PRODUCERS AND DIRECTORS want the best actors for their productions and those actors are more often likely to be “Equity” (a member of the Actors Equity Association or AEA), the union for stage actors and stage managers in the U.S. Equity actors are usually more extensively trained and more experienced at a higher level of theatre, are dedicated to a full-time career as an actor, and therefore more proficient.
Having studied more extensively and having continued their training throughout their careers, having “paid their dues” doing small roles, working in non-union community and/or “street” theatre, and moving up to productions on a professional level, Equity actors’ experience is usually broader than non-union actors. This is not to say that non-union actors are less talented than Equity actors, and many non-union actors have an abundance of training and experience; all union actors were non-union at one time too, and many theatres who use Equity actors also need and use strong non-union actors. It’s just that since the majority of medium and large regional theatres, Broadway, and most national tours operate under agreements with AEA, being an AEA member automatically means you have done “professional” level work.
Additionally, when it comes to auditions AEA members get priority. Especially in New York, for tours, and for the larger Bay Area theatres, AEA members can get an individual audition appointment, whereas non-union actors are often stuck with the “cattle-call” type auditions, have far fewer audition appointments available to them and consequently may end up not getting seen at all.
For the theatre companies as producers, by using Equity actors, they are operating under a contract with AEA which lets their patrons and actors know that they are 1) following standardized workplace policies for safety, schedules, and other labor practices, and 2) recognizing the value of the actors’ contribution to the end product and therefore paying the actors a certain level of weekly salary, including overtime as appropriate, and paying into the actors’ pension and health plans with the union. There are numerous Equity contracts and tiers within those contracts that are based on what region a theatre is located in, the size of their budget, the size of their house, the number of hours per week they rehearse and the number of performances per week. There are also very restricted and one-off type contracts that allow non-union theatres and self-producing Equity actors to use Equity actors in a more flexible way on a temporary basis.
At this point, you might ask how one becomes a member of Equity. There are three ways: via offer of an AEA contract in a particular production; via accumulation of Equity Membership Candidacy (EMC) points; or via a sister union.
- Via AEA CONTRACT: Equity houses (i.e., theatres that operate under any one of numerous contracts with Actors Equity) usually have a minimum number of Equity contracts they must use in each production/season. Depending on how many other Equity actors they have hired, they may have only an Equity contract available for the actor they want to hire for a particular role, and if that actor is not already Equity, he/she can join the union via offer of that contract. Alternatively, once a theatre fills those Equity contract slots, it may only have non-union roles available and will seek only non-union actors for those, unless they are willing to increase their budget to hire an additional Equity actor. A theatre can exceed the minimum number of Equity contracts for a show but cannot drop below the minimum.
- Via EMC POINTS: An actor can become a member of Equity by “earning” a certain number of EMC points. They do this by being hired by an EMC-participating theatre (i.e., an Equity theatre with certain minimums of budget and seats and related thresholds), and registering with Equity as a Candidate, including paying an initial fee. For every week an actor works at that theatre, they earn a point. Performers are required to earn a minimum of 25 weeks, and may go as far as 50 weeks before joining the union. I’m not an expert on EMC conditions, so anyone reading this should check with AEA for actual details. (Use the link at the bottom of the page.)*
- Via SISTER UNION: Actors can also become members of Equity by virtue of their prior membership in a performing arts sister union (SAG-AFTRA, AGMA and others). the member’s status in the sister union and certain other conditions come into play, but again I’m no expert in this means of getting membership, so anyone reading this should check with AEA for details. (The link at the bottom of the page.)*
At Jewel Theatre Company we are considered an Equity house but we also hire many non-union actors and pay them a comparable weekly salary as well as provide housing if they don’t live in the area. We are also an EMC-participating theatre, therefore, non-union actors get EMC points for each week they work with us. Many of these actors have a lot of training and/or solid experience but just haven’t happened to get the opportunity to get into Equity yet, and I like providing them additional experience at Jewel and supporting them in achieving their goal to get into the union.
Further, producers hire other accomplished artists—set, costume, lighting and sound designers, directors and technical personnel who also have their own unions, all of whom are also striving to be the best in their field; producers compensate them at established levels with benefits, etc., recognizing the value of these artists along with the Equity and non-union actors, in creating the highest quality productions.
JULIE JAMES is the founder and Artistic Director of Jewel Theatre Company where she has directed Next to Normal and Woman in Mind among other plays, and acted in The Other Place, Me and My Girl, Always… Patsy Cline, Sylvia, A Streetcar Named Desire, Guys and Dolls, Arcadia, Mary Stuart, and House of Blue Leaves among others. Prior to founding JTC, Julie performed at numerous theatres in the Bay Area and beyond, including Marin Theatre Company, Sierra Repertory Theatre, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, American Musical Theatre of San Jose, California Conservatory Theatre, Center Repertory Theatre, The Willows Theatre, and VITA Shakespeare Festival. Julie holds a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Santa Clara University and spent 20 years as a grant writer and analyst for non-profit and government agencies. She graduated from the Drama Studio of London at Berkeley and has completed coursework towards an M.A. in Theatre Arts at SF State University.