I wrote the essay below a few weeks ago and it was published in "Apollo's Voice" the newsletter of the SA Writers Theatre.
I have worked over many years in both the amateur and professional worlds and still work in both.
Professional and Amateur.
Which is what and what is which?
I have recently come across a couple of articles written on a blog site called “confidential without parentheses”.
The first of these, written earlier this year, was setting up a discussion on what is professional and what is amateur.
Apparently in August 2008 (it’s taken this particular blogger a while to respond) a speech was made at the Theatre Critics Circle dinner by one David Grybowski. He is reported as saying “The only difference between amateur and professional is that professionals get paid.” It seems that this caused much offence among the mostly “professional” performers present. A lone voice was heard to cry “What about training?”
(It is interesting that the Theatre Critics Circle includes critics who can best be designated as amateurs as well as those who are clearly professional journalists. It also includes people with conflicts of interest as they are producers of theatre as well as published critics criticising their “opposition”.)
A debate ensued and got quite catty. I somehow missed this at the time. Quite possibly because I am profoundly suspicious of awards for artistic endeavour that suggest they can successfully say which actor or production or concept or idea is “best”, that’s such a subjective opinion. This is especially true when the people giving the awards did not see everything on offer during the relevant period (also see my comment above about conflict of interest).
Anyway apparently Samela Harris wrote an impassioned article in defence of amateur theatre (Interesting because as far as I know she doesn’t review amateur theatre at all, except during the Fringe.) and for a while the Advertiser labelled its reviews as Professional and Amateur. This caused another bone of contention among the “professionals” as the Advertiser labelled a couple of “professional” shows as amateur because the performers involved did not work full time as actors. This issue has also gone away as I believe the Advertiser now doesn’t review anything it considers to be amateur (Except during the Fringe). Presumably the reading audience for reviews of amateur shows does not exist. (Except during the Fringe.)
(Actually in my opinion there is very little reading audience for theatre reviews at all but the pro’s buy advertising and the amateurs don’t ergo pros get reviews amateurs don’t. Except during the Fringe.)
Having digressed all over the place I’ll get back to the blog articles that started me off.
In their rebuttal of Mr Grybowski’s comment the blogger chose the following definitions of the word amateur:
- a person who engages in a pursuit, esp. a sport, on an unpaid basis.
- a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity.
The first is incontrovertibly correct but perhaps doesn’t go far enough. The second is downright insulting. It also leaves out a definition I found in my Chambers English Dictionary.
- an enthusiast, admirer: one who cultivates a study of an art for the love of it not as a profession.
The blogger then goes off into a long involved diatribe on the issue of tennis suggesting that even if Mr Grybowski played tennis he certainly wouldn’t consider himself the equivalent of Rafael Nadal. I’m sure he wouldn’t. I’m equally sure that as an actor he wouldn’t consider himself as the equivalent of Sir Ian McKellan.
I personally feel the whole tennis thing is an invalid comparison. There is probably some very erudite Aristotelian phrase that dismisses the argument but I don’t know it.
The blogger then goes on to discuss the phrase “amateurism”.
In current common usage this word is definitely tied to the “ineptness” aspect of being amateur but in many areas it used to be a point of pride. In fact in many situations the greater respect was often shown to the amateur as the professional tended to be looked on as the one who did the job just well enough to receive his or her payment while the amateur strived to excel not expecting any further reward.
So where are we?
I think it’s time to look in the Dictionary again. (I am using Chambers English Dictionary 1990 Edition).
Professional (n) – one who makes his living by an art or makes it his career
- a member of a profession or of a particular profession
- a person following a career
There are other definitions but they either refer specifically to sport or to a particular series of examinations in medicine taken under Scottish Law.
All three of the above apply in this case. All of them imply that the profession be followed for gain.
Do they require specific training?
Well actually no, they don’t, not by strict Dictionary definition. (Except for the one about Scottish medical exams, but I left that one out.)
Is it possible to follow a career in art and become a self supporting Professional without training?
Yes it is.
Is it easy?
No it isn’t.
Is it easier if you have the training?
Yes it is, more or less.
So the implication of these definitions is that a Professional actor makes a living from acting. Well, that leaves about three people in Adelaide.
Even if you expand it to cover those who make an appreciable part (not necessarily a majority) of their income from theatre or film it still only expands to about 20 or 30 people. Seriously.
Does training make a professional? Well frankly I’ve seen some highly trained total incompetents in many fields although they don’t usually survive, they tend to get kicked upstairs to become Administrators or go and work in Government Departments or find a job outside the industry and tell tall stories to their grandchildren many years later.
I have also seen many incredibly competent professionals in various fields who learned on the job.
Outside of Theatre my late brother-in-law trained in a college as an engineering draughtsman, learned engineering on-the-job and ended up being one of the team that designed and built the Thames Barrages.
In the world of acting, without any research, I know that Bob Hoskins, Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and Heath Ledger never had any formal training at all. I am sure there are others.
So training isn’t necessarily the answer either.
Before I go any further I agree that there is a difference between professionals and amateurs. This difference in my opinion relies less on the training and more on the fact that an amateur does 1 to 3 plays a year for about 10 – 12 performances each and a true professional does the job for about 40 hours a week, 40 odd weeks of the year. This means that your acting skills are constantly honed and polished if you do it full time.
I once read a definition of the professional being the person for whom the acting job takes priority over any other employment. If you think twice about whether you will take the acting job because it interferes with your shifts at the bar then you’re a barkeep not an actor.
I guess my next point is if you are a graduate of a reputable acting school and have any real idea of becoming a full time professional actor why are you still living in Adelaide? This is a city with only two permanent professional adult companies and two permanent professional children’s theatre companies none of which have an ensemble but all of which hire actors only for specific projects. Why aren’t you living in Melbourne or Sydney or even better going overseas?
Just how dedicated are you?
Patrick Frost begin_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting, one of our more successful local professionals pointed out in a Facebook comment attached to one of these blogs that only Arts Administrators make a full time living out of theatre in SA. He has a point.
The blog then leads into a discussion of three specific venues in SA. The Bakehouse, Holden Street Theatres and Higher Ground. These venues all receive some funding from Arts SA. I actually don’t know how much any of them get but my knowledge of Holden Street leads me to believe it ain’t much.
The bloggers believe, as I interpret the thread, that these three venues should not be available for use by amateur companies because they receive Arts Funding.
I’ll repeat that.
The bloggers believe that these three venues should not be available for use by amateur companies because they receive Arts Funding.
They also believe that all three venues should be run in such a way that the entire program is curated and only those shows/companies/performers that fit the curator’s idea of good art should be allowed.
All of this based on what is almost certainly less than $50,000 grant per annum. Grants that I believe are limited to capital investments in one case.
In other words, they want these venues turned over to the professional second tier industry in Adelaide as their plaything. Leaving the people who have invested time energy and money into those venues with little or no opportunity to be entrepreneurial.
Frankly I am disturbed by this attitude.
One of the mistakes the bloggers make is to roll all amateur theatre in SA into one bundle and ignore the vast difference between say Daw Park Players on one hand and Mixed Salad on the other.
In many ways, of course, Daw Park could be said to fit the laughably incompetent end of the amateur scene. Of course they pursue no grants but they have a close relationship with the Repat Hospital and donate figures in the region of $20,000 to $40,000 per annum to provide luxuries and extra equipment to help with the patients there that Pat calls “my old soldiers”. They certainly fulfill a social need and anyone who has sat in on a Saturday Matinee and seen the reactions of the Hospital bound patients that come to see the shows knows that. There is little real attempt to achieve a truly professional set of standards but then they don’t need to and no one even possibly mistakes them for professional or judges professional companies based on them. Which seems to be one of the anti amateur arguments in the blog.
Then you have Mixed Salad. A company that achieves very high standards of professionalism bringing new theatre from around the world to Adelaide in extraordinary productions. I have only seen two or three of their shows but was knocked out by all that I have seen. Holden Street is specifically criticized in this blog for having them in a resident arrangement because they are amateurs.
Were any of the “professional” groups in Adelaide even thinking of bringing “Secret Bridesmaids Business”, “Miracles” or “The History Boys” to Adelaide? All new award winning plays that Adelaide audiences otherwise wouldn’t have seen.
I wonder if a note of jealousy creeps into the hearts of the “professionals” when “The History Boys” plays to packed houses and garners awards and is actually amateur.
The second blog, posted recently, started off with an attack on the ShoGo website. This website was launched with a moderate fanfare about 12-18 months ago and was created to give a central reference spot in Adelaide for people to find out what “professional” theatre is on in Adelaide. The author of the blog objects because Northern Light Theatre Co and Therry both advertise their shows on this site. Fair enough, they aren’t professional; they have never pretended to be professional. Therry indeed is very proud of its amateur status.
There is a further note stating that ShoGo have now removed the reference to “professional” on its site and now the authors are upset because the website receives Arts Department Funding and advertises amateurs. They see the allowing of advertising of amateur shows on the ShoGo site as indirect funding of amateur theatre. This is a continuation of the argument that wishes to remove funding from the venues that allow use by amateurs!
Does this mean that Her Majesties should not receive any Government support because it is used by the Charity show “The 24 hour Musical” each year and is now being hired by the G&S Society?
I think all this posturing and breast beating about amateur versus professional is pointless and to some extent meaningless. It could even be said to be dangerous.
I recently had drawn to my attention an article by Sir Ian McKellan in the Guardian in England in which he blames the lowering of professional acting standards at least in part on the decline of amateur theatre.
"Amateur theatre has underpinned all the theatre in this country and the chance to act with others is useful even for those who do not want to make a career. When you work in a little theatre it can only be done in friendship and by putting yourself out. There are many wonderful actors in amateur shows who could easily make a living for themselves in the professional theatre, but they choose not to."
The link is here:
Amateur and Professional Theatre should feed upon each other and the wider the divide and the greater the unpleasantness between them the poorer we all are.
These blogs seem to me to encourage even further that divide.
What is the professional world in Adelaide afraid of?
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