The fuzzy line between amateur and professional theatre

Orpheum_Theatre_Vancouver_View_Of_StageBy Ande Jacobson

As I mentioned in my previous commentary discussing the role of a theatre reviewer, I’ve often been asked if I review professional and amateur productions differently. My short answer then and now remains no, but I started thinking about what defines a professional production. Perhaps my refusal to treat them differently should have been a clue that there is a fuzzy line separating professional from amateur theatre in many circles. For instance, in theatre-rich areas such as the San Francisco Bay Area, one can find high quality productions without regard to whether the company is professional or not. Still, I was curious, so I started digging a little deeper.

Interestingly, I found the line to be fuzzier than I thought. That distinction really depends who you ask, even within the theatre community, and the subject generally spawns vigorous debate. For some, the definition is simple – professionals are paid, while amateurs are not – but even in that there is disagreement.

The licensing agencies, such as Samuel French, use the standard industry weekly pay rates to base their distinction. By that definition, many of the small theatres that pay their performers a small stipend below the industry standard wouldn’t be considered professional. Being an amateur company can be a potential disadvantage when it comes to securing rights to perform some material given professional companies have priority. Aside from that, a theatre’s professional status can also have a bearing on how much exposure they get in the press.

Beyond the question of actors’ earnings, there is debate over the skill levels of those participating. In an article about amateur theatre, Wikipedia draws some nice distinctions describing the level of training a theatre professional usually obtains, and, in this article at least, claims that amateurs don’t generally have comparable schooling. They cite schools such as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Julliard School in New York, and the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney as yardsticks by which to measure an actor’s training. Granted, these aren’t the only theatre schools of merit, but they are internationally known and respected in the business.

That same article cites actors’ union membership as another way to discern professional from amateur actors. According to their handbook, the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) in the U.S. is “the Union that supports, promotes and fosters the art of professional theatre,” but they acknowledge that not all professional actors or stage managers are automatically members of AEA. There are several methods by which someone may become a member, one of which relies on a candidate gaining experience in Equity-approved positions. Some of those approved positions are with non-Equity productions.

Another area where there seemed to be a well-defined distinction concerns the business models various theatre companies choose. Some members of the theatre community claim that to be a professional theatre company, the management structure must include a paid, full-time, year-around staff consisting of at least an artistic director, a managing director, a development director, and a public relations director. In addition, many members of the industry would claim that the company must use union professionals from AEA to be considered professional.

The fuzzy point is that many theatre groups have the management structure outlined above, regardless of their professional status. They pay their full-time staff a living wage, and they pay their performers and technical crews a stipend of varying amounts. Theatre companies that pay their actors and stage managers nothing at all would be considered amateur in almost all circles, regardless of their performance quality. A company that uses all (or mostly all) AEA actors and stage managers and meets all of the union requirements would certainly be deemed a professional theatre, but what of the middle ground?

Returning to the San Francisco Bay Area, participants and audiences alike can find numerous theatre companies or productions that might be termed professional by some, and amateur by others. Other theatre companies in the region would be termed professional by all measures available. Still others would be defined as amateur by all measures, but the interesting thing is that in many cases, the quality of the productions can be quite high regardless of their professional status. The delimiter in this type of area seems to agree with the licensing agencies, i.e., it’s salary based.

And what of the venues? Those too can be mixed. For example, Mountain View’s Center for the Performing Arts is home to a wide variety of theatre and music including regional professional theater such as TheatreWorks (an Equity house), and children’s theater such as Peninsula Youth Theatre, which is a high-quality, amateur group.

Various community centers in the area also have theater complexes that host a variety of productions, both amateur and professional. The Sunnyvale Community Center is home to both Sunnyvale Community Players (an amateur group where the actors are unpaid), and California Theatre Center, a non-AEA professional theatre group. Likewise, Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Community Center also has a theatre complex that hosts both amateur and professional groups.

In the end, does it matter whether a company is professional or amateur? For the avid theatre attendee, the production quality and ticket price are likely more important than a theatre company’s “professional” status. For performers, that distinction can be more important depending on their goals. So once again the answer is, it depends.

Additional reading:
Stage Money: The Business of the Professional Theater, by Tim Donahue
How to Run a Theater: Creating, Leading and Managing Professional Theater, by Jim Volz
Actors’ Equity Association
Samuel French FAQs

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