by Robin C. Whittaker
This article was written at the request of Theatre Alberta staff. Dr. Whittaker will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Community Theatre Summit at Banff Centre for the Arts in March. To learn more about the summit and Dr. Whittaker please click here.
Community theatre. Amateur theatre. Nonprofessionalizing theatre. No doubt the first two terms are familiar, the third less so. Some people have strong views about which they prefer. Each is a product of history and in usage each reflects a theatre ecology in a time and a place. But how do these terms function and how do they affect the ways in which a company may be perceived in public and, therefore, how it draws and serves its members?
“Amateur theatre,” by its ubiquitous definition, refers to theatre practised for the love or fondness of the stage under feudal, mercantile and, later, capitalist conditions. But when members of the last century’s emerging theatre profession asserted that they too love their work, the term became increasingly disengaged from its Latin root and instead came more prevalently to mean “unpaid” or “volunteer” work. As certain theatre practices have professionalized their labour and working conditions, the term “amateur” increasingly referred to those areas of cultural production that are not pursued by union members. In a society that values paid labour and fair wages, “amateur” morphed into a derogatory term that elides a lack of wages with a lack of quality, signifying, however unfairly, dilettantish, unfocused, imitative, and inferior products and behaviours. If audiences should avoid an amateur doctor or lawyer, for example, should they avoid an amateur artist too?
The term “community theatre” has found increasing popularity over the past fifty years. The idea is that the theatre both serves its immediate locale and is made up of members of that locale. What is inferred (though not always accurately) is that community members are not the same as the trained and experienced experts, they are just the artist next door. Like “amateur,” “community” carries connotations too. One study found that “community” is used as a “God word” in front of which we abase ourselves (Bell and Newby 15). People living in industrialized nations use it to conjure nostalgia for “organic solidarity” and a “good life” that may never have existed (22, 23). Indeed, the word’s vast and disparate uses led the study to conclude that, “the one common element in all of them was man [sic]!” (15). People appropriate the word “community” to endear their cause to others. In theatre, “community” may refer to a (beloved) geographical area or to a group of (tight-knit) artists. It may also refer to a number of specific theatre practices that include the relatively recent term “community-based performance” in which professional artists descend upon a community to help them tell their story. Where “amateur” may hold too many negative connotations to accurately reflect a theatre’s work, “community” may hold too many easy positive connotations to set it apart.
As definitions are claimed and re-appropriated, new terms emerge that better reflect contemporary practices and intensions. In my research on theatre practiced in the professional era, I use the term “nonprofessionalizing theatre” to refer to those theatre companies (and the practices that they employ) that adhere, at least nominally, to open participatory policies and rely mainly on volunteer, even membership, commitment (both long term core and short term nomadic); and, importantly, explicitly reject the notion of becoming a professional company. Some members of a nonprofessionalizing theatre company may themselves have aspirations to join the profession later on, others may now have ‘retired’ from the profession and seek new challenges, while other still have no intention of pursuing the profession but hold down day jobs and rehearse evenings and weekends. An administrator, building manager, or a stage director may be paid for their work at a nonprofessionalizing theatre, but for the most part the artists volunteer. Though perhaps a little unwieldy at first, the term nonprofessionalizing foregrounds this sort of theatre practice’s bond with an ever-changing profession while at the same time confirming its flexible freedoms outside of it. Thus, a season of plays might yield contemporary, period, or new plays spanning a range of genres and styles.
Historically, the theatre profession adopted the best practices of its amateur predecessors and codified them. At today’s nonprofessionalizing theatre companies, professional approaches to the work are adopted because nonprofessionalizing theatre companies often expect their volunteers to be “more professional than the professionals” in the absences of contracts and collective agreements. At nonprofessionalizing theatres, the professional approach comes from within.