Every actor’s (or stage manager’s) journey is unique and joining the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) is a personal decision that only you can make. I suppose it’s appropriate that I weigh in on this topic as it’s a decision I am in the middle of making myself. My life and career have presented an opportunity which begs the question, are you ready? Your path will be different, or perhaps similar! In either case, here I am, an actor teetering on the edge of Equity.
I’ve had a healthy and successful run on the nonunion circuit, which had deterred me from taking my card. With all that work for a mature-looking character actor, why pass it up? I made a livable wage and wonderful industry connections. However, I’ve recently booked Gypsy at a union house, which will put me over my 50 weeks (see below).
The ways to get your card:
A union theatre employs you under an Equity contract.
Through membership in a sister union (SAG-AFTRA, AGMA, AGVA).
The EMC Program (50 weeks of EMC work at participating theatres).
I’m ready to take advantage of the benefits AEA has to offer. Such great benefits as minimum negotiable salaries (extra for additional tasks, overtime, etc.); safe work environment (protections against long hours, hazards, etc.); health, pension, and 401k benefits (per weeks worked/years matriculated); and access to Equity-only auditions and sign-ups.
There’s no need to rush into AEA, though, especially right out of school. It is believed, by some, that belonging to AEA makes you more professional. THIS IS A MYTH! Young actors are often chomping at the bit to go Equity because of their big Broadway dreams. By all means, dream big, but don’t forget to be realistic! Take the card prematurely, and you are competing against actors who have had more time and experience to hone their skills and mature as performers. That doesn’t make them more professional; it just gives them the edge that comes with real industry experience. That’s not to say that non-union actors don’t have what it takes. I’ve seen and worked with many non-Equity actors who could outperform some of the professionals on Broadway. Work ethic makes a professional, not union status.
There is no shortage of non-union opportunity out there that will help bolster your career. These are great experiences to cut your teeth on and build your resume. Many national tours are non-union (Mamma Mia!, RENT, etc.) and AEA exerts no jurisdiction (currently) over cruise ships, which is ideal for all actors, union and non-union alike. And, let’s not forget the regional Equity houses that need non-union actors to fill out their shows (the EMC program) once they’ve given out their Equity contracts. Alas, the non-union scene is not devoid of pitfalls. Without the union in your corner, you are at the mercy of your employer’s discretion, be it the pay scale or a safe work environment. Watch out for yourselves, and each other. Without a union, the only one looking out for you is, you!
AEA’s website states, “If you aspire to a career in the theatre – aspire to get your Equity card.” The quote is accurate, to an extent. I would amend it to say, “If you aspire to a career in the theatre – aspire to work.” There is no shame in non-union theatre. And, a working actor is just that, working. I would not trade my career up until now for anything, but I am ready to face a new set of challenges, and hopefully, continue growing as a performer. AEA offers plenty of benefits and protections for its some 50,000 actors, and that’s fantastic. It’s a close-knit community which provides both a support system and resources. To join or not to join…meh, not really a question. As long as you approach each opportunity with an open mind and professional work ethic, your journey is guaranteed to find success.