The term ‘professional actor’ is bandied around so much that it has often confused me.
Anyone can call themselves an actor, and the first two questions asked if you do: “What have you done?” or “What have I seen you in?” If someone hasn’t heard of anything you’ve done, then most people may think you’re nothing.
What I have learned about the world of the ‘actor’: one does not have to hold any conservatory or post secondary education to become a member of CAEA (Canadian Actors’ Equity Association) or ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists). If a non-Equity or non ACTRA company contracts and pays non-union individuals to perform, then those actors are technically involved in a ‘paying gig’ and, in that case, are free to call themselves professional if they wish to do so; however, being a member of one of these two labour unions means you are paid union status (which is higher) compared to non-union status.
A quick re-cap on these two terms: CAEA is the membership/labour union to which the professional live theatre actor and stage managers belong to perform in union shows here in Canada. ACTRA is a Canadian labour union representing performers in English-language media in film, television, radio, and all other recorded media. Some professional artists are members of both and/or perhaps only one. I also understand there are stringent rules regarding credits attained to gain union status but, for the sake of this article’s length, I won’t bother delving further here.