The performance of professionalism

I don’t know if this blog post would be more at home on my more theatre-focused website, but that one is desperately in need of an update and this is typically the more active site, so here we go. A lot of the below is about things drawn from the theatre side of my work but does include gaming work, so it’s not completely unjustified in being here.

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is what ‘professionalism’ is. What genuinely constitutes ‘professional’ behaviour, and what is merely arbitrary principles or even damaging behaviour that is dressed up under the guise of ‘professionalism’. No doubt this is partially down to how the prime industry I work in (live theatre) disappearing overnight in 2020 and how work is conducted and structured shifting hugely, but it’s also mixed with more personal experiences – wondering how I’m ‘professional’ or having to reflect on being on the sharp end of supposedly ‘professional’ but simultaneously damaging behaviour.

I think working in theatre has left me with a lot of unhelpful or even unhealthy images of what ‘professional’ looks like. Because, too often, self-exploitation or abandoning work/life boundaries or unquestioned, solitary leadership and vision is treated as the norm. As part of the ‘professional’ standard. I’ve worked gigs where one of the metrics of doing a good job is ‘not drawing the attention of the person in charge because their attention is always negative.’

(*IMPORTANT POINT* – the above is not true of *every* company/director/theatre I’ve worked it. There’s various that haven’t promoted these kind of ideas and have very actively stood against them. But there’s a large enough number where it’s not just coincidence, it’s a culture.)

There’s instances where this has definitely led to me accepting some behaviours as normal – just part of doing business, just people trying to be professional – that I absolutely shouldn’t have. (Or I haven’t accepted them as normal, but it’s really hard to do something about it because of the ‘professional’ status someone has!)

But if we’re meant to be in a period where we have a chance to reflect, review and change how we make work – which, for me, can be anything from staging a show to facilitating collaborative game design (and often will have some portion of game, some portion of theatre) – then I don’t want to be aping those structures and behaviours. I also don’t want to be constantly paranoid about whether I seem ‘professional’ enough when I diverge from them. (I’ve ended this session early because we’ve done everything I think we need to. Does that make me not seem serious about this? I’m not berating someone for being late. Does it look like I don’t care?*)

I feel like I’ve often encountered a certain performed version of ‘professionalism’ (meaning it’s all about giving the appearance of something, telegraphing ‘I am someone to be taken seriously in the workplace’ rather than doing anything of substance to warrant this) that’s unnecessarily harsh, exclusive, severe. And it’s been given weight because it’s the behaviour of the most powerful people in the room (or even the building).

I guess what I wish someone could give me an answer to is the question: how do you draw the boundaries of a working space in a way that’s defined, clear and effective? Written like that it doesn’t seem like the hardest question, but it’s a case of knowing that the answer isn’t full of bad, ingrained assumptions.

This whole subject is far longer than a single blog post, so I’m going to round off with a thanks to the folks I’ve worked with, especially over recent months, who’ve not performed harmful images of ‘professionalism’ but have undertaken work with genuine care, conscientiousness and effort – because every time you do helps me unlearn the negative lessons (whether about ‘professionalism’, or even myself) that experience has tried to ingrain.

*christ this looks horrible written down. But it’s here because it’s definitely something I’ve seen in some jobs.

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