The Amateur-Professional Divide

I just read an article by Isaac Butler on the difference between amateur and professional theatre in the USA. It was inspired by a blog post about the same topic in photography. In the era of cheap(er) high quality cameras and Photoshop, the quality of the amateur’s work is often comparable to professionals, and so is the number of hours per week they devote to the activity.

Butler, writing at Parabasis, takes the argument to the stage. However, the issues for performers are not a matter of technology, but of training and membership.

The Delusion Driving Much of American Theater
our current system largely rewards club-house membership, not excellence, and it’s because we have increasingly established and codified paths to being deemed a professional that have to do with attendance of the correct schools, interning at the correct summer festivals, (and having the money to be able to do so) etc. and only somewhat to do with doing good work.

And I’ll take up the torch for relating this to the Canadian stage and stage combat in particular.


There is a very real divide between the amateur and the professional. It is national union membership. For the stage, that is Equity, for the screen it is ACTRA. And here in BC, there’s UBCP for some reason.

What is required to get into the Canadian Actor’s Equity Association?

Apprenticeship Method (most popular):

  1. Register to become an apprentice
  2. Accumulate 3 credits on Equity shows within 3 years
  3. Pay annual dues.


  1. A director casts you in a major role, and offers you an Equity contract
  2. Pay annual dues.

Not many people know about the second method, and that’s because it doesn’t happen that often. If a director needs a particular talent, he must look within the union first. If he cannot find an appropriate actor, he may then look outside the union and offer a contract. The reason this is rare is that there aren’t too many reasons to go outside the union. Need a tall guy? There are thousands. Need a tattooed girl? Got many of them too.

So, if you expect to be invited, don’t hold your breath.

Should I Apprentice?

Apprenticeship has advantages and disadvantages which should be considered before committing time, money, and stress toward that goal.


  • You’re on the road to professional accreditation (obviously)
  • You’re considered for union roles just like a member
  • You get many benefits of the union, such as insurance


  • You are not permitted to work on any non-union show
  • You pay yearly dues without full privileges
  • If you don’t get sufficient credits, you could be an apprentice for much longer than two years

So it depends on your goals and where you see yourself. A lot of performers want to keep performing in semi-professional venues without changing their stage name.

Yes, many union members and apprentices perform in non-union shows by changing their name in the program. If they are caught, they face hefty fines. However, if work is slow in the professional world, then a non-union gig might pay the bills.

If you make money in non-union shows on a consistent basis, and you don’t want to hide your identity or risk fines, then don’t become an apprentice. You’d be cutting yourself off from that community. You can still work on union shows, but not in major roles, and for less pay than your union counterparts.

Consider becoming part of the union as a long-term investment in your career. Most theatre schools give you at least one credit towards your union status upon graduation. So it makes sense to become an apprentice so that the credit doesn’t go to waste.

The Bigger Picture

It makes sense that we define working conditions for professionals by a union of performers who will refuse to work under less favourable conditions. That includes not only minimum pay, but also number of breaks, food, safety, and the presence of other professionals in all aspects of the production. In return, the actor is bound by codes of conduct that ensure the quality of their work.

It also makes sense that that union is not just open to any performer, because not all performers measure up to the quality the union would like to project, and not all theatres can live up to the standards the union demands.

The matter is complicated a bit by other union rules. A union member or apprentice can petition to be a part of a non-union production with the permission of Equity and a payment from the theatre company. In this case, the amateur production promises that the conditions for the union actor will be just like a professional show.

Similarly, Equity allows creation of Equity Co-ops where a group of union actors and a director can get together on a short-term basis to put on a show. They are not a professional company per se, but a temporary company formed by professionals.

But What About Quality?

To take up the Parabasis argument, the same thing happens in Canada. I can’t say if it’s more insular or less. Going to the right school not only gives one credit on graduation, but the school shows can also give one credit. The real difference is that going to one of the good schools will give you an “in” with many directors. At the audition, they’ll see that you recently graduated, so they’ll ask you about their pals who taught you. If you create some camaraderie there, you have a better chance to get the role. Then the same thing happens again: after getting the role with that professional company, your next auditions may include a casting director who knows people you worked with. Bang: you’ve got funny stories to share, and the audition is more about your common friends than about the strength of your acting.

Some would say that that’s the way of the world, and that most people are hired based on common friends, family, or just the personality of the candidate, not their resume.

Beyond the issue of nepotism, as a generally grumpy guy I often bristle at the advice to smile and make friendly, energetic banter with casting people. I know that everyone prefers to work with happy coworkers, but should camaraderie be a major factor in the hiring process? Well, it is, so I’ll smile, and so should you.

The Grey Area

I’ve worked with what many call semi-pro companies. They are non-union, but they produce very high quality shows.They charge audiences between $20-$40 admission. They pay their actors a small stipend or an honorarium. This is below the union standards, but it’s all they can afford.

The catch is that many of them are far superior to professional shows in terms of design, acting, and overall creativity. Most of the people involved are hoping that an agent or a producer is in the audience and can take them to the next level. However, as in the Parabasis article, it’s vanishingly unlikely.

Professional Stage Combat

In the world of stage combat, I have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that fight directors have their own specific section in the Equity rules. After long negotiation, Fight Directors Canada was recognized as the only Canadian certifying body for fight directors.

The bad news is that any Equity member can call themselves a fight director if a director gives them one credit as such. They don’t need to show credentials or training with FDC.

To paraphrase:
If a production has any violence, it must have a fight director (great). The producer must look for one within Equity. If none is found, a member of FDC may be hired (and offered an Equity contract at full rate).

This is a problem for the issue of quality. Obviously, the person is a member of Equity, so they are a professional. However, how can they be the best person for a specialized job like fight choreography if they got their membership for acting? And how should a specialist fight director get into Equity if they can’t land acting work?

On the other hand, I know a couple of union fight directors who have tons of experience and training, but who have stopped caring. They are paid outrageous fees, and do a minimum of work. I won’t name names. Guaranteed work with high fees makes life comfortable.

On yet a third hand, I have worked with many gifted fighters who have come from the world of martial arts and circus who are safe, creative and exciting fight designers, so why not use them for your production? Well, the simple answer has several parts:

  • How do you know they’re good without professional credits that you can check?
  • If you hire them before they get proper training, they have no incentive to achieve certification. And that means standards of safety go down.
  • You’ll probably pay them less than Equity rates, which means that a legitimate fight director is out-competed on price and therefore is not only out of a job, but the market of fight direction is diluted.

This last point is often given as advice to young fight choreographers: once you have two or three shows under your belt, never work for free or cut-rate because you make all fight direction look cheap and unimportant.

Back to Quality

Getting paid work is important. It makes you feel like a legitimate artist. It allows you to develop your art. It is the simplest (and lowest bar) to define “professional”.

But let’s begin with quality. First, watch plays and movies and really decide what is good and what is bad, and whether you’re passionate about this career. Then, go to theatre school or film school and get proper training. Acting, designing, filmmaking, and other creative jobs are only viewed by outsiders to be easy; anyone who has really tried realizes it’s difficult. Get the basic training, then pursue more training with FDC if you want to be a fight choreographer. Consider your own style, priorities, and get involved with the creative community.

In the end, you want a career and to be compensated fairly for your training and hard work, right? Does it matter if you’re called a professional or not? Do your work. Be excellent. Get paid.

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