Professional theatre: how can you tell?

(At time of writing) A disclaimer for context:  I am Chairman of the Board of Queensland Theatre Company, so I do move in territory often inhabited by what one blog commenter elsewhere rather unkindly, though I hope with witty intent, called ‘old arts farts.’  Ya gotta laugh.  But I also move as an audience member/supporter in the perhaps less pungent air of the wider Brisbane theatre community.  And then there is the higher education sector of professional arts education and training – another area I know a lot about, having recently retired after 21 years in that field. I thought I was in a fair position to comment on a current debate receiving some attention out there.  This blog post is a bit of a breather on the way, as well as a diary note of the week. Undoubtedly the conversation will continue, and I hope it does whether here or elsewhere, online or face to face in a congenial theatre bar somewhere.

It’s somewhat ironic that the title of my last blog post picked up on a quote from internet maven Clay Shirky: “there are a lot more amateurs than professionals.” He was talking about social media, but this particular quote from his TED at State talk resonated with me. Surely it’s a truism that there are a lot more amateurs than professionals in many fields of endeavour – the arts especially perhaps. These days with the ubiquity of social media applications, the opportunities for getting everyone involved in talking – about ‘stuff that matters,’ as well as what you had for breakfast – are better than ever before, just as Shirky noted. Good-oh, say I; there’s a lot to talk about, and the more voices in any debate, the better.

So what does an online arts community talk about? Itself of course. Certainly, a fair amount of my time this week has been engaged with an online discussion concerning the nature of professionalism – an old favourite that’s been around as long as I can recall. The discussion on the blog OurBrisbane.com was focussed on the theatre in Brisbane, Queensland‘s capital city, but quickly extended via online discussion beyond the local. This was bound to happen, as the originating blogpost asked why a city the size of Brisbane couldn’t support as many theatres as Minneapolis when its population was three times that of the US city. Hmm … a good question, and one that got me thinking. The marvellous Wolfram Alpha (a geek’s joy by the way) quickly came back with this comparative information about the cities of Brisbane AU and Minneapolis US:

Brisbane: Population 806,746  Minneapolis: 382,578 – not quite three times it would seem – but with a much larger ‘feeder population’ than Brisbane’s.

So without any more than the population figures to go by, it looks as though the feeder population aka potential audience members/theatre supporters for Minneapolis is quite a bit more than that of Brisbane’s, but even so … Minneapolis, we are told supports 66 professional theatres.  Cripes! That’s impressive. Brisbane, as far as I can count, doesn’t come close. NB Watch out Minneapolis, you could start a migration stampede.  By now, the proverbial bee was buzzing; I started thinking a little more about the terminology being used, specifically the word ‘professional’ so I threw out a query on the World Theatre Group on Friend Feed: as it applies to defining a company or group, what in a theatre community is understood by the term ‘professional?’ The results are intriguing and, judging by the responses, I think we might have a hung jury.

Speaking locally, no one doubts the professional status of companies like Queensland Theatre Company, or of La Boite Theatre Company, both of whom are funded by federal and state arts bodies. They pay award or union rates to their employees; the administrative and production staff are full-time, but most are part-time – typically artists and creatives working on a project by project basis across an annual season of main-house and subsidiary productions, the latter of which are typically educational and youth-related, tours, or arts development projects. This model is no different from most other established professional theatre companies world-wide.

There are, however, other companies working in the city. Most are unsubsidised by government and exist on box-office and income from their training programs. Many of these groups come and go, although some have now been in existence for several years and appear to be here to stay.  Showcase projects are common as scratch companies of artists and creatives gather to produce a work, and then disperse. Other companies (some working from a membership base, others from an open casting processes) have a clear mid to long term vision of the work they aspire to. Apart from a desire to work and to be recognised as doing excellent work, what they have in common is this: they do not pay award rates.

These groups – if remuneration is part of the deal – pay their workers most often by a share of the box-office, or a contractual stipend. Yet many, possibly most of the artists and creatives, not to mention the administrators of these companies would self-identify as professional theatre workers (i.e., trained and/or union-members), and they move across the continuum of the professional and the ‘other’ sector. It’s long been accepted in this industry that you go where the work is, whether or not it pays what the government considers a fair wage for a day’s work. Are these groups professional? Depending on who you ask you’ll get one response, ask another and yet another term will appear and so on.

Self-identification by a company is rife with terminology that is clearly part of the jockeying process to be taken seriously, to belong as a professional with all its connotations of excellence and dedication. But without a doubt, the waging practices of groups is the key discerning factor in what separates the professional theatre from the rest. But there’s a long continuum of self-identification by the ‘other’: ‘Semi-professional’,’pro-am’, ‘Emerging’, ‘Independent’, ‘Fringe.’  These are all monikers that groups adopt to define their status in the wider, now commonly identified as ‘independent theatre’ sector. No one in this particular discussion used the term ‘amateur’ when referring to their own on their group’s status. This clearly is yet another defining term that has negative connotations for those aspiring to recognition as professional.  I did, however,  find the term in use on NYC-based director and blogger Isaac Butler’s recent post The Delusion Driving Much American Theater.

Butler talks about ‘pro-am’ theatre companies as ‘theaters and artists doing professional quality work for amateur wages and largely in an amateur environment.’

I have no doubt from the passion of some of the participants in the discussion so far, that these are loaded terms, if not fighting words! What else is interesting in Butler’s post is his statement that most US theatre is ‘pro-am’ rather raising some doubts as to the originating figure of 66 professional companies working out of Minneapolis.

And of course this discussion opens up another huge can of worms and a raft of questions as to why an ‘other’ group doing excellent work shouldn’t be funded by government, better sponsored by corporations and private donors, to continue doing the work they do.

Author: Kate Wilson

Actor, director, teacher, dabbler with paint, serial traveller.

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