Amateur: A person who engages in a study, sport or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit.
Professional: A person engaging in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation.
“The amateur works until they get something right.
The professional works until they can’t go wrong.”
– Julie Andrews
Last week, my sister Anna and I went to see an amateur production of ‘Rent’. Our friend Sophie was playing Joanne and Anna has known the show’s director for years. I’m not going to write a review of the production…but I will say that I was incredibly impressed. All of the principal characters just ‘got it’. I didn’t sit there thinking “Oh, they are acting-schmacting”. I believed them. The ensemble singing was slick and powerful too. That ‘amateur’ company had adopted a professional attitude and put on a bloody good show.
Chatting to my Anna after seeing the show made me think about amateur vs. professional theatre. Anna, Sophie and a number of other friends are extremely talented performers who put their heart and soul into working on amateur theatre productions. They pay their society subscriptions and love being part of the process from rehearsal to ‘show week’ with no pay cheque at the end. Anna, knowing I’m itching to work (Cue “I really need this job” from A Chorus Line) said to me: “Why don’t you just do a show for fun?” I responded: “Oh, I don’t know, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to do that…it might be frowned upon by my agent/casting directors etc…” (!!) To which, by brilliantly bloody minded, red-headed sister said: “Bullshit! You don’t have to tell them anyway! Do you think it is better to let your training go to waste?!” Though she be but the little sister, she is fierce.
I have a BMus and MA in Music and a year’s professional Musical Theatre training to my name. I call myself a professional singer/actress/music and singing teacher. I earn most of my income from teaching singing. I have had one properly paid acting job so far this year and a smattering of unpaid work. As a late arrival to the musical theatre business, I’m finding it hard (impossible?) to get into auditions for West End shows. It’s even beyond tricky to get seen for fringe work that pays as little as £200 for a four week run. I know there are hundreds, probably thousands of talented performers in this very boat…and then there are hundreds who get into the audition room but miss out on the job…and hundreds who get a job but miss out on the next one. I was well aware of this when I made the decision to train in Musical Theatre. I’m not complaining. With odds like these why don’t I just give up? Because I don’t want to. I want to perform. I want to be paid to perform. But, I don’t want to wait.
As a ‘professional’ performer, it is easy to join the thumb-twiddling, madness inducing waiting. Waiting for the next audition. Putting your holiday plans on hold or not committing to anything more than temp work so you can be available for any performing job that comes along. There is no joy in waiting.
Agents/Casting Directors/Other industry types often warn new graduates off joining amateur dramatic societies. True, it is not appropriate to include amateur theatre credits on your professional CV. But is there any harm in practising your craft? What if there is a role that you would love to play professionally but you can’t get anywhere close to an audition for it?
Industry ‘powers that be’ are often positive about actors creating their own work. Putting on a small scale show with a few actors is (just about) feasible…but a lavish full scale production of a musical…not so much. There are well-established amateur musical theatre companies around the country that put on full scale musicals in top theatres. When I lived in Sheffield, I performed with two amateur theatre companies (STOS and Croft House) who put on shows in the Sheffield Lyceum (Sheffield’s receiving house). The production values and budget were significantly higher than a lot of profit share/professional theatre that I have seen or been involved in. The experience of performing in such an amazing space, with lots of talented people and a full band, was wonderful. The sense of community in amateur theatre can not be taken for granted: amateur companies will support one another’s shows, they show up for rehearsals and often they show up and help when times are tough for their members. Why do so many ‘professionals’ look down on this and refuse to be a part of it? Scared that you will be branded an ‘amateur’ for life if you play Eliza in Soandso Light Operatic Society’s production of ‘My Fair Lady’? How does doing nothing but waiting for that West End contract to drop into your lap make you more of a professional than someone who learns and plays a role for no money?
Paid performing jobs are scarce. There are a lot of us who are aiming to make a living in this crazy world of show business and there is not enough ‘top flight’ work out there for everyone. Most of us have ‘another string to our bow’ that is more lucrative. Ideally, that string is something that you enjoy and that allows you flexibility to take performing jobs. But while we are striving to find a ‘professional’ performing job we mustn’t lose our professional attitude. As Julie says, “A professional works until they can’t go wrong”. So get to work. Make your own work and keep going until you can’t go wrong.
I’m off to book a venue for ‘What Would Julie Do?’: the show and get working on that …and if anyone needs an Eliza…Cameron Mackintosh or Soandso Light Operatic…give me a call!