When I was editor-in-chief of Back Stage West, I banned the use of the word “amateur” as a diss. As I wrote in that magazine’s style guide, it is “a term that uncritically designates an artist’s or group’s non-professional status. It is never acceptable as a pejorative; neither are amateurish or unprofessional.”
In staking out this purportedly non-judgmental position, I was of course implicitly offering another strong judgment: that there is a bright line between “amateur” and “professional.” This definitional certainty was important to a trade publication like Back Stage West (or, as it’s called now, simply Backstage), which was all about getting actors paying work, or at least guiding them in that direction. And it’s a distinction that’s no less crucial at American Theatre, which bills itself as the “national magazine for the professional not-for-profit theatre,” language taken directly from the mission of its parent organization, Theatre Communications Group (“to strengthen, nurture, and promote the professional not-for-profit American theatre”).
But how sharp can this distinction be—and should we even insist on it an age when, to give but one example, Actors’ Equity’s own figures show that their average member makes roughly $6,700 a year, and playwrights tend to make their actual livings by teaching and/or writing for film or TV? What’s more, isn’t there a long, too-often-neglected tradition of theatre proudly positioned against not only the marketplace but also outside the professional nonprofit institutional theatre itself, from the Living Theatre to Cornerstone, from Chicago storefronts to the L.A. 99-seat scene? How are these “indie” efforts different, either morally or practically, from so-called “community theatre”?
Like all human constructs, from our language to our economy, these terms and divisions are more social contract than immutable law. They are agreed-upon until they are not. That said, it does no good to pretend that their meaning is entirely contingent or random, that they don’t arise from traditions with real weight, or that they can simply be tossed aside as terms of art. In short, it’s helpful for us to be as clear as possible about what these distinctions have traditionally referred to, particularly if we’d like to shade or adjust them to reflect a changed reality.
By my lights “professional” and “amateur” have always referred to a distinction between artists who are serious about their work and dedicated to it as a trade and a craft, and those who are doing it chiefly (and blessedly) for fun. To the extent that these definitions blur, it is not because of the paid/unpaid divide (more on that in a moment) but because art-making is always on a continuum between “play” and “work.” A musician may start out by innocently noodling and discover a passion, a compulsion to express themselves through an instrument, that will transform them, by sweat and will and countless hours of practice, into a virtuoso; the playwright may start by writing goofy skits for college theatricals but graduate to full-length plays that may still be goofy but are not mere goofs.
God bless those who realize they’re noodlers and goofers at heart, and can find their bliss minus larger ambitions. For those compelled to do otherwise, to go out on a limb as far as their talents might take them, keeping a sense of innocent exploration, of the love that made them amateur creators in the first place, may be crucial to keeping their work fresh and inspired; but what they do is no longer merely play, nor can it properly be classed as “amateur.”
Yes, money is traditionally one way to measure this distinction, but it is not the only or even the primary one. Many professional artists don’t make their living from their art, but this is not a contradiction in terms (it may, however, be an economic crime, or a shame, or a cause for collective action—all grist for another debate). And while, on an organizational level, TCG defines “professional” in terms of nonprofit status and pay scale (“at least 20 percent of the theatre’s annual budget dedicated to total artist compensation,” a broad definition that leaves room for a wide range of theatre models), our individual membership properly has no such eligibility bar, and accordingly runs the gamut from students and theatre fans to theatre pros of all stripes.
The difference is finally a matter of self-identification. It’s even there in the name: We are what we “profess” to be. Is this mere pretense? I don’t think so; art may deal in metaphor but it is a concrete human practice. It is hard work born of play (or vice versa?). It is made of real materials, including us. We may all be, first and foremost, amateurs, roughly defined as “arts lovers”; but only some of us are also the arts workers.