by Ben Knight
He fits a description shortly after 9/11 and was hauled through the window of his car and dressed down by the Berlin police for a solid twenty-four hours. That he could verify his identity by a number of documents, that he could prove his employment, his address, the legality of his health and car insurance, and could describe a network of details that the best-prepared terrorist would not have bothered inventing, did not help him out of the humiliation. The police were convinced, for a day and a night, that they had caught a pawn of al-Qaida.
I can see why. Peter was a backed-up man. He was in his early forties, and his hair was curved into a neat, unfashionable style; his nostrils were permanently flared, and stringed with little red veins that heightened the impression of constant strain; he wore white trainers with either of his pairs of shapeless blue or black cloth trousers. His bearing and short, bow-legged gait tilted forward and focussed on his forehead, which he kept lowered and ahead of him. Many frustrations were knotted tight in that brow, which he beat against the world. The rage he bore against his own insecurity marked him more than the insecurity itself.
Theatre is mainly a state funded enterprise in Germany. Even the private theatres like mine was get public money. The smallest towns keep ensembles of actors on a standard wage performing multiple plays in repertory. For the actors trapped there, it’s a sapping grind like any other. But a temporary contract in one dying state-subsidised institution is hardly better than a permanent contract in another. My theatre was embarrassingly out of touch. Its audiences stagnating, it was just entering an underwhelming endgame of conservative theatre and would close four years later. But it was doubly untested ground for Peter – he was a free-lancer and he was in the bourgeois heart of the former West.
Even though we were already over a decade into the unified federal Germany, these were, effectively, Peter’s first months of capitalism. And he had already learned to define himself by his profession. And it was professional vulnerability that got him sacked. Beset with anxiety about trying to contain his leading role, he pissed everyone off. He was so self-conscious that every off-hand comment affected him, and his clumsy, self-asserting responses were always taken badly. That would not have been a big enough reason, but he also corrected the director’s directions. He had a habit of muttering his own interpretations out loud – “No, I think you mean …”
The director was choleric, and was working for the first time a few months after having four bypasses installed in his heart. Once or twice Peter had demanded to speak to him in private and left the room without waiting for an answer. Other awkward power games ensued, until it ended with an eruptive sacking. The director delivered a resounding monologue that lasted minutes. It included a lot of released bile – “The atmosphere you bring in here!” – some stinging irony – “I’m also the theatre manager, so I can either sack myself or sack you” – and a tense pause while he asked for a glass of water, which I brought him. As it always is in the theatre, the climax of the sacking was the accusation of amateurism.
But you never look professional when you’re sacking someone. It happened quickly and openly – one argument too many and one hysterical moment, and then there is a deadly hole in the air that no nervous joke can fill. Eventually talk does fill it though, and it lasts until everyone is sure that the sacked person was an amateur.
Then Peter got his coat and left, bemused, at a loss, and thoroughly cowed. When he reached the door, the director did his best to restore dignity by getting up and saying, “Will you shake my hand?”
But even our intimidating, authoritative director took part in the subsequent talk that masked the tension and changed opinions. It was decided that Peter had tipped it onto his own head. Everyone’s memory suddenly sharpened, but cut things differently. Every uncommented action Peter had performed in the last four weeks was suddenly recalled and revealed as unprofessional, even though he had practised acting as a grim job for years. Peter’s colleagues seized the cold prerogative of professionalism and carried on working without him. It was the only thing they could do, but they used their professionalism as a fig-leaf. Two weeks later I had a cup of tea with Peter and like a coward I never mentioned it. “I still don’t know what happened,” he said.
So professionalism has become a suspect virtue to me. How bitter it is for the exuberant amateur entering the real world to find out that professionalism, in the end, is all about fear. It means constantly hedging your options to avoid an audience’s offence, misgivings, misunderstanding. In the end professionalism just means compromise.
Only in the media and the arts is professionalism preached and protested by every desperate, feeble, timid hack trying to earn a living. It is the last refuge of the coward and the idiot. In theatre, the dilettante is the worst pariah, but when most artists sacrifice their naivety, they’re probably sacrificing their only asset. No-one talks about work more than actors, performers, writers and directors, but work is the last thing they’re doing.
Professionalism is no virtue, it’s a poison, a coward’s fig-leaf, an artificial passion, an unworthy ersatz for dead enthusiasm. It is discipline conjured for its own hollow sake.