All About AEA, College Degrees & Talent

Special Features   All About AEA, College Degrees & Talent
Dear Blair,
Last year I graduated from theatre school and I am now looking for work. I notice at many auditions, members of Actors' Equity get special privileges. What is Actors' Equity? How do I become a member? Also, does it cost any money?
Allison Sheffield

Dear Blair,
Last year I graduated from theatre school and I am now looking for work. I notice at many auditions, members of Actors' Equity get special privileges. What is Actors' Equity? How do I become a member? Also, does it cost any money?
Allison Sheffield


Dear Allison,
I am surprised that the theatre school you attended didn't inform you about the labor union for theatre actors, Actors' Equity Association (AEA), and I am also grateful because it gives me a chance to explain to all aspiring artists about AEA. Other noteworthy unions for actors are the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the union for film artists; and the American Federation of Television and Radio (AFTRA).

Becoming a member of AEA provides actors with greater access to theater auditions, guarantees actors scale pay, and after 12 weeks in many AEA contracts, they can receive health insurance. All Broadway and many off Broadway productions are AEA productions, and they are required to open their auditions to Equity performers.

The question of how to become an AEA member has a threefold answer, which I'll preface with a brief anecdote. When I was a youngster, at a seminar on the business with actress Anne Meara, she answered your question in her witty, brash, Brooklyn tone; "The actors unions are the great Catch 22--you can't get in them unless you've worked, and you can't get work unless your in them." Although this is part of the story, it's not the whole story. There are many productions you can get cast in if you are non-union, but often, they do not pay well, if at all.

The easiest way to join AEA is with a contract. If you land a role in an Equity production (by getting an audition through an agent or friend, or through an "open call" audition), a producer can offer you an Equity contract, for which you must pay the initiation fee and annual dues. Sometimes, if you're lucky, on a really big-budget production, the producer will pay the initiation fee for you.

The next way is through the Membership Candidate Program. If you work in any of the nationwide AEA accredited theatres, in a non-professional position such as an apprentice for 50 weeks, you can credit your work for points towards joining AEA. There is a registration fee for the Program, which is credited against the initiation fee.

The third way is if you have been a member of another actors' union for at least one year, you can apply to purchase membership . Currently, the initiation fee to join AEA is $800. The bi-annual dues are $39 (Sept., 1996).

For more information, contact the Actors' Equity Association, 165 West 46th St., NY, NY 10036. (212) 869-8530. There are also branches in Chicago and Los Angeles.



Blair--My question to you is: Although I know it helps, is it mandatory for one to have a major college degree to make it on Broadway/touring companies, etc.? --Dennis McNamara


Dear Dennis,
The answer is no, it is definitely not mandatory to have a college degree to make it on Broadway or in touring companies. Although, you are right, it does help.

What I believe helps about a college education, in addition to the theatre training, is that you get the invaluable experience of being in major productions before the pressure of professionalism is present. You are also exposed to other knowledge which can profoundly influence your acting, i.e.: History, Art History, Shakespeare and other literary classes, Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy, etc. You learn to be somewhat on your own, and it also helps you when you're looking for non-acting work to support your acting. I am grateful for my college education.

On the other hand, Ron LaRosa, of Johnson-Liff Casting (Big, Les Miz, Phantom, etc.) says, "I always look to see where [actors] studied, but in my opinion, talent outshines everything. It's important for people to study and to continue to study, but not necessarily for a college degree. Talent is what hires people in the end."

College or not, I wish you a thriving career, Dennis!



I am interested in auditioning for Les Miserables, but first I need to know some things. I am 20 years-old and I have no experience whatsoever. I love to sing and have sung in school and had school vocal lessons. It costs a lot to fly to San Francisco from Syracuse, New York. What are the chances that I could get into the tour? If you could tell me the truth this will help me to make the decision to go to California.
Maura Steves

Dear Maura,
Now, I can't tell you THE TRUTH, because it's not one thing. But let me remind you that anything can happen in this business. People with no experience become movie stars overnight, and people with tons of experience, even some movie stars, find themselves jobless and broke.

I also want to acknowledge that although I don't know you, your talent or what your luck factor is, my feeling is that flying out to San Francisco to audition for a major musical without prior experience is a shot in the dark. It is disappointing enough to audition locally for a show you love and not get cast, and when you've spent airfare-- it's a setup for a double whammy!

Please understand it is not my intention to discourage you, rather, I recommend that you save your money on the airfare and put it into lessons and local theatrical pursuits.

Experience prepares you for being in a big show like Les Miz. Even if you got a part now, you might be overwhelmed because you have never experienced the pressures of live professional performance, the rehearsal process, or how demanding a big show, eight shows a week, can be.

Learn first how to audition, how to work with other actors, with directors, in a chorus. Train yourself as a professional musical theatre artist, and I believe you will achieve your dream of being in Les Miz when you are more experienced, and without having to travel across the country to audition.

Either way, and no matter what you choose to do, keep your eyes open and have fun.


Hi! I'm a college student that just got cast in the musical Grease!. Cool, huh! I'm one of the T-Birds, Roger. If you happen to have any advice about Grease! I would really appreciate it. Thanks for your time.
Michael Vereide

Congratulations, Michael!
Thanks for your sweet inquiry about Grease!. Grease! can be such a fun show--so my first advice to you is to HAVE FUN!!! If you're not having fun, let it be a signal that you may be working TOO hard, and/or that your actor needs to reconnect with the frenetic energy of your rebellious teen once again.

In fact, since high school isn't that far away for you, here's an opportunity to remember all the self-consciousness, those ways you strove to be cool, or yearned to be cool (even you if didn't actually act it out) and exaggerate that adolescent behavior in Roger big time.

Fall in love with cars. Get physical. Rent the movie with John Travolta and watch the way he and the T-Birds move. Rent Elvis movies with your friends. Become a great Elvis impersonator. Elvis rhymes with pelvis, and pelvis is key.

Note the similarities and differences of today's teens with those in the '50s, in attitude and hairstyles.

I hope this advice gets you rolling on the right, greased-lightening track. Take care, Michael and remember to chang-chang, changitty-chang shu-bop it up.

Thanks again to all who sent inquiries!

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