There are over twenty theaters in the greater Buffalo region and a dozen or more outside the city limits.
For the average theater goer, every weekend they have a choice of attending a theater specializing in juke-box musicals, a theater that focuses on issues surrounding the homosexual community, a theater that presents works to young minds, or among the theatrical diversity, a pro-union theater that doesn't hire equity.
Plenty of options with something for everyone in this city.
Yet, with all these choices, a patron could easily become disorientated, confused and in search of some clarity to which theater they should attend. To the rescue comes forth a catchy word issued by Buffalo theater groups to help these poor, lost souls find their way to the right company.
What is this buzz-word foghorn?
In a recent interview with Buffalo Spree Online, a director for a local theater company had to say this about a production of Tracy Letts, "He's a very important playwright in American Theater," stating the obvious, "(our production) may be the first professional production of his work in Buffalo."
Can anyone spot the catch-phrase?
Try this, "A Professional Theatre at D'Youville College," or this, "A non-for-profit professional musical theatre dedicated to quality musical theatre." Not yet? Try "Western New York's only professional regional theatre."
Indeed, the word professional is wielded around like some great tool that separates those theater companies from the lesser-thans, and leads folks through the haze of diversity to their doorstep. By using this bold word, they loudly proclaim, "We pay our actors and therefore our productions are good", and, by golly, the people believe this to be true.
What is a professional theater?
Although there are no clear rules outlined in a theater manual, three classifications of professional theater have been defined. The first is amateur theater in which the actor does not get paid, the second is semi-professional theater in which the actor does get paid but not to union scale, and the third is professional theater in which all involve get union pay-scale or are of Actors Equity Association (AEA) and Local Stagehand #33.
The last Buffalo theater that hired mainly union and belonged to the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) closed its door when Studio Arena filed for bankruptcy in March 2008.
Based on the definition above, evidence points out that Buffalo theaters are semi-professional and, regardless if they pay an actor $1,000 or $10 a show or hire one AEA member and pay the rest a lower scale, the lack of an union pay-scale (including payment for rehearsal time) places them at this classification.
Then is this use of professional misleading?
There is the argument that the use of professional indicates a commitment to bringing a sense of quality performances to the stage because those who are on stage have the drive and passion to be actors. The pay justifies their dedication to the craft. In turn, the production benefits from this professional commitment.
Others use the argument that when a actor professes his or her belief in what they are doing, this defines them in the true sense of the word. In turn, this is what makes them a professional.
AEA and Local 33 says a professional is someone who gets union scale.
The definition of professional is broken down into several explanations. Two definitions that stand out list professional as being "following an occupation as paid job: engaged in an occupation as a paid job rather than a hobby," or to be "very competent: showing a high degree of skill or competence."
A third definition can indicate what most theaters mean by being professional, "Businesslike: conforming to the standards of skill, competence, or character normally expected of a properly qualified and experienced person in a work environment-'professional attitude'."
Ultimately, whatever label is used really doesn't matter. What's in a name? Five years ago not one company spelled theater with an "er" and now there are at least three that do so.
Does the spelling effect what is presented on stage? Absolutely not.
What matters is the leading of people through this saturated haze of theater diversity by labeling the work presented on stage as professional. This label creates a way of separating one theater from another by having patrons assume that because the work is define as such, this is the type of performances audience should attend; regardless of what work is presented on stage.
By using a misleading label to define some sort of pedigree, theaters that use the word professional deceitfully place themselves in a higher position over their peers, and create a comparison grade for audience and media members. This affects box-office sales, theater reviews and the reputation of lesser-known and community-based theater companies.
Whether or not the quality of works presented could maintain a professional "grade" (as according to the definition), the label should be removed unless companies decide to go completely union and join LORT.
Of course this is expensive and in this economy placing the professional theater label is a cheaper move.
Despite whatever label is used, what matters is what is presented on stage. If a theater is presenting solid works with solid acting, they can call themselves whatever they want. If an actor feels he/she is doing the best work and is wholly committed to the role and dedicated to the process, then they can call themselves whatever they want. If the tech crew is providing a solid backbone to every production, then they... okay, you get the point.
Start paying them AEA or Local 33 scale on every production throughout the season, then everyone can claim to be working in a professional theater.
Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director for the semi-professional American Rep Theater of WNY, Inc. "Western New York's only professional regional theatre"comes from the now defunct, and Buffalo's only LORT house, Studio Arena.