“What defines a Professional?”  This seemingly simple question has become a hot topic amid the aggressive and highly unpopular actions the Actors’ Equity Association (the actors’ union) has taken towards its own Los Angeles membership.  Equity’s actions have eliminated a 29-year-old plan that allowed professional, union actors to participate in intimate theater for essentially no pay.  So “pay” is apparently the answer to the posed question.

According to Equity, that is.

Their argument runs something like this:  Based on what’s found in the dictionary, those who don’t get paid are necessarily amateurs.  Therefore, union-card-carrying actors who volunteer their services to intimate productions – where no one is making any money, by the way – aren’t acting as professionals.  Because the dictionary tells us that professionals are paid.

And at what pay level do professionals start becoming professional?  Minimum wage.

According to Equity, that is.

I once had a job delivering the morning newspaper, back in the days when children on bicycles, not adults in cars, dispersed newspapers. I did a calculation at the time: the dollars earned per week divided by the time it took to deliver the daily newspapers were less than the minimum wage. A lot less. That job was not going to be much of a career option unless I could expand my route considerably farther west towards Old Farms Road.

And even then.

A few years later, however, I landed a minimum wage job. I became a bagboy at the local supermarket, Fitzgerald’s, back in the days when supermarkets paid boys to not only bag your groceries but also wheel them out to your car and load them into your trunk. I was reminded daily that this job paid minimum wage because I had to actually punch a time clock for the first (and only) time in my life.

The Fitzgerald’s time clock was an ugly looking device.  Its heavy-gauge metallic body was a light fecal brown and it hung conspicuously outside the customer service booth where either Tony (the store manager) or Rocco (the assistant manager) were stationed.  A large, black, stainless steel timecard holder was bolted on the wall next to the clock.  You’d show up, find your card (supposedly placed in alphabetical order), stick it into the machine – and BANG! – some World War II surplus 50 lb spring would uncoil and stamp the card in blue ink with the date and time to the nearest 5 minutes.  The punch clock rammed the stamp hard enough against the card to acoustically overpower the endlessly looped store Muzak and shake the plywood walls of the customer service booth itself.

There was an industrial finality to that sound as if your future had just been shot dead by an hourly-wage bullet.

Bagboys back East have no union.  Nevertheless, the State Labor Board made sure we received one 15 minute break every 3 hours.  On my first day of work, I forgot to punch out during my break.  I got a lecture from Tony about it.

After he first made me punch out.

The irritated Tony explained how my grievous offense required the store to now fill out paperwork (triplicate, please press firmly) for the State Labor Board detailing how Fitzgerald’s wasn’t violating either labor laws or children in general.  Like most bureaucratic paperwork that doesn’t matter, the document was exceptionally long and needlessly involved. So, for both reasons of penitence and expediency, Tony tasked me to complete the form. I wrote the report, initialed thrice and signed once.  All on my own time, of course.

Despite earning minimum wage, I never felt professional punching that clock.

Orlando and Delin Book CoverA few years later, when I was a young grad student, I wrote a textbook.  This was back in the days when textbooks were read from glossy paper and not glossy screens.  The book was popular worldwide.  Required reading at the Academy.  Pirated by the Chinese.

That was the surest sign I had made it.

The publisher gave me no up-front advances but I did a calculation at the time:  I divided the total royalties possible by the number of hours spent writing the thing.  On a per-hour basis, I would have been better off delivering newspapers.  Even without biking all the way to Old Farms Road.

However, the textbook gave me international recognition.  And, more importantly, a chance to claim there was a book where I could work every problem at the end of each chapter.

A few years later, I was about to obtain – I hoped – my PhD.  This was back in the pre-Ted Talk days when having a PhD was considered a necessary part of being a topic expert.  I nervously waited outside the room where I had just defended my thesis on the transport and magnetic properties of high-temperature superconductors.  It was an all-or-nothing audition based on 5 years’ preparation.  Inside the room, three experts in the field were discussing the originality of my efforts and its value in pushing forward – even by a nanometer – the frontiers of solid state physics.  Or perhaps they were merely kibitzing about current departmental politics just to pass the time and make the process look legitimate.

I never found out which it was.

Si Foner
Dr. Si Foner

When I was invited back in the room, all three experts were standing.  And smiling.  I remember the smiling. Smiling had to be a good sign.  Si Foner, creator of the most intense magnetic fields on the planet (in excess of 60 Tesla if you must know), shook my hand:

“Congratulations.  You just earned your union card.”

There was no actual union card, of course.  But neither were there any (monetary) dues.

There are few real crafts left in our culture today.  PhD programs, however, are old-school apprenticeships in the truest sense of the word.  You work alongside a Master (your advisor) until you pick up the nuances of your craft; nuances that can’t be taught in any other way.

And then you graduate.

Actors’ Equity understands this.  If you look at any of their contracts (or plans or codes or agreements), they define “non-professionals” as simply people not in the union.  That’s it.  No mention of wages at all.  Being a professional is not about how much you earn.  Being a professional is about the number of hours you’ve logged in the company of professionals.  And that is really the only criterion Equity uses to determine union card eligibility.

Obtaining a union card is therefore equivalent to being identified as a professional.  This, then, is the correct answer to the question “What defines a Professional?”  In fact, all those union-card-carrying actors who volunteer their services to intimate productions are certainly professionals by definition!

According to Equity, that is.


Originally published May 31, 2015 in Footlights.