What's the difference between amateur and professional theatre?

Actors in a scene

Ever wondered about the differences between amateur and professional theatre? While both types of theatre have their unique characteristics, they are also similar in many ways. From the costumes to the sets, sound effects and more – there’s a lot that goes into creating an amazing performance. In this blog post we will explore some of the key differences between amateur and professional theatre so that you can better appreciate each type of production!

1. Amateur theatre is typically done by volunteers who are passionate about the arts.

Amateur theatre - or "Community theatre", as it is sometimes known - is typically done by volunteers who are passionate about the arts and desire to share their talent with their local communities. These individuals may have little formal training or experience, but they possess great enthusiasm and commitment.

Amateur theatre offers inexperienced performers and others with an interest in theatre a platform to showcase their talents, develop new skills, and create meaningful art. Over time, many actors find a home in amateur theatre and keep coming back for more - often joining a particular theatre group as a ‘regular’ and participating in show after show, enjoying the social benefits the experience offers. 

Volunteers in amateur theatre strive to make every performance truly enjoyable for audiences. They often work tirelessly through rehearsals and performances. In addition, they put effort into creating costumes, props, sets, sound effects, and more. It takes skill and dedication to pull off an amateur stage production, and it’s a great training ground for non-professionals, who may also have the opportunity to take part in workshops led by experienced directors and performers at the theatre group, to develop skills.

2. Professional theatre usually has a team who are paid for their work. 

Unlike amateur theatre, which is run by volunteers, professional theatre involves a team of highly trained actors, directors and crew who are paid for their work and dedication to the performance. Compensation for cast and crew members is typically considered an essential aspect of the professional theatre, and is necessary to attract and retain top talent. These individuals have not only honed their craft, but have often worked in the industry for many years and have a great deal of experience. This shows in the type and quality of the work that’s produced.  A paid set designer with a good budget is going to produce a stunning set for their production.

In professional theatre, funding may come from the personal investment of the producers, ticket sales, grants, sponsorships, or government support. The goal is to get a return on that investment - professional theatre is often aiming for a commercial outcome. However, while some professional theatre companies are for-profit organisations, and classified as producing "commercial theatre", there are other prominent professional theatre companies that are non-profit organisations, and apply for funding to ensure that all cast and crew are paid.

3. Amateur theatre tends to be more informal and less structured than professional theatre.

In professional theatre, employees are there to work and always take a professional attitude to doing the job. There are deadlines to meet, procedures to follow, plans to fulfil, and certain expectations among the cast and crew - as you might expect in any other industry.

In amateur theatre, the social aspect tends to be much more important to those who participate. In amateur theatre, while there may be expectations that the “show must go on” and that everyone should do what they can to help the show succeed, if things don’t turn out as planned, or someone doesn’t show up for rehearsal because they have another commitment, the stakes aren’t as high. There’s the assumption that people will make do with whatever they’ve got to work with - everybody is a volunteer, and the director and team have to make allowances for that.

However, in professional theatre, being a no-show at rehearsal or performance may be a breach of contract and result in the loss of your job - and a tarnished reputation among your colleagues!

4. Professional theatre often has actors and crew members with formal education.

The professional theatre often attracts individuals who have honed their skills and craft through years of training, education, and practice. Most have attended vocational courses or universities to acquire qualifications in their field, like those we offer at Perform Australia. With a deep understanding of theatre's technical and creative aspects, these professionals can bring a high level of expertise to the production process. Collaboration between these talented individuals, each with their unique perspective and skill set, is essential in creating dynamic and engaging productions that captivate audiences. Additionally, the experience and professionalism of the actors and crew members can significantly contribute to the success of a show and ensure that it runs smoothly from start to finish.

Professional theatre teams in large commercial productions may spend months rehearsing before taking a performance on tour or opening it up for public viewing. This time is essential for perfecting choreography, rehearsing lines and scenes, and ensuring that the show meets the highest of standards. Other smaller, professional productions may rely on the trained actors’ expertise to turn around a script rapidly, and be on stage in a matter of three or four weeks. Either way, each person’s input is valuable in creating a successful performance; professional theatre requires a strong sense of collaboration and teamwork between all members of the team. From actors to stage crew members, costume designers to directors, everyone is working towards one common goal – putting on an unforgettable show.

5. Professional theatre has different expectations on actors than amateur theatre does. 

Professional actors are expected to approach their work with professionalism, making it a priority to be on time, conduct their own personal preparation, have lines learned well in advance, and be focused during their performance. Professional theatre actors must also commit to the detail in their contracts, pay attention to punctuality and professionalism, show up prepared and with a positive attitude at rehearsals, and solve any workplace conflict or problem using the correct channels. They are also expected to take their acting seriously, by treating it as a job and dedicating time and effort to perfecting their craft and completing regular professional development. Additionally, there may be certain publicity calls and promotions they have to be involved in, such as media interviews and appearances. 

While amateur actors may also have to help promote their show, especially by inviting friends and family, they typically participate in theatre as a hobby and for personal enjoyment, so there are rarely any contractual obligations to meet. 

Even so, amateur actors still need to be reliable and do the best they can. Having lines memorised is essential, as well as giving a maximum effort onstage - plus lending a hand when needed - be it in set painting, making of props, or other technical aspects of the show. Professional actors aren’t usually required to help with other aspects of the production when there are paid crew with technical expertise to take care of them. 

Both professional and amateur actors play essential roles in the theatre landscape and bring unique perspectives and skills to the productions they participate in. If you'd like to make the leap from amateur to professional, check out our courses here.