The meaning of professionalism was the topic at the first LA STAGE Talks session of 2013, held Tuesday at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum in Pasadena. Artists from organizations big and small gathered to hear and engage with a panel of LA theater managers and artistic directors, as well as Michael Bateman, a Yale University researcher.
Panelists included former Center Theatre Group managing director Charles Dillingham, Pasadena Playhouse executive director and former Actors’ Gang managing director Elizabeth Doran, 24th Street Theatre artistic director Debbie Devine, and Brimmer Street Theatre executive director Jenny Byrd. Terence McFarland, CEO of LA STAGE Alliance, moderated.
Recently, Yale researcher Bateman surveyed more than 700 American theater managers on subjects ranging from codes of ethics to priorities of who they serve (audience, public, artistic director/artistic vision, etc.). Exactly 73 of those who responded were from Los Angeles, and Bateman kicked off the talk by presenting the conclusions he drew.
The 30-minute presentation contained an overwhelming amount of data, and the Yale School of Drama graphic in the bottom-right corner of each slide seemed very fitting for such a comprehensive and thorough investigation of the field (a final report is still forthcoming).
While the national results were fascinating, this LA audience was particularly engaged with the LA results and how they compared with the national results.
One highlight from Bateman’s survey was that serving the public is a much higher priority in LA than in the national group. In the discussion that followed, that finding became a major talking point. Speculation arose that many resident theaters are so busy serving their own audience, board of directors and artists that the general public of their regions are often neglected. LA’s attention to that area was a point of pride for many in the room, particularly for panelist Devine of 24th Street Theatre — a company that is dedicated to serving as a public service provider as well as an arts organization.
In LA, parking is a sometime unappreciated aspect of intersecting with the public. LA theaters sometimes face severe parking problems, particularly if smaller companies are attempting to find larger venues. According to Dillingham, “it took 15 years to find an area to place the Kirk Douglas Theatre” — which now uses after-hours and weekend parking at Culver City’s city hall.
Another major highlight from the Yale study was that “Manager-y Managers” — theater managers who are interested in solely practicing management (as opposed to the art which is the artistic director’s domain) — are happier in their careers. This led to discussion about school training programs and the influx of young professionals who have specifically trained in theater management. The panelists agreed that they hope the new waves of trained theater managers would lead to an increase in overall professionalism in the future of American theater.
Every panelist took a crack at what professionalism meant. Dillingham, who was also the interim executive director of Pasadena Playhouse during part of last year before Doran was appointed, described how professionalism was formerly defined simply as the ability to pay the staff and artists. Speaking of money, he advised everyone at a theater to “fill out the expense report as though it was going to be the subject of a board meeting” in order to avoid financial trouble down the road.
Byrd said professionalism is more a matter of attitude toward the work, while Devine defined it by the infrastructure in which the work exists. Doran pointed out that in today’s internet-driven world, professionalism can sometimes be dictated by the audience. Positive Goldstar ticketing reviews, which audience members post on an event page after seeing a show, can be used in marketing and publicity, she noted, to help sway public opinion of the work in the direction of deeming it “professional”.
The theatrical unions, including Actors’ Equity and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), were also hot discussion topics. The consensus was that the unions create a standard of work that people aspire to or continue to uphold and, overall, that’s good “” but also that those who aren’t in a union can still be professionals, and those in a union can be unprofessional.
Clearly, there’s no easy answer to what defines a professional in American theater, just as it’s hard to predict the future. There are certainly trends we can observe — or hope for. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if in 10 years from now people pile into the theaters?” Doran remarked. She detected a possible shift in the public’s fascination with the virtual reality of the past few decades to the more human, live experience, citing the fact that the recent film version of Les Misérables recorded the musical numbers live, while filming.
In the end, in trying to define professionalism, we encounter that same problem we face in creating the art, where we have these great big ideas but often struggle to find the structure to contain them.
Many parts of the theatrical experience are difficult to define objectively — professionalism, excellence, “funny”, boredom. Devine, borrowing a phrase made famous by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a discussion of pornography, summed it up best when she said: “It’s like porn. It’s tough to define but I know it when I see it.”
**All TALKS photos by Dani Oliver.