professional with high-quality it clouds the definition.
Corinne Woods: The distinction often seems to be used as a short-hand for artistically worthwhile vs not.
J Adrian Verkouteren: Amateur neither signifies lack of skill nor lack of extensive education and experience.

How does education affect this debate. If you have a degree in your profession, does that make you a professional?

J Adrian Verkouteren: So Bill Gates was not a professional entrepreneur until he got an honorary degree? Too simple a definition.
Rachel Delmar: It is definitely setting you up on the path to being a professional. Still some ground to cover first.
Kelly Dwyer: There’s a difference between education and a degree. A professional must be educated, but can be self-educated for sure.

Do these labels matter? Do they have repercussions? Does it just boil down to a question of respect?

Heather Morrow: To be considered for some opportunities — such as grants — it matters VERY much how others define you.
Theatre Ontario: Definition matters most when it excludes someone —  from public funding, from opportunity, from recognition, etc.
Michelle Denise Norton: Money always matters, professional labels/walls are a way to keep the pool smaller
 David Loehr: Working conditions and value/focus are more important than semantic distinctions. (But)

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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