Re-Defining Terms in Search of Meaning

CLOUD 9 at Castleton State College, Dir. by Lisa Kramer

Yesterday I spent an intense, provocative, and stimulating day at a workshop with members of Cornerstone Theater Company. They do work that I dream of, work that shares the stories of people through the power of theater. Work that can truly change lives. Whether serious projects, or simply silly, they introduce the creative, artistic, ensemble power of theater to communities that may not have an interest otherwise. They do Community Based Theater using an amazing process that ends with a truly powerful product. The second half of the workshop is today, and I am excited.

But, this is not a blog post about them. Check them out for yourself.

This is a post about definitions.  Throughout the day, I found myself questioning how I think, and how I define terms.  How we define terms relates, I believe, to how we define ourselves. But the problem lies in the concept that meaning varies.

For example, what does the word community mean to you? I know that I belong to a number of different communities; where I live, where I work, my friends, my beliefs, where I write , etc. Yet, when we reflected on the community I currently live in, I felt separated and distanced from it somehow. It feels as if I carry an invisible wall that keeps me separate from this community; keeps me unable to fully engage.

Is developing a sense of community something that we need to learn? Am I preventing myself from feeling like I belong?

I think my problem lies in definitions; for me, community equals home. But that does not really have to be the case. I do not have to call Independence home. It does not feel like home, and it may never. I do, however, have to embrace the fact that I am living in this community. As a member of the community, I need to participate fully to help the community thrive. I can do that.

The other term that kept bouncing around my head yesterday, even though it was not raised in the actual workshop, is the term “professional“.

[As a side note, this issue had really nothing to do with the Cornerstone workshop, but more to do with the behavior and attitudes of certain participants]

The meaning of professional has been bothering me for a long time. Why? Because some people in the arts world draw a line — better yet create a chasm -between professionals and educators, insisting that educators are not professionals. That chasm makes me sick.

According to, the word professional has the following definitions:


1.following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain: a professional builder.
2.of, pertaining to, or connected with a profession: professional studies.
3. appropriate to a profession: professional objectivity.
4.engaged in one of the learned professions: A lawyer is a professional person.
5. following as a business an occupation ordinarily engaged in as a pastime: a professional golfer.
6. making a business or constant practice of something not properly to be regarded as a business: “A salesman,” he said,“is a
professional optimist.”
7. undertaken or engaged in as a means of livelihood or for gain: professional baseball.
8. of or for a professional person or his or her place of business or work: a professional apartment; professional equipment.
9. done by a professional; expert: professional car repairs.

10. a person who belongs to one of the professions, esp. one of the learned professions.
11. a person who earns a living in a sport or other occupation frequently engaged in by amateurs: a golf professional.
12. an expert player, as of golf or tennis, serving as a teacher,
consultant, performer, or contestant; pro.
13. a person who is expert at his or her work: You can tell by her comments that this editor is a real professional.

Unless I am reading this wrong, nowhere in this definition claims that professional equals “better than” or “not an educator”. As a matter of fact, #12 incorporates the idea of professional as teacher.  Of course, if someone is getting paid to do something, you would hope that they are better than someone else, but it is not part of the definition. The only criteria, based on this definition, is that the person be an expert in his/her field and be paid for what he/she does.

Now, to be expert at something, I will agree that you need to be out there doing it. But “out there” does not have to mean the big cities, or the world of Broadway or anything else. It simply means you are actually practicing your craft. Those who want to differentiate between educators and professionals seem to think that who you do it for and who you do it with separates the professionals  from the mere teachers.

My response to that is  a resounding raspberry.

People who have studied theater, trained to do theater,  spend most of their time doing theater, and get paid to do theater, are theater professionals! It is as simple as that. It does not matter whether or not your work is seen on Broadway or on the big screen. It does not matter if your casts are made up of students rather than “professional actors”. If you get paid for directing a show, or for acting, or for conducting a workshop, or for designing a set or lights . . . you area theater  professional.

There is the other side of this too. People who claim to be professional educators who do not exhibit or teach professionalism. Or those who use their educational positions merely as a regular paycheck to support their art. I don’t think that equals professional behavior in any field, do you?

So to me, a professional is someone who tries to do good work in whatever field, gets paid for it, and truly commits to learning and growing in that field. Professionals can have numerous professions, just as people have numerous goals. I am a teaching artist who directs theater. I am a writer who teaches. I am a professional, in spite of the nay sayers.

Honestly, in some ways, those who create good theater with novice casts seem more remarkable to me than those who work only with other so-called professionals.  Cornerstone Theater Company proves that, as they produce quality products with casts that come from the communities whose story they are telling. Casts that include; ex-cons, homeless, kids, public workers, steel workers, and so on. The list goes on and on, but I doubt very many members of these diverse communities include “professional actor” on their resumes.

The experience with Cornerstone has been a revelation for me,  in many ways. But perhaps the most important, at this time in my life, is that I can say loudly “I AM A MEMBER OF THE COMMUNITY OF  THEATER PROFESSIONAL!”  I am also A MEMBER OF THEATER EDUCATION PROFESSIONALS! That’s good too. My work, in schools, in the community, and in “professional” theater companies speaks for itself.

My own definitions of words are what defines me. Nobody else’s.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nathan010
    Jan 23, 2011 @ 10:15:01

    There also seems to be another aspect of whether the people taking the workshop are getting anything out of it. A “professional” should be able to gauge the participants and adjust to make the workshop meaning full. I just came back from a conference where I did not offer a workshop because I did not have time to prepare and research into what would be needed and the level of the participant. I now know the large varied range and what I could present if asked.


    • Lisa
      Jan 23, 2011 @ 10:18:43

      That’s true, but in this case that wasn’t the issue. The people running this workshop are true professionals, and did an amazing job assessing throughout the day to adjust to the needs of the group. This reflection, as you probably know, was brought about more by the behavior and comments of some of the participants . . . well, one participant in particular.


  2. Barb
    Jan 23, 2011 @ 12:52:44

    As a teacher, I trained to do the job I do. I am expected to follow a code of ethics for my profession. I am expected to continually train and study to keep up my professional knowledge. I behave professionally – and unlike some other professions, I am expected to do so also in my private life. (Rightly or wrongly, being seen drunk and disorderly as a teacher is different to other people in the same state). I expect (sometimes in vain) to be respected as a professional by my students and parents. I do not consider the profession of education as apart from other important professions – except for the fortnightly reality check when I get paid.


    • Lisa
      Jan 23, 2011 @ 18:37:29

      That’s just the point, teacher’s are as professional if not more so than anyone else. I find the whole thing frustrating.


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