Dear Reader …

15 February, 2012 by No Comments

I wanted to share an email I wrote to a reader a while back in response to an inquiry that related to the Groundling Awards’ eligibility criteria. My correspondent had asked how Greenroom differentiated between ‘professional and independent, and community/amateur, and student theatre.’ I was a little surprised by the question – my fault, I suppose, for assuming that everyone would know. It actually raised some ongoing issues that we’ve mentioned here before. This is part of what I wrote in response:

I think the differentiation is pretty well understood in the theatre industry. Aside from the aspirational standards inherent in the word ‘professional,’ there have been many and ongoing discussions on what differentiates ‘professional’ (or what I have heard called ‘mainstage’ theatre by some – at least here in Australia) from ‘independent’ theatre. The terminology can get in the way at times.

I queried a critic friend of mine in Sydney recently on the use of the differentiating terms ‘mainstage’ and ‘independent’ (both understood as professional) by the judging panel as they were then being applied to the Sydney Theatre Awards. The response: ‘ Tricky, but full-time v part-time.’ However, both professional/mainstage theatres and the independents have a few things in common, and this is what I understand differentiates them from amateur, community, or student theatre. This understanding is applied to the Groundling Awards.

Full-time professional (commercial or non-profit) theatres and the (mostly) part-time independent theatres offer monetary remuneration to their personnel. This remuneration and/or other support may be based on industrial award wage scales or, perhaps, another financial understanding: stipend, fee, co-operative arrangement (profit-share), or a MEAA-sanctioned showcase agreement for unwaged artists. All are negotiated via a letter of agreement or contract – with or without an agent. Other support for independent theatres may come in the form of professional assistance from an auspicing or umbrella arts organisation e.g., marketing and/or training for staff, mentoring of personnel, provision of resources and so on. Essentially, though, the producers of these individual companies enter into financial arrangements with those they hire for productions – actors, directors, designers, technicians and so on.

Another understanding is that the artists and creatives involved in professional and independent theatre have usually been trained and, (very importantly it seems to me), they assert their status or ‘profess’ their first calling as ‘artist,’ ‘actor,’ ‘writer,’ ‘theatre worker,’ ‘designer,’ ‘technician,’ and so on. Most, in my experience, also claim a union affiliation with MEAA or some other industry-related union.

In addition, professional practitioners are recognised amongst the theatre community. You’ve probably heard the terms ’emerging,’ ‘mid-career,’ ‘senior artist,’ and so on in the last few years. This is just part of the way the industry recognises its own. Here in Australia, and elsewhere, the theatre labour market is saturated, and there are never enough jobs to go around. Whilst the kinds of work available for Australian theatre artists have increased in the past 10 years or so, most still have to work outside the theatre or multi-skill within the industry. However, it is understood that, in the vast majority of cases, professional artists and creatives in this and in many other countries are freelancers. Whatever the remuneration, it’s a part-time job but a full-time profession.

On the other hand amateur or community theatres do not enter into considerations of remuneration for their practitioners unless, of course, they hire a director or designer or other professional person for the production. I am aware that many amateur companies do this via their own funds or a government grant, for example, as a way of developing standards within their groups. However, very few people involved in an amateur or community production are paid. The exception would, I think, prove the rule.

Whilst some who take part in amateur and community theatre might like to be professional artistsĀ they usually don’t claim that status. Most would ‘profess’ their calling otherwise on a tax return or census or other official form. As to the professional standards that most groups aim for, the fact is that amateur theatre is hobbyist not a profession however good the work can be – and some of it is very good indeed. Many get involved to gain training and experience, but I would suggest that most do it for the sheer joy of being part of a theatre production. The word ‘amateur’ means ‘lover of,’ after all.

Student theatre is educational, and the ‘remuneration’ received by students comes in the form of course credit. Their profession is ‘student’ – for the time being. Of course, many staff involved in student theatre are professional artists hired on a part-time or sessional basis to teach or direct. However, the production itself – again, standards aside – is not considered to be professional by the industry.

We had a good conversation via email and finished with a telephone conversation because sometimes you just have to chat for real. I was, of course, delighted that a reader cared enough to contact me and to discuss the matter, and I finished by thanking him for his thoughts on the matter.

Whilst I had blithely indicated in my response that I thought the difference was pretty well understood within the industry, it turns out that it’s not all that clear – at least to those I spoke with – and it’s the word ‘independent’ that’s the source of confusion.

In the weeks that followed I discussed it with colleagues in the industry. It seems the line dividing ‘independent’ from ‘amateur’ tends to move a bit, at least, this is the impression I got from my original correspondent who felt the term was often used when ‘amateur’ was the reality. Most have no doubt that independent or indie theatre is, as one put it, ‘a sub-set of professional theatre.’ It is, however, by no means as clear as I had assumed.

If you’ve read this far I’d love to hear what you think. Greenroom is putting a survey out to get some feedback on some of the matters raised during the conversation.

To reward a lucky person who complete the survey, we’ll be giving away one free Workshop Masterclass for the Rude Mechanics who are appearing as part of the World Theatre Festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse.

The workshop is on Saturday February 25th so the workshop attendee would need to be free on that day. We’ll open the survey after lunch today (Wednesday) and close it on Sunday at 6pm. Please spread the survey link among your own networks. The selection of the winner will be random.

You will be able to access the survey later today (Wednesday) either here or on Greenroom’s Facebook page. If you haven’t already liked us over there, we’d really like that! Just click the big blue button on the home page.