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This week's question comes from Jane of Brenham, TX.
Answer: There are three ways to join Actors' Equity Association (AEA), the union for professional actors and stage managers. The first is by already being a member of any of AEA's "sister unions": Screen Actors Guild (SAG), American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), Guild of Italian-American Actors (GIAA), or American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA). Actors must provide AEA with a written statement from their union proving they have been a member for at least a year and are in good standing.
The second, and perhaps the quickest, way to join is to be offered a role in a show that requires an Equity contract. It is then up to the actor to apply for membership during the term of that contract. Some contracts will also include a "length-of-employment" requirement, meaning that the actor must be with that show for a certain amount of time before being eligible to join Equity.
For Mandy Gonzalez, who plays the emotionally conflicted college student Nina in Broadway's In the Heights, getting her Equity card in 2001 was a relatively speedy process.
"I got my Equity card by waiting in line with about 300 other girls for an open call for the show Eli's Comin' at the Vineyard Theatre," says Gonzalez. "It was a show about (the musician) Laura Nyro…it was me, Judy Kuhn, Anika Noni Rose and Ronnell Bey. I came to New York and went to every open call, and this open call worked. It started my career."
Kirsten Wyatt, who plays Grease's beauty school drop-out Frenchy, also received her card sooner than expected. After graduating from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1997, one of her first jobs was in the ensemble of the pre-Broadway tryout of High Society at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
"I was basically given my card to work at that theatre," says Wyatt. "Christopher Fitzgerald (the original Boq in Wicked) and I got our cards together. It was a bunch of old Broadway pros, like Randy Graff and John McMartin and Melissa Errico. We were the babies of the group, and they were like, 'Is anybody getting their card?' and we raised our hands."
The final way to join Equity is to accumulate points through the Equity Membership Candidate Program (EMC). By performing at participating Equity regional and summer stock theatres, actors can collect points toward their membership. The total points equal 50 total weeks of work that do not have to be consecutive and can be amassed over any length of time. Once actors have collected enough points, they have five years in which to join AEA, otherwise their points will expire. If they perform at any Equity theatre during those five years, they must be signed to an Equity contract.
Robin De Jesús joined the EMC program after he was told he would receive his Equity card for performing in a play, only to have the offer revoked once rehearsals started. De Jesús, Tony-nominated earlier this year for his role as Sonny in In the Heights, eventually received his Equity card in 2005 for a workshop of All About Us at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ. When added to his other points, the Kander and Ebb musicalization of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth provided De Jesús with enough to obtain his card.
"Before I got my card I had been performing (professionally) for three years," says De Jesús. "I had been accumulating points through various shows and readings, but when I got that workshop, instead of it just being worth a few points, it immediately made me Equity. For some reason, it just shot me right to it."
EMC requires a registration fee of $100, which can later be applied to AEA's initiation fee of $1,100. When joining Equity, an actor is required to pay at least $400 toward the initiation fee upfront, with two years to pay the remaining balance. Once a member, the basic yearly dues are $118, with working dues of 2.25% of an actor's gross earnings under an Equity contract. These dues pay for a whole host of benefits such as health insurance, 401(k), special seminars, guaranteed safe and sanitary working conditions, and access to Equity-only auditions. Since it is a "self-supporting labor association," the dues and fees also keep Actors' Equity running.
Lindsey Wilson, who is temporarily filling in for Zachary Pincus-Roth, is a theatre writer whose work has also been seen in The Syracuse Post-Standard. She can be reached by emailing LindseyAnnWilson@gmail.com.