In Praise of Amateurism; or, For a Theatre of the Unassuming

Is this lady a mother, or a child-care worker? If she's the child's mother, she's probably not being paid for her work. So does that make her an amateur mother? If she's making money keeping the child happy, perhaps as the owner of a child-care facility, is she then a kind of "professional mother"? Does that make her better?

In 1984, I was a young guy living in a big city for the first time, working and studying acting in an intensive two-year evening program. Across the road from where I lived was a high school, Malvern Collegiate, and one day I noticed little handbills stapled to telephone poles announcing an upcoming production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and American Dream by the school’s drama club. I had already read The Zoo Story and loved it, so I went along to the show.

            It was fab. The show was performed with passion and enthusiasm and love. It’s stuck with me. I assume no one was being paid.

            In those same years, when I had a bit of money in the bank or an indulgent relative who’d buy my ticket, I went along to see shows at some of Toronto’s professional theatres. I can’t really remember any of those shows.

            So what does “amateur” (the show at Malvern) mean, as compared with “professional” (the shows at the Tarragon, or the Factory)?

            Amateur comes from amare, the Italian word for “to love.” Amateurs are people who love what they do. I remember the actors in Malvern Collegiate’s show, exuding joy and enthusiasm (from the Greek enthous, “to be imbued by a spirit”).

            Is professional the opposite of amateur? This is certainly the distinction that is often made in the context of theatre. So does this mean that, by definition, “professionals” don’t love what they’re doing? Well, often they appear not to, and it’s evident from the over-seriousness, the preciousness, of many “professional” theatre productions.

            But some “professionals” do love their work. So are they also “amateurs”? Most wouldn’t be pleased if you used that word to describe them.

            I think the problem here is that the two words aren’t talking about the same thing. Let’s face it: professional is a business term, from the Canada Revenue Agency lexicon, having to do with money. You make money, you’re a professional. But the term is corrupted in our society to become an indicator of status: if you’re a professional, it means you’re better at what you do. Who’d want a non-professional surgeon or accountant, right? Or, by extension, a non-professional actor?

            Amateur, on the other hand, refers to one’s attitude towards one’s work. It implies that your main motivation is love rather than money, status or awards. But because an amateur will happily work for nothing, the word amateur connotes someone who isn’t all that good; because if they were good, they’d demand payment for their services, right? Just like the aforementioned surgeon or accountant?

Thing is, art isn’t a business.

         As an artist, money is nice, because it buys time and space in the artist’s life to be more creative, it obviates the need to earn money elsewhere. But money is also a trap: following the money can mean doing things you don’t love, which becomes apparent in the work, or distorting what you really want to do to fit it into a context that will attract money.

          What irritates me is the presumption that “professional” is where it’s at. When one talks about theatre in Canada, the discussion is around so-called professional theatre, which is generally taken to mean a bricks-and-mortar structure supported by public money that produces shows that engage union actors and technicians and pays them all, hence the elevated ticket prices. This type of theatre can become terrifying disconnected from the reality of the society that it claims to mirror.

But theatre is much more than the kind of big shows I’ve just described, and I resent the assumption that everything else is “amateur” and hence can be dismissed from serious discussion.

         As I say, Malvern Collegiate drama club’s production is more memorable to me than many “professional” shows I’ve seen.

         Mainstream theatre businesses (which is the term I’m substituting for “professional theatres”) are fine, but they do not define “theatre.” Personally, I’m not much interested in theatre-as-profit-making-business because I find it results in overblown, overpriced, overserious productions. You can disagree with me, and that’s fine; I’m just expressing my opinion. In my view, theatre can be one person performing for another in their living room. Actually, as a performer, I like a bit more infrastructure than that—a slightly elevated little stage is nice, maybe a light. But just a corner of a room with a few people watching can be fine too.

         I love it.

         Call me an amateur—I love that too.


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