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Why Actors' Equity is So Important to American Theater

The organization may not be perfect, but here's why the whole theater industry should be celebrating Equity's 100th birthday on May 26. logo
Actors' Equity members (Waliek Crandall, Lisa Helmi Johanson, Kyle E. Baird, Carolina Reiter, Kate Garfield, Leighton Bryan, Ben Mehl, and Margaret Odette) posing with their cards.
(© Actors' Equity Association)
Getting your Actors' Equity Card is one of the most important pieces of the mythos of becoming a professional actor. But sometimes gaining that precious piece of paper can lead to disenchantment. "I heard a few actors wondering out loud whether their Actors' Equity memberships were worth the dues…They can't be cast in lesser roles at many of the companies that use lower-level Equity contracts, they said," wrote Don Shirley in the LA Stage Times.

Paying dues can be frustrating when you're only working a small portion of the year. (Of the 43% of unionized professionals who worked during the 2011-2012 year, each was employed an average of 16.1 weeks, according to the Actors' Equity Association's most recent season report.) And because being an Equity member means you'll be working for Equity employers, some actors resent losing the opportunity to work in non-union houses.

But those who find fault with the system would do well to remember the alternatives. Working actors first chose to become a part of the labor movement simply to protect their basic rights and dignity. "At the turn of the century," Maria Somma, Actors' Equity Association's national director of communications, said, "it was not unusual to have people left stranded and not get paid and not have a way home. There were no rules about costumes, let alone clean costumes, so actors would have to use their own clothes."

Some also take issue with the way Actors' Equity deals with small-scale professional productions and their actors. Unhappy artists sometimes feel that Actors' Equity's oft-used but very limiting Showcase Code, which allows AEA members to participate in limited performances without a contract, and other codes work against the creation of new work by small and independent artists and organizations.

But Maria Somma is adamant that the Showcase Code is not the best (or only) option for small productions. She pointed out both the guest-artist and special-appearance contracts as agreement types that allow theaters to hire one or two Equity actors when they're first starting out. In addition, Equity offers letters of agreement which reference larger contracts.

The association doesn't even expect employers to navigate the ocean of available Equity contracts on their own. There is a whole division of AEA called Developing Theaters, dedicated to working with small theaters as they grow. "Actors' Equity tries to work with theaters large and small to find a kind of a contract that works best for them." Somma reiterated, "and notice I've said the word contract. In fact, in the last ten months or so, I believe, here in New York alone, we've had about 30 theaters or producers become Equity. They've moved from the guest-artist or special-appearance contracts to full Equity contracts."

As an organization, Actors' Equity hardly needs to be arguing the minutia of contracts and codes to prove its worth to its members and the community. In addition to the association's very existence, which ensures the basic professional rights of actors and stage managers, Equity puts significant demonstrable effort into bettering the artistic community as well as the wider world.

"I just came back from National Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C.," said Somma. "It's sponsored by Americans for the Arts, which is a service organization for all the arts, not just theater. We break up into state delegations and then go and meet with elected officials on the Hill to talk specifically about issues that are important to us. One of the things Actors' Equity took the lead on was the importance of funding the National Endowment for the Arts. We stressed that our support is for all the arts, because we firmly believe that the arts are really very important to communities across the country."

Those widespread communities aren't benefited by Actors' Equity only when the organization lobbies to keep their arts' programs funded. In many cases, Equity is indirectly responsible for the theaters they already have. According to Somma, many, if not most, of the small theaters around the country were started by Equity members who wanted to create a place they could work.

"That's what happens. That's the story in a lot of these theaters around the country. They were either started by Equity members, or they were started by people who wanted to hire Equity members," Somma explained.

No matter the accompanying stress Equity may or may not cause card-carrying members, the Equity card will undoubtedly remain one of the chief markers of dedication to the theater craft. Somma remembers, "We had a president, Patrick Quinn, and he sometimes said, ‘None of us are born with our Equity card, but it is something that we strive for. We strive for that level of professionalism. It is a way of saying I am a professional, I am dedicated to my career, and I am proud to be part of the professional theatrical community.'"