Amateur vs Professional, Part I

As you might know, we at CWTP have been paying keen attention to the recent debates about venues in Adelaide, and given all the lobbying from community and amateur sorts regarding the Union Theatre, it has cast our minds back to another debate triggered at the memorable Adelaide Critic Circle Awards in 2008.

Like some CWTP readers who may have also been there, we vividly remember the infamous comment from David Grybowski (the sometimes reviewer, sometimes amateur actor) who declared that “the only difference between amateur and professionals is that professionals get paid” to the invited audience. It certainly wasn’t a crowd pleasing comment. We also remember vividly a response called out from the disquiet in the crowd from one of Adelaide’s well-known theatre directors: “how about training!” Grybowski was about as popular with the professional set as Kayne West was with the 2009 MTV Awards audience.

You may also remember, particularly if you are on Facebook, the debate that followed – actor Michael Habib called for professionals to boycott the awards, and Samela Harris was quick to respond on his wall with her view of the importance of amateur theatre in SA’s history. Our old friend The Advertiser and its sibling the Sunday Mail also developed a strange fixation of subtitling their reviews as either ‘amateur’ or ‘professional’ – we assume to make the difference clear to their readers. Yet a couple of professional shows were labelled ‘amateur’, apparently, according to our source near the Advertiser, because those companies didn’t work ‘full-time’ (what is ‘full-time’?: as they didn’t have full-time employees? Or didn’t have a ‘full-time’ annual program? Or perhaps weren’t funded to equity minimum to employ people full-time?) And perhaps also some amateur shows may have been labelled professional? We are not sure. Needless to say, The Advertiser’s classification has provided less clarity, rather than more, of what exactly the definition of the two is.

So we at CWTP have been wondering: what exactly is amateur and what is professional? Is the only difference between amateur and professional payment, as Grybowski claims? If that is the case, if a group of professionals work on a profit share project, is it amateur because its not paid? If an amateur group hires a venue like the Dunstan Playhouse, associated with professional theatre, could its work be classified as professional because of the context? Or (as Adelaide is quite fond of) if you engage a mixture of people who have professional experience with a mixture of those who have amateur theatre experience to perform together … well, what is that? And how does this blurring of amateur and professional play into this whole debate about venues in Adelaide at the moment?

Well we thought it might be time to open up the trusty Oxford Dictionary and check out the exact definition of amateur. The noun Amateur includes two definitions:

-a person who engages in a pursuit, esp. a sport, on an unpaid basis.

-a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity.

Well Grybowski definitely gets a point for that first part of the definition – amateurs are definitely working on an unpaid basis, and professionals are not. But it’s the second definition that makes things a bit more tricky, particularly given that is far more subjective: “contemptibly inept at a particular activity”. Ouch. No wonder Grybowski may have skipped over that part when flicking through the Oxford preparing his speech.

So, is one of the differences between amateurs and professionals ineptness or adeptness at theatre? Perhaps in other arenas, it’s a bit more clear. We don’t know if Grybowski plays recreational tennis, but if he does, we doubt that he’d regard the only difference between him and Rafael Nadal is that Nadal gets paid, and he doesn’t. It would seem extremely obvious that Nadal would be far far more adept at tennis – and Grybowski inept in comparison. However, when it comes to acting, he obviously thinks differently – he (and other amateurs) are in his mind equally adept as professionals. Given that the skill of acting is often viewed as nebulous (ie ‘you either have it… or you don’t’ etc etc) it makes things harder to judge.

There is some pretty objective data that would show that Nadal is without doubt much more adept at tennis than Grybowski (Despite our lack of knowledge about Grybowski’s tennis skills, we’re pretty confident about that one. Unless Grybowski has another talent that he is yet to reveal to Adelaide). But with acting, we don’t have this kind of solid, objective data to look at. It ends up, unfortunately, being highly subjective – left to the reviewer, acting teacher or peer to judge if a person is adept at acting.

Maybe the term ‘amateurism’ helps out here – it’s a derivative of the same noun, but in common usage doesn’t have anything to do with payment. Amateurism is definitely tied to definition number two – “contemptibly inept at a particular activity” – and unfortunately, we see way too much professional theatre that fits this definition. In fact it could be argued that there has been some rife amateurism at the State Theatre Company of SA in recent years – and yet this is South Australia’s largest professional company. Payment certainly has nothing to do with the difference between amateurism and professionalism – which is defined as: “the competence or skill expected of a professional”. Would this concept be music to Grybowski ears? Amateurism at our largest professional theatre company?

We are sure that there’s instances of great professionalism in amateur theatre (competence and skill) even though those involved are not professional, and very certain of some of the great professionalism in profit-share work by professionals who are getting paid very little, or not at all. Equally, there’s plenty of amateurism in some of our profit-share work, and plenty in the work of professionals in Australian theatre too. Perhaps we’ll explore all of that in Part II.

But for now, lets turn our attention back to the topic of the moment: venues. We’d like to have a look more closely at three venues in Adelaide we’ve discussed in an earlier CWTP post: Bakehouse Theatre, Holden St and Higher Ground. These venues are both linked to Adelaide’s amateur theatre scene, and to Adelaide’s independent professional theatre scene ­(sort of). These three options represent some of the only options for the Adelaide’s small-to-medium professional theatre sector outside of the Festival Centre and near the city.

As we’ve said before – we think these venues make a fair fist of it, but all are marred by weak, haphazard programming that has certainly stopped them becoming the hubs for professional work that they should. They certainly house their fair share of amateur work, and in fact are probably closer to being hubs for amateur work (and in some instances amateurism) than professional work. Like any hall (or space) for hire in Adelaide, they are packed with a range of work during the Fringe – as is any space that can be set up as a venue. Lets look then at what they doing outside of this time in Adelaide.

The Bakehouse site has a long history in Adelaide of being a place for independent and alternative theatre – Troupe, Red Shed and even some of Brink’s early work was there, and the work presented and programmed by these companies was risky, inventive and daring. That all changed once Peter Green took over the venue – renaming it Bakehouse – and removing the yeast that made the daring theatrical bread rise. The programming was largely dull, often self-serving to Green, and became a hall for hire for amateur work.

All three venues are funded by Arts SA, based on their potential as spaces for professional work. Interestingly, Arts SA has a clear policy that it does not fund amateur theatre – the 2009 Arts SA handbook states “Projects without professional arts outcomes, such as amateur productions” are ineligible for funding. And yet, the Bakehouse Theatre presently programmed by Pamela Munt, an amateur director who runs amateur company Unseen Theatre Company in residence at the Bakehouse. Munt and Unseen Theatre Company are not direct recipients of the funding – but she is being entrusted with programming professional work. Munt has written (in bold) on her web page that they house two professional groups, five.point.one and Accidental Productions. While its great that some collectives of young professionals are being supported, we are extremely dubious of Munt’s capacity to program professional work given she lacks this experience. We think that a venue like Bakehouse deserves (and requires) some professional programming and vision, and should be surrounding these emerging groups with exciting professional performance rather than amateur stagings of Terry Pratchett and Star Trek. Its unsurprising that this venue can be a turn off for much of the exciting independent artists and companies in Adelaide.

Higher Ground is now located in its third venue, in the former Night Train Theatre Restaurant space off Light Square. Dush Kumar and Suzanne Merrall certainly seem to have a fascinating background as a previous programmers of a venue in the Edinburgh Fringe, but perhaps the open-access, anything-goes Fringe style programming model has been the thing that’s stopped the venue from realising its potential in Adelaide. We feel that Higher Ground suffers from its lack of curation (as the Bakehouse does in a different way) which means that there’s wildly inconsistent work to be found there. The haphazard anything-goes approach might keep its head above the water at Fringe time when the sheer volume of work will lead to higher chances of both exceptionally good (and exceptionally bad) things coming through its doors. But outside of this time in Adelaide, some curation and programming vision is needed to bring the right kinds of works together. After 5 or 6 years of Higher Ground in town we have seen little sign of change and we at CWTP certainly aren’t holding our breath that they will change to reach their potential. We also hope that Arts SA doesn’t cast a blind eye to what’s not working there forever.

Finally there’s Holden Street Theatres, a cluster of buildings near the Entertainment Centre including an old church space and a small black box venue. It’s programming is a strange cocktail of amateur, professional and youth theatre and we do not think we like the way it tastes. Programmed by Martha Lott – an actor who works on both professional and amateur stages – has followed her double interests through having had amateur companies such as Chalk Farm and Mixed Salad in residence, alongside youth company Urban Myth in residence (oddly so given the company’s location and history in Unley). Like Munt, Lott has housed professionals through programs such as Directors Choice at the venue, but they have faded in the background to overloaded, entrepreneurial Fringe programs and very little in the way of professionals in the in between. Ultimately another hall for hire for independent professionals, its inconsistent, mixed programming means that its also failed to become the professional hub that it should be. We at CWTP imagine that the haphazard programming will not change with Lott at the helm of the venture, so don’t hold much hope for it to become much more than it is.

We guess this discussion has focused on what these venues are doing for professional artists, rather than amateurs – why do any of these venues have to be focused on professionals, or program professional work? Can’t these spaces have a focus on amateur work? Don’t amateur companies and audiences need venues and spaces too?

Yes, amateur companies do need venues to present their work, and in theory if any of these venues doesn’t want to focus on professional theatre, then they should be able to. The problem, however, is that each of these venues receives funding from Arts SA to operate – and given that Arts SA doesn’t fund amateur work – we should be seeing these venues producing some strong outcomes for professional artists. We at CWTP feel that Arts SA should either be encouraging, guiding, or perhaps even instructing these organisations to install a level of curation and professional programming within these venues in their funding agreements – and we feel (unfortunately) the kind of change needed is only likely with outsiders coming in and doing so. Or if the change needed isn’t viable, maybe Arts SA needs to forge a new venue venture focused on the independent professionals – which doesn’t seem to be a consideration at present in Mike’s Film and Entertainment Centre vision for new venues. We’d love to see a venue arise that can successfully draw together professionals (and professionalists) through good curation and programming.

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One Response to Amateur vs Professional, Part I

  1. David O'Brien says:

    What’s interesting about this article is the hidden issue needing greater ventilation – why is ArtSA NOT openly and vocally insisting on the management of venues mentioned showing cause as to why their funding should be rescinded on the basis of failing to offer a competent, bench mark standard of professional programming and development in respect of the professional companies/artists housed in these venues? I myself am heartily sick of negotiating between streams of amateur/professional work at these venues in which there is no sense of something growing to fruition professionally as a consequence of things being as they currently stand. We are reduced to culture of endless half arsed plodding and pottering about by artists unable to grow themselves through the benefit of a focused and managed creative program. It is definitely time for a line to be drawn in the sand regarding this, so that a) funding is being directed and utilised directly in the service of professional development in b) an environment/venue focused purely on professional practice, development and artistic programming which serves as a hub for as many second tier professional companies as possible. Hourgliass7 is correct to suggest this… and ArtSA, Premier and Cabinet have to be brought to the table to understand that such a thing is vital for sustaining and focusing on the professional nature of our professional industry and identity which is being undercut by the confusion generated by the amateur/professional dichotomy it has to cope with currently.

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