To most performers, receiving a coveted Actors’ Equity Association union card means one has truly arrived as a professional. It’s a rite of passage, a privilege and an honor, proving to the world you’ve earned your stripes and your rightful place in the pantheon of performers. However, actually making a living as a member of AEA, especially outside of New York City, all too often comes with some startling realities that turn the sweet accomplishment of owning that union card into onerous burdens it can strap onto an actor’s career.
Currently boasting a membership of over 51,000 professional actors and stage managers, Actors’ Equity Association was born a little over a century ago to fight the greed, avarice and selfishness of producers, who set oppressive working conditions and paltry pay scales on actors. By the early part of the 20th century, exploitation was a very real condition of a performer’s employment. Producers offered no compensation for rehearsals or holidays and rehearsal time was virtually unlimited. In 1913, Equity’s constitution was drafted and on July 18, 1919 Actors’ Equity Association was formally recognized by the American Federation of Labor, which later became the AFL-CIO. The ensuing years brought fairly negotiated rules governing bonding, which put the onus on producers to provide necessary advance funds to guarantee actors’ salaries and benefits, along with guidelines for minimum salaries, rehearsal pay, restrictions on hiring foreign actors and protections from rapacious theatrical agents.
Actors’ Equity has also served as a respected leader in civil rights. In 1947, the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. barred black audience members. AEA quickly stepped in and resolved its members would not play there and the theater closed. The National reopened in 1952 with different management and a non-discrimination policy. Additionally, in 1961 the League of Theatres and Producers came to an accord that stated no actors would be required to perform in any venue where discrimination is practiced against performers or patrons by reason of race, creed or color. This policy has since gone on to prohibit similar discrimination based on gender, sexual preference or political belief. AEA has also adopted noteworthy policies to further employment opportunities for actors of color, disabled, senior and women performers.
All of that said, one might now make a case for how far the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Fledgling and even established theater companies looking to find any way possible to survive in today’s economy often buckle at the prospect of adhering to growing, arduous demands Equity places upon them — the latest being AEA’s challenging pandemic protocols. Just ask producers Marcie Gorman of MNM Theatre Company and Marilyn Wick of The Wick Theatre and Costume Collection. Both have chosen to go with non-Equity casts in the 2021-2022 season.
“At this point until Equity changes some of its highly restrictive rules, I don’t think I’ll be able to hire Equity performers,” Ms. Gorman said. “The union is just too difficult to deal with. In fact, I recently learned that they’re requiring one person to be present full time at the theater, not doing any other job but to just sit there and get paid to make sure I’m adhering to their COVID rules. That puts me in a very awkward spot. I want to hire my Equity people, but it just doesn’t make financial sense to me. It’s very prohibitive. They need to help producers, not harm them.”
Ms. Wick concurred.
“I’ve been an Equity house ever since I opened my doors and I’m brokenhearted about not continuing to be Equity, because most of the most talented people are Equity,” she said. “But they’ve given us no plan as to how to get things going with their union members again. Their program, even with vaccinations, is still very complicated and very expensive.”
Mary McColl, executive director of Actors’ Equity Association, threw her union’s support completely behind the membership, but offered little on the repercussions that stance would have on struggling theatre companies around the country and how those repercussions might be minimized.
“Any employer who wants to begin theatrical productions needs to have a comprehensive plan in place that protects not just the actors and stage managers, but ensures that everyone who works in the theater has a safe workplace,” Ms. McColl said in a statement. “Equity will use all of our available resources to ensure that no one is asked to work in an unsafe environment.”
Equity’s COVID-19 Safety Requirements and Rider for Fully Vaccinated Workplaces, which went into effect on July 1, 2021, mandates “that all Equity members and everyone that interacts with the actors and stage managers has been fully vaccinated and the show will be presented at one location.” Safety protocols go on to require “all federal, state, county and city reopening requirements must be followed and the employer will immediately report any positive COVID-19 tests to the proper authorities.”
COVID-19 Safety Managers, as Ms. Gorman observed, must “oversee and ensure compliance with these safety protocols” and producers are responsible for costs associated with “food, groceries, laundry and medications” for infected actors and stage managers under their employ. Not to mention dizzying costs tied to “cleaning and sanitization of the workplaces and employer-provided housing,” along with “ventilation for workplaces and employer-provided housing,” as well as audience and public interaction restrictions, self-isolation obligations, severance pay for shows closing due to COVID and mandating vaccinations for all employees.
If adhering to all of the above isn’t arduous enough, local producers must still shoulder Equity contracts, which can run 33-50 percent more than what they might otherwise pay to non-Equity performers — and all while trying to crawl out from under the financial hits they took during the pandemic’s ensuing shutdown.
“I’m just going to have to be a lot more careful with my budget moving forward,” Ms. Gorman said. “I usually budget about $200,000 per show, but that number may come down to around $150,000. At this point, it’s all my own money going into this. And that ain’t easy.”
Jeanne Bennett supports AEA, believing it protects actors from exploitation.
It ain’t easy for local Equity actors, either. Jeanne Bennett, who has been an Equity card holder since 1983, moved to West Palm Beach from New York about ten years ago. Over that time she has found union work at the Caldwell Theatre Company (in a concert version of “Follies”), FAU (Summer Rep), the Plaza Theatre (“Waistwatchers”) and the Maltz Jupiter Theatre (“Gypsy” and “Hairspray”).
“I like the protections we get, such as set rehearsal hours and dedicated days off,” Ms. Bennett said. “And the salary difference between Equity and non-Equity actors is huge. There’s also a pension in which I’m vested and I’ve gotten health insurance through the union. But it’s very difficult to find work these days, because Equity has put very strict regulations on theaters, making it very difficult for them.”
She added a lot of decisions Equity makes are based on the New York theatre world rather than what goes on in regional theatre.
“I get that, because New York’s where the majority of the money is,” Ms. Bennett said. “But down here, living in Florida, it’s very difficult to make a living in professional theatre. You have to be prepared to work a little less if you’re determined to be a union actor. But when you do work, the quality of that production will be high and you’ll make better money. I would advise a young actor who plans to make South Florida their home against joining Equity right away. When you’re in your twenties, you don’t care about medical coverage and a pension so much. But as you age, you’ll realize how important they are.”
She added she would never leave Equity to get more work in non-union productions.
“I believe in the union,” Ms. Bennett said. “I’ve been a New Yorker my whole life and so many of my relatives have been union members in other fields. I believe in unions. They protect workers, especially in show business, where it’s so easy to exploit people. But I can certainly understand why some actors walk away from the union.”
Troy J. Stanley left the union, feeling it never really held his best interests at heart.