Among the numerous questions Actors Guild of Lexington has to ask as it attempts to rebuild are: Does it want to be a professional theater? If so, what does that mean?
For years, Actors Guild has billed itself as Lexington’s professional theater for adult audiences. In recent years, it has been taking greater strides toward affiliating itself with Actors Equity, the stage actors union, by regularly booking Equity talent for its shows.
In May, the theater announced, among several other things, that it would be entering into a small professional theater contract with Equity.
Then, the bottom fell out.
A festering financial crisis was amplified in June, when LexArts decided not to give the AGL an allocation for general operating support – a contribution that had been around $70,000 in recent years – citing years of concerns about its fiscal management. In August, artistic director Richard St. Peter announced that he was leaving to pursue a doctorate in theater.
As the theater prepares to begin searching for a new artistic chief, it is going to work with a consultant and is holding a series of public meetings to get a feeling for what the arts community and the community in general want from the theater.
Reaching out is in part recognition that the theater has become estranged from parts of the theater community as its leadership, location and mission have changed over the years. But in conversations over the summer, ”professional theater” has been a hot-button issue.
Some of this stems from how that goal was first pursued. When St. Peter arrived at Actors Guild, with a charge to make its a professional theater company, he brought in several Equity actors from out- of- town. That produced some successful performances, but it alienated a lot of local actors, who said they felt unwelcome at AGL and that parts were going to visitors, some of whom were no better than local talent.
More recently, Equity roles have gone to local actors who are Equity members including Leslie Beatty and Walter May, and Actors Guild has emphasized Equity affiliation as a way for local Equity talent to work and area actors who want to join Equity a path to earning their membership at home.
The problem is, if an actor becomes Equity, it limits the stages on which he or she can perform on, and if there’s only one Equity house in town, there could be months or years between roles.
Equity is not the only way to be professional, as Lexington Children’s Theatre proves. It is not an Equity theater but it does pay a staff of actors and other artists. In LCT, could there be a model for a professional theater for adult audiences?
Aside from the Equity question, AGL has billed itself as a professional theater though a lot of its artists also work at area community theaters. So, some have asked, what makes it professional, aside from a small stipend?
One commenter on the blog version of this column asked a few weeks ago, “Is a person professional for one show and then drop to amateur, only to recover and become professional again just a few months later? Lather, rinse, repeat?”
Then again, is professionalism the only way for Actors Guild to distinguish itself? Is it a goal the Lexington audience will sustain? Could AGL’s identity be in the type of productions it presents or the way it presents them? Does it have to be a flagship theater for the city? Can the Lexington audience sustain a pro theater?
They’re big questions for the theater to answer if it’s to focus on a successful future.