I’m not in the City of Angels. Indeed, I’m a long distance from there in multiple ways. So I don’t have a personal dog in the on-going discussion about the “99-Seat Plan” that union actors work under in that great city. I have friends who are personally involved, though.
An incredibly simplified way of describing the Plan would simply note that it is a specific level of waivers for shows put up in theatres of 99 seats or less. From what I can gather, some folks are wanting to go through the process of changing the Plan, and so Actors Equity in Los Angeles has sponsored union meetings/townhalls.
At one such meeting a friend reported that some of the actors in the room were labelled “hobbyists.” In the view of this speaker, the amateurs were the reason “serious” professionals couldn’t make a living on the stage in L.A.
I wasn’t at the meeting, but I trust the report. The crux of the comment, even if taken out of context, remains of interest. What makes someone in the theatre a “pro?”
At different times and places this issue raises its ugly head. A local newspaper says, “We only review professional theatre.” “We are professional theatre.” “Are you a union theatre?” “No.” “You’re not a professional theatre.”
What makes someone professional?
Let’s agree that being part of labor in the U.S.A. can make your head spin at times.
First, it’s damned hard to make a middle-class living in the theatre today. I could go on and say that it’s damned hard to make a middle-class living in the U.S.A. today. One doesn’t need the endless reams of newspapers reports to know that the economics of work have changed in this country. In another time, a single bread-winner was able to bring home the bacon for a family – and this was considered the norm. This family situation is far less likely to occur in our contemporary economy. While I champion and celebrate the huge contribution of the talents of women in the work-force, I’m not any less feminist in noting that many mothers (and fathers) are working full time – not simply to give full exercise to talents – but because it’s economically necessary if the family is to maintain a kind of middle-class existence.
Second, many workers in the theatre work second jobs to make ends meet. I could go on and say that many workers need second jobs to make ends meet. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 5.5% of the total workforce have multiple jobs. That number may seem small. First, 5.5% of the total workforce is several millions of people in a big country. Second, that statistic doesn’t include a number of people who have second jobs that are “cash-only” jobs. And these “day-jobs” and second jobs are distributed up and down the income ladder. The lawyer with the consulting business on the side and the waitress who also works in a day care center both get included as multiple job workers.
Third, in a country in which several people have lost jobs and been “re-located” within the economy, what criteria may be used to label “professionals?” For example, a dry-waller saw his jobs dry up in the Great Recession. He scraped some money together, went to the community college, and got re-trained as a Windows guy so he could get jobs in corporate I.T. in the local business park. He’s still trying to dig out from some debts accumulated during the recession. So on weekends, he “knows a guy” who throws him some work doing dry wall. It’s not enough to be full time, but he’s good at it – and his family needs the extra cash. Is he a professional dry-waller, or not?
When we take our pre-conceptions about actors and the arts and different kinds of theatre out of the equation, then the questions about professionals and professionalism get a little absurd to me.
As much as I support unions and unionism, outside of one or two occupations, how many folks could you determine professionalism solely by union membership? Given “right to work” laws in so many states and the general weakness of unions in the 21st century in the U.S.A., how can this even be used as a marker?
And, we must be aware that our nation is awash in folks who’ve been trained with B.A.s and B.F.A.s and M.F.A.s in theatre who don’t live in a major urban area, and don’t have the opportunity to make their living solely as theatre workers – even if they were union.
And let us acknowledge the lie offered by many M.F.A. programs. (I hope this has changed some, but I doubt it.) When I was looking for graduate training , I interviewed with several graduate programs in different locations throughout the country. (Yale, by the way, had the kindest rejection letter I’ve ever gotten.)
I’ve known since I was a wee lad that I wanted to teach theatre in a college setting. I learned, though, not to say this when talking to M.F.A. programs. “We don’t teach teachers,” they’d say with great disdain for the teaching of teachers, “We only teach professionals.” It didn’t matter where the program was or the level of the program. They all professed to teaching only professionals. It’s only in my old age that I note that I was told this by a slew of folks with M.F.A.s who were the heads of the M.F.A. programs in their schools.
So, if a local theatre group springs up in your county in, say, central Oklahoma. They don’t belong to a union. The producers find some money to pay the actors, the staff, and the crew. It’s not a living wage, but it’s some money. Are they professional or not?
The folks who work in the WalMart across the street aren’t unionized, and they aren’t getting paid a living wage, by and large. But no one gets into knots worrying about whether they’re doing professional retail or not.
Again, this question of professionals and “professionalism” has more to do with the anxiety of the folks involved. Will they be taken seriously? Will they be judged too harshly? Will their work be treated with respect and dignity? That’s what the “pro” question is all about in the end.
It’d be nice to get a living wage doing what you love. It really would. Some folks get very lucky in that regard. But the vast majority of folks have to do with another level of compromise to make their lives work. It may mean the second job. It may mean both parents working outside of the home. It may mean a lot of things.
Until Americans face up to the fact that we spinelessly handed the economy of our country over to large corporate interests and the big money people for not much in return, it’s not just the actors who’ll work for less than a living wage.
It’s not just us.