Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Not Just Semantics

In a very courteous and well-written response to my last post, Anonymous says that people who think Richmond theater is semi-professional may be right, that it may be a matter of opinion. While I understand his/her line of thinking, I think he/she is patently wrong. When I go to dictionary.com, the first definition I see (pulled from the Random House dictionary) for ‘professional’ is “following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain.” Some of the other definitions cited mention variations on “performed by persons receiving pay.” There is also several definitions that cite the contrast between someone who is paid for something versus someone who does something as a pastime.

In theater, like many other professions, if you can find someone to pay you for it, you are a professional. It’s a fact, not an opinion. I stand with Mr. Hamm per his response and I base it on my personal experience as well. There were a couple of years when I worked as a computer consultant, a freelance writer and a school administrator all at the same time. The amount I was paid was directly DISproportionate to the amount of time I spent on each vocation. That is, if somebody asked me what I did for a living, based on how much time I spent I would say school admin but based on what was paying the bills, I would say computer geek (the factual answer to that would have been “my wife’s salary” but that’s another road we needn’t go down right now…)

Having said that, I completely agree with Anon that any debate over whether a work of Richmond theater is “professional” or not isn’t the principle obstacle in the way of improving or bolstering the local stage scene. The show that prompted the original comments starred Joe Inscoe, an actor with decades of TV and film work to his credit. It was directed by Chase Kniffen who has worked professionally in theater here and in New York since he was a teenager. If these aren’t accomplished theater professionals, who is? That still didn’t stop some people from disliking the show. Over the holidays, I saw the latest “Drifty” show at the Mill, starring (among others) Tom Width, Joy Williams, and Audra Honaker, three performers who I believe are among the few folks in Richmond who work full-time in theater, who are therefore in even the most narrow definition, theater "professionals." The show was wonderfully entertaining but is it what people who call Richmond theater generally “semi-pro” have in mind when they think of “professional theater?”

In my opinion, while the “professional” aspect of the Richmond theater situation is important, it is also somewhat of a distraction, rather than something that lies at the root of the issue. I contend that the best of Richmond theater can pretty much stand up to the best of theater anywhere. Two of last season’s standouts in my mind were “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and the Mill’s “Altar Boyz.” Both involved professionals offstage and on of the caliber you’d find anywhere (including New York), both imported talent from bigger markets, and both were technically superior. I’d defy anyone to show me a production staged anywhere else of these shows that was appreciably better. Something like “Fully Committed” with Scott Wichmann could hardly be done better anywhere else because so much of the play has to do with the lead actor and Scott was phenomenal. This season’s “Boys Life” at the Firehouse was head-and-shoulders above the production I saw in New York years ago, again largely because of the quality of the actors involved.

So maybe an argument could be made that beyond some of these leading productions, there is a fair amount of mediocre theater here. This is true everywhere and if you think otherwise you haven’t seen enough Off Off Broadway shows or some of the fringier shows in other major markets. I’m not exactly an expert on this but I have seen dreadful Shakespeare in Denver, very average second-tier shows in DC and a couple of highly touted Off Broadway shows that were not impressive. And you can bet many or most of the people involved in those shows were not full-time “professional” theater artists based on the narrow definition the people Anon is talking about might be basing their opinions on.

People who tout quality in other markets are most often traveling to those markets to see the marquis productions; after all, do most people travel to New York or DC to see Off Broadway dreck? And as for the “real shows” that come to Richmond, didn’t I hear that “Avenue Q” had a non-Equity cast? So what does that say about the “professionalism” of that production?

Anyway, I would suggest that the key issue here remains education / promotion. As I’ve been told by several folks in the biz, the population at large is more highly influenced by TV these days than any other media and there is very little TV advertising for local theater. The Internet has a growing influence but theater still has trouble reaching the Internet demo. Beyond the functional aspect of education / promotion, I think an increased focus on aspects of local theater that cry out “professional” would be an important part of the message. Taglines that include phrases like “starring award-winning actress, Audra Honaker” or “from the producers of last season’s smash ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’” work in movie promotion, maybe they could work in theater promotion.

I certainly don’t have definitive solutions to the woes of local theater companies. But I think that as long as some people are convinced that local theater is “semi-pro,” there will be problems.

One final point to this ramble (and one I may have to take up later): I enjoy people who say that what critics need to do is judge more harshly – as if harsh judgments will somehow magically make theater better (versus a more likely outcome: convincing many potential patrons to stay away). I would counter that what critics need to do – in the dwindling amount of space that they are given to do so – is to judge constructively. I would also humbly suggest that what more theater professionals might consider is responding constructively to criticism. As someone who experiences both sides of that equation, I know that neither side is particularly easy. Still, I do think it’s a general direction worth pursuing and one that may hold the key to the long-term well-being of those in Richmond involved in either critical or theatrical pursuits.


A Respecful Disagreer said...

So, if someone, say Scott Wichmann, took a role in a show that did not pay him for his work - would he then be considered unprofessional, or not a professional? How can it work both ways? And, what is a professional to do if he works in a town where the money is almost non-existent and it can be very hard to find theater work?

You stated: "And as for the “real shows” that come to Richmond, didn’t I hear that “Avenue Q” had a non-Equity cast? So what does that say about the “professionalism” of that production?"

This statement is proven incorrect by your earlier research on the term "professional." The actors in a non-Union tour are...guess what? Paid for their work. That means, according to your definition, they are "professionals." Therefore, it is a professional production. There is a lot of misunderstanding about non-Union work. The only thing that being "Equity" means is that you get health insurance, discounts on lots of fun stuff, and your paycheck is a bit larger, and you're treated well.

Primarily, the reason that tours go non-Union is a decision by the producers to keep production costs down. Some tours that have been running for years ("Phantom of the Opera", "Les Miserables", etc) are Union tours (bus & truck). Others in more recent years, for the most part, are non-Union. But you can bet your sweet bippy that each actor, costumer, wigmaker, flyman, and bus driver is paid for what they do. In my mind, that equals that they are professionals, in a professional production.

Now, the quality of the non-Union tours varies. Do some research into Troika and NETworks Tours. Most of their tours are non-Union. A brand new tour of "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" is getting ready to hit the country - all the same original costumes, sets, makeup, special effects, staging, etc, from the original Broadway production will be used. However, the actors are non-Union. Does this mean that, even though you'd be seeing the show you'd see in New York, it is not professional just because of the title "non-Union?"

I apologize for raising these points, but it has to be looked at in the correct frame of mind. This is not meant to be harsh, or vitriolic...just asking some good questions, and raising some things that need to be analyzed instead of saying "Well, this is how it is, so there."

Thanks for this blog, Dave - it's very enlightening and a fascinating read at times. I appreciate your imput and thought that you put into your posts.

Dave T said...

Thanks for your response, ARD, and thanks for your positive note at the end. However, in this case, it was the speed and ramblingness of my posting that may have led to some misunderstanding.

As far as Avenue Q, the point I was trying to make was that my understanding of Avenue Q was that it was a professional production put together with actors, some of which were Equity some of which were not. This is the exact same situation with many Richmond productions, such as last season's Thoroughly Modern Millie or the just-closing Spelling Bee at the Barksdale. So my point is that, in many if not most ways, these local productions are comprised in a similar way to the "real shows" that come in off the road. So I think people who somehow consider the traveling shows "real" in contrast to our local productions don't have much of a leg to stand on.

On the question using Scott as an example, if he was in a production and not paid, I wouldn't consider it a professional production. He may do professional-level work but the production isn't professional.

Don't apologize for raising good questions -- I appreciate your candor and the thought you put in your well-written response. Keep raising them!