Everything I Wish I Knew About the Union

I used to wake up at 5am to wait all day at auditions, only to watch certain actors flash a card and jump to the front of the line mere minutes after arriving. I would get work, but on my first day be banished from the room while the actors who were getting paid more than me had a secret meeting. I went to shows and scoured the playbill only to find the name of almost every starring player followed by a tiny, pretty asterisk, signifying membership in the Actors Equity Association. 

One of my only goals after graduation was that I wanted that star. I didn’t know anything about it, other than that everyone who was where I wanted to be seemed to have one. That they must have some level of success that I didn’t. 

Two years later, I have that star. Here’s the skinny on how I got it and what I wish I knew.

*I will be speaking about my personal experience through the view of the Actors Equity Association (AEA), which is one of the 4 A’s (Associated Actors and Artistes of America). The others include SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists), the IAU (Italian Actors Union), and HAU (Hebrew Actors Union). While in general, the rights and the responsibilities I detail below are universal to the 4 A’s, the specifics are unique to each union (so be sure to read up on the individual union of your choice at the links above).

Getting in: There are three ways to get into the union:

  1. Through another union. If you’re a member of one of AEA’s sister unions for one year in good standing (you’re a Queen and you’ve paid your dues time after time), you can buy in.

  2. Equity contract. This is when an equity theatre gives you an equity contract (the contracts that are available are often a matter of budget).

  3. Accumulating points. Many equity theatres participate in the EMC program; giving nonunion actors on nonunion contracts the opportunity to accumulate their weeks of work (aka “points") towards candidacy to join the union. Twenty-five weeks/points=equity eligibility. When you start the program, you pay $200 that will go towards your dues once you decide to join. You can also accumulate weeks without having to join right away— once you’ve reached your maximum amount of points, you have five years to either join or not (but if you don’t, you lose your points and have to start all over). 

*Side note: when you join the EMC program, you will be given a card and ID number, which will transfer over if you choose to join the union. When you’re going to an equity audition, don’t forget your card! Ever!!

I received my first opportunity to join equity as I reprised a role at a TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) (that I had previously worked on a non-ec contract), because its remount at a new venue specified that everyone on stage had to be employed on an equity contract. Before that, I had accumulated twelve points at a regional theatre that participated in the EMC program.  

The Knowledge:

An artist union does exactly what any other union does for its members— protect the rights of its members by codifying parts of our profession that would otherwise leave us susceptible to exploitation. 

This means that for equity theatres, there are certain rules in place when it comes to:

Auditions: you will either attend an EPA (equity principal audition) or an ECC (equity chorus call). The casting team will prioritize seeing equity members, whether they have an appointment or not, then time-permitting, will see EMC’s (equity membership candidates) and non equity talent. Because the remaining talent is seen on a first-come, first-served basis, non equity talent must oftentimes arrive at the audition space hours before the monitor (the person running the audition). 

*You may hear talk about “unofficial lists,” which are lists of names that the talent waiting in line have started of their own accord. These won’t be honored— the only way to make sure you’re seen in the order you arrive is if you stick around long enough for the monitor to start the official list, and to put your name on that. 

These types of auditions are often called “cattle calls” — they’re impersonal, brutal, and draining by nature of the system.

Contracts and pay: Whether you work at an equity theatre or not, before starting work you will be given a contract (if you aren’t... ruuuuunnnnn). For equity theatres, there is a set minimum wage for AEA members (and no universal minimum wage for nonmembers). At your discretion, it’s possible to negotiate if you need more money for extenuating circumstances (have a crazy commute? Need to pay for child care? Asked to learn a new skill?). 

Safe and Fair Working Conditions: When your stage manager ensures that you get breaks during rehearsal, free time for meals, and you aren’t made to stay after hours, the union is why. They’re also the reason that dressing rooms and green rooms are held to a certain standard of sanity and comfort. Equity has an anti-discrimination and zero harassment policy. The theatre where you work will have certain protocols in place should a complaint arise, giving you multiple avenues to follow where you can voice your concern and retain a desired level of anonymity.

Health Insurance: 12 weeks of equity work in a year allows you to buy into 6 months of health coverage. 19 weeks=full year.

The Wisdom: 

Auditions: when you’re on the outside looking in, it’s easy to stare at members with envy as they flash their fancy cards. However, it’s just as crowded for those with a card as those without. Meaning that equity members; although they have access to booking appointments, oftentimes won’t get one. Also, simply being a member doesn’t put you at the top of the food chain for casting directors. They’re scouring through their network (all else being equal, personal referrals will trump cold talent every time) and they also have talent brought in by agents that they need to see.

However, it’s undeniable that living in New York and spending your days waiting on line makes the grind almost logistically impossible. Being a member of the union allows you to keep your day job and plan your audition appointment around a convenient time for you (which is pretty ironic, since most people think that once they join the union they won’t need a day job).

Contracts and pay: Once you’re a more expensive hire, there will be cases where the theatre just needs to go with the cheaper option. Nonunion talent will beat you out of jobs, simply because the theatre can pay less to hire them. So before you turn, take a hard look at your type, skillset, and experience and ask yourself why you’re worth paying more for.

Also, being a member of the union means that you are no longer able to take nonunion work. Many unions will provide you with “how to hire me” resources that you can present to would-be employers, but it’s no substitute for the fact that doors that were once open will now shut for you. 

Safe and Fair Conditions: Everyone will only do their best work and collaborate well if everyone is safe in their working conditions and with each other. There is a reckoning across the industry as companies and artists grapple with ways to make their work and their environment safer and more inclusive. And that change has to come from within; no union can guarantee a company’s respect.

Health Insurance: As of 2018, AEA reported that their national average was 16 weeks of work per year—> but this may be a bit skewed since many actors don’t work in strictly one region. That is noooot a lot of time onstage. So you can either break your neck trying to beat the odds, or you can decide what will make you happy and what will pay the bills for the other 36 weeks of the year. 

Getting in: Two years ago, AEA changed its rules, cutting the number of required work weeks in half (50—>25). Because the number of working weeks has been sliced, there has been a major surge of talent who has made the leap into the union. More equity actors=less equity work. The competition is getting fiercer, so it may be a stronger and more empowering move not to turn. Also, although there is a payment plan, joining the union costs $1600 for initiation alone. Only you can decide when you’re financially ready to make that investment.

One Card to Rule Them All

The bottom line: 

I joined the union the first chance I could. And it’s come with a cost. I was made three offers for jobs at theatres I admired, and they had to retract their offer because they simply couldn’t afford to hire me once they found out I had turned. However, where I am in my career— wanting to expand my reach from a regional level to a national one, seeking representation, and moving to New York, I still believe it was the right move. Furthermore, I am an actor of color in a time when theatres are pushing to diversify their casting. And finally, now that I’ve joined, I’m working even harder on my craft and refining my skills than I ever have before. Because I want to prove to my market and to myself that I can compete at a higher level.

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