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Nathan Thomas
I’m Not Professional Enough For You?

June 2013

In the fall of 1981 the Oklahoma Theatre Center was still a going concern and paid its actors.  Not much, it's true.  But it was a gig.  And in those halcyon days, the pay more than took care of the gas that I bought to speed up and down the still 55 mph curves of the access highway that was used while I-35 north of town went to being a fully limited-access roadway.

I was a paid actor in a holiday adaptation of A Christmas Carol.  The production was directed by Richard Lemin.  I acted and served as a kind of rehearsal pianist for the carol singers, of which I was one.

In the intervening years, I've gotten paid to do about everything you can legally do in a theatre.  I've acted. I've directed.  I've designed and built sets, costumes, and lights (pretty badly on each of those).  I've been a music director, been an accompanist, stage managed.  I've re-painted theatres, scraped gum off the bottom of the chairs, and re-built seats.

In the fall of 1987, I stood in line with books at the Drama Bookstore when it was still at the north end of Times Square.  At the time I was on a national tour, playing three major parts in a rotating rep – mostly dinner theatre comedies.  In line ahead of me were a couple of guys chatting while they waited to make their respective purchases.  One guy was bragging about an audition he'd snagged for a production of Waiting for Lefty in a basement theatre off Off-Off Broadway. 

As an artistic director of a company, I auditioned, recruited, and hired actors.  And sadly, also had to fire one.

Am I a professional?

I've never been a member of any union.

To be fair, I had no reason to join the union.  I always worked outside the biggest cities.  The biggest market I've worked in was Baltimore.  And back in the 1980's, Actor's Equity had a program that provided folks who earned equal to 2 weeks consecutive pay of a union actor, an equivalence card.  Some of the touring I did, I got paid more than Equity minimum, sometimes a little less.

And I'm weird.  I admit it.

I've always known that I wanted to teach.  So as well as earn money from theatre companies as an actor and/or director – I've also made a life as a college teacher.  To that end, I got a Ph.D. in Theatre.  For many years, off and on, I wanted to get an MFA.

One of the oddities of MFA training is that all MFA programs claim that they only train professionals.  They do NOT train teachers. 

And yet . . . .

When I look at the faculty rosters of most college programs, I see a number of MFA's.

Good thing they weren't trained to teach. . . . .?

Two very different professional experiences . . . .

The first.  Many years ago some good folks hired me to be a generalist designer and tech director. Sure, it was probably a mistake, but I worked hard, and I got sets up and lights on actors.  During that year, someone had decided to hire a woman who had done some work Off-Broadway but had come back to middle-America to look after her ill mother.  It was also decided that this woman would direct a small musical – a musical in which she herself had appeared.  At the time we didn't have the funds to hire a costumer, we had a student costumer. The director knew this.  And she had approved costumes at the rendering stage and at initial fittings.  On the evening of the first dress rehearsal, though, this woman director chose to open each of the costume cabinets in the Green Room, pull out the costumes, and throw them all on the floor and cried that they would never do.

I'm guessing the reader will not be surprised to discover that the student costumer immediately quit.  Nor should it come to anyone's surprise that on opening night, this director invited all of the performers to her house for a party, but absolutely none of the crew.

The second professional experience comes from a couple of weeks ago. After I finished my voice therapy, I was to have lunch with a friend who is a professional dancer who works with a number of different companies in Philly.  She would be in a tech rehearsal about three blocks away from my therapist's office.  Would I be willing to wait through the tech rehearsal? 

This story is just as easily told in its graciousness, as the last was in its meanness.  An ASM watched the door and let me in.  The theatre staff were enormously kind.  I watched the tech rehearsal, noting two professional ballerinas work while a professional light designer effected a very individualized look from a generalized lighting plot for a piece to be included in a major dance festival. Everyone was gracious and kind. Even in the face of a grueling day.

Very different experiences.  All professional.

I worked for a professional company in a middle-sized city who wrote a letter to a local critic because of the use of "professional."  The company paid its actors, but wasn't a union house – not because of pay or work rules, but because it would have changed the supply of actors the company wanted to work with.

Recently I had the opportunity to work with students from two schools.  And the words "professional" and "professionalism" got thrown around a bit. And still are.  By folks from both schools.

In my experience, the use of "professional" and "professionalism" get thrown around a bit by people who use that language to deal with their anxiety about their own work.  Someone who is unsure about where they are and what they're doing is more inclined to accuse others of a lack of professionalism than folks who are actual professionals.

Am I a professional?  Well, to some extent I gave up worrying about that.  There have been years when my sole job was acting, and the money paid off my car and my undergrad loans as well as provided me shelter and food and a little savings.  There have been years where I couldn't get arrested in a theatre.  1997 was a particularly awful year.  Not surprisingly, this matches the experience of many folks I know.  Many professionals I know have dry spells.  I know union members and professionals who still have a "day" job.

The more important question: am I training the students I teach to be professionals?

That's a telling question.  Again, I'd say yes and no.  Lissa Tyler Renaud wrote an amazing chapter in an amazing book she helped edit about the politics of actor training called "Training Artists Or Consumers" in The Politics of American Training.  One of the questions Dr. Tyler Renaud poses regards what profession?  Which profession?  Even more now than when the chapter was composed, we live in a splintered landscape for the performing artist that is full of on-going conundrums.  For which American professional life are we training our students?

My observation is that the folks who "make it" over time are folks who are not the result of cookie-cutter sameness.  And who knows how to nurture creativity?  I do my best.  I work to find a way to give students the tools to make a long haul in a hard business while still remaining creative, whole persons.  As teachers, some days we win.  Some days we lose.  That's the life of a teacher.

Albus Dumbledore was teacher to both Tom Riddle and Harry Potter – Lord Voldemort and the hero.  Rowling got that right. 

I will say this, though.  Some folks spoke of "firing" another person.  Only when no one has actual jobs, is anyone quick to use this "F-word."  No one's actual livelihood is on the line – so let's "fire" this or that person.

I've had to fire people.  And I've been let go myself.  There's nothing more terrible.  In my case, I've been let go twice – once as a result of a "house cleaning" in which all staff were cleared out by a new business owner and the second because of an economic downturn.  The first happened many decades ago, and it still hurts.  Unless someone is doing something obviously wrong – like endangering people, doing drugs on the job, committing a crime, etc – usually (in most workplaces I'm familiar with) we don't leap to firing.  We provide instruction.  We provide a second chance.  We work on developing our people, not condemning them.

I don't know if that meets an existential definition of professionalism, but dismissal is something I've never cared for.

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©2013 Nathan Thomas
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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June 2013

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