The In's and Out's of Equity

For many actors who have already gotten some professional shows under their belts, a common choice that needs to be made is the decision to become part of the theatre actor’s union. Most are unsure of what the union really does for them, and what benefits they would get out of being a member. Some don’t even know what “Equity” is.

A little history
Actor’s Equity Association, or AEA is the union which represents theatrical actors and stage managers in the United States. It was created in 1913 to protect an unrepresented part of the labor force which up until that point was at the mercy of producers and financiers. The formation of the union made it possible for actors to have more structured contracts which gave them more protection and workers rights like any other worker in a labor union. Minimum pay, working conditions, contract negotiations, publicity and billing rights and many other facets of the actor’s life were now protected by Equity. The choice to become part of the union is a choice being faced by actors old and young. And it is just that, a choice. Like any career decision, there are upsides and downsides to being a member.

Staying independent
As a non-union actor, your performance options are far greater. You have the opportunity to perform with any company you please, even some companies that are part of AEA. You can attend auditions for Equity companies, but you will have to attend the Non- Union calls, which are generally very crowded. There are other obvious downsides like low or even non-existent pay, no contracts to protect your safety or professional rights, and no protection over your very employment as an artist. Most theatres are sensitive to the needs of their actors for the sake of the art form and the sake of their own reputations. They would never slight an artist for fear that their organization would have a bad reputation in the community. As we have discussed before, reputation is key in this business, even for the companies themselves. Unfortunately, there are those who take advantage of eager young performers who are just looking to get in the spotlight at almost any cost. Thankfully, those are few and far between.

Taking the plunge
For those who have made the career choice and do end up as part of Actor’s Equity, you are protected by the union from the very perils the non-union actor faces. You are given your own audition calls for union members only, and sometimes even have exclusive rights to audition where non-union actors cannot. However, your options are far less. As a union member, you are restricted from performing with non-union companies unless you go through the difficult task of getting a waiver from Equity (which they don’t always grant). Some union actors have tried to perform outside the union under a different name. This is risky as AEA can take action against you if they find that you violated your agreement with the union.

As you can see, there is a give and take. It really is up to you either way, and each way had its benefits. Generally speaking, for the artist that is intent on consistently performing in a city where there is a large amount of union work to be had, Equity may be a good choice. But, if you have any doubts about getting reliable work, or there just aren’t very many Equity contracts to be had, staying independent is probably the right choice. Talk with members of the union in your area, or other industry professionals who you have worked with. This decision is best made with their help as they know the kind of prospects you may have in front of you, and the kind of opportunities that are available in the region you perform.

How it’s done
If you do decide to work towards becoming Equity, there are several ways to go about it. Simply put:
-First, you can get an outright union contract from a producer. In this situation, you have been cast in an Equity show and the company offers you an Equity contract. While you are under that contract, you can apply to become a member of the union.
-Second, you can become Equity if you are already a member of one of its sister unions. These include AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists), AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists), GIAA (Guild of Italian American Actors), and SAG (Screen Actors Guild)
-Third, you can earn your Equity membership through the Equity Membership Candidacy program (EMC). In this program, you earn points for every week you work with an equity company. One week is equal to one point, and fifty points makes you eligible to join the union.

Any way you go about joining, there are initiation fees and yearly dues that you have to pay to the union. After all, they are protecting you and all that protection isn’t free!

Your career as an actor can be prosperous and successful no matter which path you choose. It really is a matter of what you are trying to get out it. Many actors decide to remain out of Equity so that they are free to perform at the many high-quality semi-professional theatres that many cities have. Some work to get as much experience as they can, climbing the ranks from community theatre up to high-budget marquee production houses just so they can join the union and make their way towards theatrical hotbeds like New York and Chicago. Either way, just be sure to assess your particular situation and see which choice is the best for you at the time.
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