How to tell the difference between community & professional theater, and should anyone care?

Chances are that if you belong to any type of online English-speaking group (newsletters, mailing lists, or Facebook groups), you’ve probably noticed that there is a presence of made-in-Israel English-language theater. There are, in fact, a number of English-language theaters, theater groups, and production companies all over Israel, with probably most of this activity happening in Jerusalem. Recently I’ve been confronted with people discussing two main issues:
1.  What are the differences among all of these groups, and
2.  Does it matter?

First, let’s take a look at some of the many names/labels that have been adopted or claimed by theaters and theater groups here in Israel, as there are quite a few: Community, Amateur, Non-Profit, Semi-Professional, and Professional. Now let’s try to sort things out by definition:

COMMUNITY THEATER productions often include amateur groups (cast of volunteer actors and production members who don’t get paid for working on a show and usually include untrained and/or inexperienced members), and sometimes pay their directors and technicians. The term “community theatre” basically refers to theater made of and for members of a community.

SEMI-PROFESSIONAL THEATER, a.k.a. ‘pro-am’ (“professional/amateur”) productions include professionals and amateurs working together. This usually means that the ‘pros’ get paid and the amateurs don’t, especially in the case of directors, musicians, and working actors. In a pro-am production, professionals get a paid gig, non-pro’s get to work with pros, and the theater group gets to promote their show featuring professionals, a win-win when done well. There is often a discussion of whether this model is “fair.” Why should some get paid and others not? Well, basically professional actors have been trained and act for a living, so whatever they do in the field should help pay their bills. Non-professionals often volunteer for the theatrical experience.

PROFESSIONAL THEATER productions are made up of an entire cast/crew paid to be in the show (either by salary or stipend): Actors, directors, designers, and other crew members. Oftentimes “professional theater” also implies a certain standard because it involves trained professionals in the field of theater.

This term is quite confusing because people often wrongly equate “professional” with “professionalism”. Any theatrical production (whether it’s an elementary school play, an amateur community theater production, or a huge-budget national theater production) can show professionalism, or lack thereof. But if the cast and crew/production team doesn’t get paid, then the production or theater is not professional by definition.

NON-PROFIT means the theater or theater group uses its income to cover all production costs, rolling the “spare” over to future productions or donating to another organization or cause (both of which are also done by for-profit groups). This is theater in Israel, after all, so it’s very rare for any theater group to be rolling in money as “profitable.”  Community theaters are usually non-profit since they can use this status for their benefit in terms of reduced production costs (theater rental, advertising, etc.), tax leniencies, as well as having easier access to using their community’s resources.

The “face” of a production is usually (but not solely) its actors, so great actors are crucial for a successful production. I’ve known talented amateur “untrained” actors who have so much stage experience under their belts that they can definitely hold their own alongside younger actors who’ve gone through conventional training. However, there’s no argument with the benefits of a cast made of trained actors, who’ve learned how to hone their talents, showcase a more refined way of physical and vocal expression, character and story interpretation, make more defined and varied acting choices, and definitely know the basics of acting/staging and other production demands, to name a few.

And all that leads to the next question: DOES IT MATTER?
Israelis, especially English-speakers, are definitely hungry for theater in English. I’m unsure as to whether they’re hungry for quality theater in English, or if some sort of standard of theater even exists in Israel. Many English-speakers in Israel are well-cultured and have experienced high-end stage productions from the West End to Broadway, large-scale fireworks-galore productions to small thought-provoking “experimental theater” pieces. In Israel, however, it appears that there’s some sort of theater “force field”. People seem amused from shows that wouldn’t get the time of day elsewhere. In fact, it appears that EVERY show in English gets overwhelmingly-positive feedback from audiences. Why? Do audiences not care for the content and quality of a production as long as it’s in English? Do they personally know the people involved in the production so they feel more connected or obligated?

The reason may be simply because there is no real theater critic or review system for English-language theater in Israel. Sure, there are articles and a few reviews written about shows, but I’ve never seen anything written that was negative or near-negative, or even just non-biased and straight-forward. I mean a review that would include not only what the reviewer liked about the show (detailing specific production aspects like costumes or effects, funny or touching moments, characters, or songs if applicable), but also what he/she did NOT like so much. That kind of a review would provide the reader— and the production team who will most likely also get word of the review— with specific “notes” on what worked and what didn’t. There should actually be several reviewers or critics in order to create a solid variety of strong non-biased opinions.

There is somewhat of a community or society of English-language theater folks in Israel. Production members usually know each other from previous work in other theater groups, or know someone that knows someone. This community creates a great bond (“almost incestual,” I’ve once been told), and it’s understandable that many fear of any repercussions dare they speak their mind and possibly sound negative or unsupportive.

Personally, if I were to be invited to review an English-language production, I’ll gladly write my honest professional non-biased opinion, regardless of the immense feather-rustling or boat-rocking I may cause.  I don’t think a review should rip anyone to shreds in terms of critique, but there’s definitely room for constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is extremely important, and giving such feedback is even more supportive than merely being immensely positive or “polite”. Also, without any non-biased theatrical critique, the general public has no type of reference to go by, and the theatrical community doesn’t have a real chance to learn, improve, or progress.

That said, despite what kind of theater production it is, or who produced it, audiences are those who will decide which type of show they would like to go see, for whatever their reasons may be, and will buy tickets accordingly. How much are audiences willing to spend on English-speaking theater? Does it depend on a production being “Community”, “Pro/Am”, or “Professional”? I’ll get into tickets and ticket pricing in my next blog post. For now, it’s good to know that English-language theater is alive and kicking in Israel, and there’s a growing selection for audiences to choose from.

About the Author
Born and raised in the U.S., Meirav founded the professional English-language theater English On Stage in 2005, serving as actress, producer, artistic director (to name a few), and performing in theaters, schools, and communities across Israel.
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