Theatre as a profession

How do we define professional when it comes to theatre or, more broadly, the performing arts in general?

It’s a question I’ve tussled with on many occasions and one where I find myself constantly refining and changing my answer. If we look to dictionaries, they tend to define professional as being the level or standard of competence expected of a professional, which means professional work in theatre is about the quality of the work.

But, for most theatre makers, professional is about being paid. You can profess your love for your chosen profession, train in it, improve your skills, collaborate with like-minded theatre makers and put on quality shows but if you don’t see a cent for your efforts then it’s a passion rather than a profession.

For me, I think professions have to involve payment for skills and expertise. In Australia we tend to categorise theatre as professional, pro-am or independent and amateur.

  • Professional theatre normally pays its artists at least the Equity award rate. It often recognises longevity, skill and years of service by paying higher rates for longer established artists.
  • Pro-am, independent or profit-share companies tend to be unfunded companies or collectives of artists working for nothing but with an intent to pay everyone involved. This means if the show makes money, that money will be split between the artists.
  • Amateur companies normally don’t pay their artists and any money made in the production goes to the company rather than the performers.

Things get blurry because a professional actor might work in all three sectors in one year and an amateur company might employ a star for a show and pay them while everyone else in the show works for nothing.

When I go to the theatre, the most important thing in my mind is the quality of the work. But I do find that I pre-judge shows depending on where they sit on the scale of amateur to professional.

I find myself in a conundrum. I want my artisans to be paid. I don’t want to buy clothes that have come from a sweatshop. And yet I’m quite happy to go to shows where I know that no one involved has been paid a cent and most have had to forego income to be involved. I want to support those artists for their dedication and effort. But if we keep seeing excellent, professional quality theatre created with blood, sweat and tears and not a drop of finance, then does that make that the norm?

My concern is that funding bodies and professional theatres who include unpaid, independent work in their seasons will come to think they don’t need to pay artists when they can get the passion, dedication and professionalism for free.

I know many of us create theatre for the love of it, but all love and no money adds up to burnout in my book.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d like to know how you define professional and amateur and whether you think the distinctions are still important in the performing arts today or if it’s just a matter of semantics…

Further reading: An excellent post by Kate Foy on the topic.


Thanks for raising the issue,Katherine. I agree that all love and no money adds up to burn-out. But is it true that the professional theatres who include 'independent' work in their seasons are relying on the unpaid work of professional artists? I ask this as I have classed myself as an 'independent theatre-maker' for the past 10 years, yet find ways to fund myself and the professional artists I choose to collaborate with. This funding and support usually covers creative development, rehearsals, and productions, and has involved partnering with theatre venues who have given both cash and in-kind (space, equipment, marketing) support. In my experience, the work I am NOT paid for is the long hours of administration - writing endless grant applications, sweating over complicated budgets, etcetera - to ensure that our time on the floor IS paid for. I suppose I am asking you to nuance your definition of 'independent'.

Having said that, I cannot deny that I have always given more creative juice (and to be honest, so have most of my collaborators) than was strictly paid for. We are not unlike small business-owners who (especially in the first five years) always work more than the hours their businesses can pay them. Successful business owners eventually reach sustainability. I'm not so sure it is the same for successful independent theatre-makers. All love and not enough money, or all love and inconsistent money, still lead to burn-out.

Jill Greenhalgh (director of the international Magdalena Project) once told me, in the context of discussing sustainability, that she was paid for the work she wasn't particularly keen to make, and that she paid for the work she wanted to make. I wonder what similar (or different) workable compromises Australian women theatre-makers have arrived at for themselves? As I said, I pay for my own hours of administration to enable me to enjoy funded professional independence as an artist. I'm not satisfied that this is the only or best way. But it is a way that is currently sustaining me as I seek a better solution. 

Dawn Albinger

Hi guys,

I'd just like to open with, "isn't this website thing great?" It's awesome that we can converse/post/blog in this way.  

From my personal point of view and my work as my ensemble's director AND producer (The Duck House) I put in most of my hours in the producer sense. But as our careers as artists are only in the first 5 years, we still get on the floor and make work without getting paid. But we are in a phase where we have put somewhat of a limit on how much longer we do this. If I continue to not be paid for the administration AND the making, this will definitely lead to burnout. So we will only work this way for a little bit longer because it is unsustainable. 

I do not think there are really any sustainable models for independent theatre makers. My company has become an organisation and we will be seeking program funding in the next 12-24 months, so we are in a slightly different position. If we manage to secure some funds then of course we can continue to produce. We will have enough for a strong beginning. But this is only one example because we, as an ensemble, have set ourselves up to become a business as well. Which is a model most independent artist's cannot follow. We have chosen this specific path to try and become more sustainable but in an ensemble setting this is easier.

So I don't really have any answers or can offer a definition to 'professional' theatre. I just wanted to share where I am up to and my immediate thoughts more on sustainability and what we will and won't do without money. I think it is an individual situation,l but i agree with the point that we should not accept working for nothing as the norm. It should not be acceptable, but until we can shift our society's way of seeing the arts I don't know how this can change.

Artists will always make art. For as long as they personally can. That's how I feel anyway.





Hello all,

It is interesting that just last Saturday, my group, Theatrestrays was invited to speak at a seminar for a group of students who are doing their masters in arts and cultural management. In our presentation, we highlighted how we work and the issues of infrastruture and funding poicy here in Sinagpore. the many reasons why Theatrestrays or even myself have been able to practice my art or have a space to practice is through the backing and sometimes generiousity of various institution.  In the presentation, I shared that for our latest work _ PAPER BOAT  - we had to try to fit within the infrastructure of that particular establishement.ANd that is where the fight begins and the struggle - as it was a commisioned piece of work, the establishment sometimes steps in a share their views - though I am thankful that I have learnt the art of negogiation so we managed to hold on strongly to the integerity of the work -

There really is no solution, going back to the seminar- I asked the students whether they can see any change within the infrastruture and what changes can be made within the policy etc. My question at the end is about sustainability - and managing loses.

I can understand the issues of being burnt out etc and finding that sometimes it is easier to just stop working or creating. Maybe I am idealistic but if I don't work and if I don't put in the administrative work - where is my funding coming from etc.

Quoting from Dawn Albinger's reply


"Jill Greenhalgh (director of the international Magdalena Project) once told  
me, in the context of discussing sustainability, that she was paid for the  
work she wasn't particularly keen to make, and that/ she/ paid for the work  
she /wanted/ tomke"

This hold true for me to but I do know that eventually this will eventually turn around



This question continues to be raised at regular intervals. I remember it back in the 1960s before I went overseas, when I came back to Brisbane in the 1990s, in the middle of the naughties, and it still hasn't gone away.  Funnily enough, I don't recall hearing it being asked in the UK, or in the USA.  They seem to be pretty clear that your profession is what you do, and the way you do it, rather than whether you get paid to do it or not. Not every activity can claim to be a profession. I suspect it is something to do with either formal training, or having a decent apprenticeship involved. It certainly implies a level of expertise, and dedication to the furtherance of the aims of the profession itself.

By this latter definition, amateur theatre makers are not professional, never were and never will be.  In order to be professional, they must leave their amateur way of working behind, and ensure that they have the relevant skill sets to BE paid, should anyone require their professional services in return for money.  And make no mistake, amateur theatre - for which I have a great affection and respect - makes theatre differently.

There was an interview with Sir Laurence Olivier recorded in 1948 replayed on ABC Radio National Replay at the weekend.  Someone asked him if he didn't agree that the amateur theatre was responsible for keeping Theatre alive in Australia. Check out his answer here:

Essentially, he states that while amateur theatre is great fun for those involved, and it keeps the idea of theatre alive, for theatre itself to be alive it should be professional, and that means players who work at their craft constantly.

Of course, in today's social and political climate, it is unthinkable that we could afford to pay all actors to work all the time. So we rely on some of them working from time to time and for no pay.  As KattfromPerth says, artists will always make art. It ain't what we do, it's who we are. Is a doctor not a doctor just because he's out of work? In my opinion, professional artists are those who care enough about their art to train at it, to keep developing their skills, and who constantly work at their craft.

I was at a workshop in Phoenix, AZ earlier this year, for aspiring young actors in Years 10 - 12.(Phoenix has a lively film industry, independent of Hollywood but very interconnected) There was a casting agent, a managing agent, a film director, amonst other industry professionals present. The piece of advice that was constantly reiterated by each and every one of them was "train, train and then train some more. And never stop training".  Because training IS working at your craft.  And you are not professional unless you are doing that.

So there! I said my piece...