This insightful blog post by Melissa Hillman has defined perfectly, for me, what being a “professional” means for the artist. Or rather, that the word “professional” itself can be used to describe me, despite what my paycheck may say at any given point.
I am sure every theatre artist has had this experience at some time or other in their career: you get asked what you do for a living. Whenever I say I’m a director or an actress, the first question to follow is, “What movies or TV shows have you done?!” And I explain that I have dedicated my life to the medium of theatre. “So you’ve been on Broadway?” I’d then explain that my particular brand of theatre is considered indie or, in easier to understand, but usually inaccurate terms, “Off-off Broadway”. Trying to explain Actors’ Equity showcase codes or mini- or SPT-contracts to someone who has little to no frame of reference is a fool’s errand, at best. “So like, community theatre? A hobby. But what do you really do?”
I labored long and hard in New York doing what I love–as many hours as most full-time jobs–and I felt I’d earned the right to call myself a professional artist. However, I could also see that there was a level very much above me that I considered somehow “more professional” because of either money or status or resumé coups. But you know, hey, what if I like this station? What if this is the kind of theatre I appreciate right now, because it feels grass-roots and…awesome? What if I like to create with my own two hands (and trusted other hands)? Does that somehow make me less professional? When people asked, I started using the analogy that if I was a car mechanic working in, say, a BMW dealership, I am just as much a professional auto mechanic as the guy on the corner at his own shop. If I’m a professional hair dresser at Bumble and Bumble versus a professional hair dresser that cuts in her basement or makes house calls, I’m still a professional. I actually do what I do. In point of fact, what I do for a living is what I live to do. As Hillman concludes, ““Professionals” in theatre are those people who are openly dedicated primarily to the activity of theatre making. A “professional” individual in theatre is someone who has made a commitment to the art of theatre, and has made that his or her primary daily activity, or has theatre as a primary daily activity as his or her goal”. Ahh. It feels great just to repeat that, doesn’t it? My commitment to the art of theatre is an integral part of my life that will never go away, not as long as I’m standing. And probably after that, too. So, no, it’s not a hobby (though I do enjoy myself very much). It is a commitment. And I’m a professional. Thank you very much.