Barriers To Equity Admission Are Suddenly Dropped

Big news today from Actors’ Equity Association  the union which represents stage actors and stage managers. The union basically immediately opened membership to anyone who has ever worked professionally as an actor or stage manager on production and ever will, along with members of associated sister unions like SAG-AFTRA, AGMA and AGVA. Anyone who currently in the member candidate program working toward their union card can immediately become a member with any fees already paid to the union counting toward their initiation dues.

It should be noted that the definition of working professionally seems to being paid any amount as long as you can provide a pay stub. The previous process was based on a certain number of hours worked on a production under a union contract.

The union says they are doing this as a step toward diversity and inclusion due to the high degree of self-selection that has existed in the hiring process:

But Equity theatres, like all entertainment industry employers, are disproportionately run by white people, and their programming and hiring decisions show that they often hold biases in favor of people from similar demographics. In fact, recent hiring studies demonstrate that Equity contracts are disproportionately offered to white people, and the majority of new members join via a contract.  Because our membership rules until now have left access to membership in employers’ hands, they have implicitly created a disproportionately high barrier to access for actors and stage managers of marginalized identities. We have inadvertently contributed to the systemic exclusion of people of color and people of other marginalized identities from the benefits of union membership.

In a Backstage article, Diep Tran quotes Equity President Kate Shindle as saying this is not a cash grab after the Covid shutdown:

But she is adamant that Open Access is not a “cash grab” to get more money into the union; Equity was affected in the last year when its members were unable to work because of COVID-19 and thus, pay into their union.

“I am telling you the God’s honest truth when I say that no part of this has felt like any kind of cash grab,” she says.

Shindle also admits that with this change, it may mean that auditions become “more crowded,” but she believes that overall, more members are a good thing: “We’re eager to look at the ways in which structural and systemic racism has permeated our industry and say, Okay, these are things we can just fix without anyone’s permission. We don’t have to have an industry summit in order to say it should be easier to join Equity if you want to join Equity.”

One of my colleague’s first reaction was to wonder if the influx of membership would help the union’s issues with health coverage. Back in April, actors were marching in protest against the union’s change in the number of weeks members had to work in order to receive health coverage, in addition to calling attention to racism, sexism, and unsafe work environments.

It will be interesting to see how this move plays out over the next few years. One of the biggest challenges will likely be broadening the appeal of union membership geographically. While it sounds like anyone who performed for a small stipend could become a member of Actors’ Equity, the restrictions on working on non-union shows may limit people’s opportunities to participate in local or regional productions.

For decades now the fact that acting opportunities were oriented in a few cities, particularly New York City, has been identified as a significant problem. (Call out to Scott Walters who often wrote on this subject.)  The joke about needing to move to NYC from Milwaukee in order to audition for a part in Milwaukee wasn’t far from the truth.

Equity is probably going to have to create new sets of rules that allow people to perform in myriad more circumstances than they currently are. The union was formed over 100 years ago to protect actors from exploitative situations and there are still many areas in which advocacy of a few broad basic work rules like the recent trend away from grueling rehearsal schedules can create new standards of practice.

 

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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