Acting Reflections: The People's Union
A lot has happened in the past few weeks in the world of the arts. Scarlett Johansson sued Disney for putting Black Widow on Disney+ when it was initially supposed to be released exclusively to movie theaters. Peter Safran, the producer of Aquaman 2, is rejecting the fans' cries to have Amber Heard removed from the film due to the ongoing legal and personal battles with Johnny Depp (don't ask). Suicide Squad, starring Margot Robbie, underwhelmed at the box office due to the rising cases of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus keeping people at home. All theaters, restaurants, museums, and indoor venues in NYC are requiring everyone to be vaccinated, wear a mask, and have proof of vaccination if they are to come inside. And many more cities are expected to follow, hopefully. This includes the Broadway theaters as they get ready to open for the first time in over a year. The Kennedy Center Honors recipients for 2021 were named, and the list is quite impressive - Bette Midler, Berry Gordy, Justino Diaz, Lorne Michaels, and Joni Mitchell. Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist was cancelled, and then recently revived for season 3 on Roku, which includes a two film wrap-up series. The Tony Awards are coming up on 26 September, except the vast majority of the show will air on Paramount+, and many people aren't happy about this because they have to pay in order to watch it. Others aren't supportive of the awards to go on as planned because of the pandemic and the lack of response from the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League over the protests and cries for change in the theatre for the BIPOC communities. Yeah, there's plenty of things going on in the world of the arts right now that I can think of right off the top of my head. I'm pretty sure there's more that I'm forgetting. But I'm definitely not forgetting this piece of news that shocked and excited me. On 21 July, the Actors Equity Association (AEA) announced a new membership policy called the Open Access program, which allows actors and stage managers who worked professionally in the United States - defined here as receiving compensation for their work - to join the union, effective immediately. And as you can imagine, the response to this was all over the place. And I do mean ALL OVER THE PLACE. For many of us who are non-union actors, yours truly included, this is a big deal. We've been hustling for so long in community theatre productions, small professional shows, live concerts, and more without any or a very small payment. And that especially includes attending Equity Principal Auditions (EPAs), Equity Chorus Calls (ECCs), and open calls and submitting self-tapes to professional Equity theatre companies and organizations for the hopes to be seen for a very small chance to be considered for the show or season. And to join the union isn't a walk in the park, either. Until now, there were three main ways to join AEA, and they were being offered an Equity contract outright on a production (very rare), joining through a sister union like SAG-AFTRA, or doing the Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) program, which allows actors to earn points from the affiliated and eligible theaters in this program to join the union. The maximum is 25 points and they don't have to be earned consecutively. As you can see, the Open Access membership program is a big deal for us, especially if we've been doing this for at least 5-10 years without as much as a dent in getting closer to joining the union through our hard work and persistence. I'm pretty sure there were plenty of non-union actors who jumped quickly and filled out the appropriate information to determine eligibility to join the union. And then there's those who are already in the union. Many of them are skeptical of this new membership policy, even angry. There were cries of the union only doing this as a "money grab," or how this was very poorly thought out without much discussions amongst the members, or how the surge of new members will cause the audition holding rooms to become very crowded, or even how those new members aren't even worthy to join the union to begin with. See what I mean? It's a lot to take in. Lord knows how much research and investigating I've done in the past few weeks to get as much information and different perspectives. I've read the comments, looked at articles, and wandered into forums and chat rooms to see what's being discussed on the Open Access membership program. And like so many things, I let these opinions and quotes simmer and float around in my mind. The biggest questions that were asked from this announcement were this: how does this truly impact the actors and stage managers in the BIPOC communities? What will be done to deal with the overcrowding at auditions? How can the union be more transparent and communicative to their members from here on out? Is this really a money grab in order to generate more funds? What about the current members who are struggling with their dues and being eligible for health coverage? How does this address racism in the union as a whole? But the most important question that came to mind: How does this impact me as a professional non-union actor who has a goal of joining the union? This week, we're diving into the details of the Open Access membership program - what it entails, the pros and cons of joining the union, the fears from current union members, future members, and even the founders and artistic teams of non-union theatre companies and organizations, and more. But we're also looking into how this program can bring good and even long overdue change to the union. And I'm going to provide my reflections on my what this program means to me, and how joining the union can have both positive and negative consequences on my career. Okay. Here we go!
Before we get into more details about the Open Access membership program, let's start at the very beginning. Because that's a very good place to start. In 1896, the first Actors Union Charter was recognized by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as an attempt to create a minimum wage for actors being exploited. On 13 January 1913, the Union Charter failed, but later re-emerged as the Actors Equity Association with more than 111 actors with Francis Wilson as the founding board president. It was officially founded on 26 May 1913 during a meeting at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel in New York City by 112 professional theatre actors who established the constitution and elected Wilson as the president. A handful of actors - The Players - held secret organizational meetings at Edwin Booth's The Players at its mansion in Gramercy Park. To this day, a bronze plaque commemorates the very room where The Players met to establish Actors Equity. One of the founding members was actor Frank GIllmore, who was the Executive Secretary of Actors Equity from 1918-29, and later became the president from 1929-37. AEA joined the AFL in 1919, and a strike was called in order to have the association be recognized as a labor union. This helped end the Producing Managers' Association dominance over AEA, and it helped increase membership from 3,000 to just approximately 14,000. Apart from a 1929 nationwide actors and producers strike threat involving the motion picture industry, which led to the formation of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933 for movie actors and producers, this union is an important part of live productions for union actors and stage managers, including theatre. AEA is known for supporting many causes over the years, including standing against segregation, refusing to participate in McCarthyism and never banning of its members who were blacklisted or refused to work with Communists, fought for public funding for the arts, protested against the destruction of many Broadway theaters, and was pivotal in recognizing how the AIDS epidemic impacted the theatrical community. For a union that's done so much for over 100 years for its actors and stage managers, it's sad to see it come to a point now where it appears to have failed its members in some important avenues that shouldn't be at this point in the 21st century. But alas, that's the general feeling among its current members, especially from the comments I've read. I know I'm sounding like a broken record here, but this past year was tough for everyone, especially those of us in the arts. Much of the places where we do our best work were closed out of safety and precaution for others, but some of them may never return again because of the pandemic. For actors and stage managers in AEA, it's hard enough to get work on a consistent basis, but imagine not being able to get work at all. For over a whole year. And in that year, they've ended up losing their health insurance benefits because they were unable to work the required amount of weeks in order to keep their healthcare. They were forced to pay dues even though there was no paid work and people were struggling just to make the rent on time, have food on the table, provide for their loved ones, and even take care of their health. They were virtually kept in the dark on any updates or news from the union in terms of reopening plans, safety, and how the union will move forward from here on out. Yeah, it was a pretty rough time being in the union this past year. Even to the point where many members left because they were forced to choose between keeping their union status or having a roof over their heads. A reckoning was long overdue in light of the pandemic and all of the protests surrounding Black Lives Matter and Stop AAPI Hate from the string of hate crimes and killings against the BIPOC communities. It's still long overdue in many aspects. On 22 April, the March on Broadway occurred in NYC, starting in Columbus Circle and proceeded to finish in Times Square near the Theater District. Some of the list of demands were as follows: *A full list of organizations that AEA is working with to help Black, Indigenous, and POC feel safer. *A full report of how the 2020 Equity dues were spent and what percentage is being spent to help conversations around diversity. *Achieve greater inclusion for trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming artists. *Visibility on how the national council votes for policies. We also want efforts to improve diversity within the council. *Achieve greater inclusion for artists with visible and nonvisible differing abilities. (NOTE: A big demand from this protest was for the removal of famed producer, Scott Rudin, who was accused of abusive, even tyrannical behavior, and sexual assault among his employees. This particular demand goes on to say that if he isn't removed from the Broadway League, they want restoration, and to have Rudin choose 20 BIPOC run theaters and donate a LARGE SUM of money to them.) Needless to say, earlier in the year, Broadway actor Timothy Hughes started a petition demanding AEA leadership to hold a town hall meeting for its members in regards for the union to share more information and guidelines to reopening Equity theaters safely and without confusion. Last October, AEA Membership started a petition calling for the AEA Health & Pension Trustees to resign after the vast majority of members lost their health insurance due to no work being available to actors and stage managers because of the pandemic and all of the theaters were closed. If you want to look at this particular petition, the link is below: https://www.change.org/p/actors-equity-association-council-a-call-for-aea-health-pension-trustees-to-resign?utm_content=cl_sharecopy_24957595_en-US%3A1&recruiter=1111989053&recruited_by_id=089f1420-a84e-11ea-98fc-9fd9c352aa1a&utm_source=share_petition&utm Yup, the reckoning has begun. And I don't think it's going to stop anytime soon. You'd think that after what has happened in the past 10 months there would be sweeping changes that would benefit everyone. Well, like many things, change takes time, and there's a series of steps needed to be taken in order for it to take full effect. In the case of AEA, there was one big change that happened unexpectedly. And no one knew it was coming. The Open Access membership program was announced on 21 July by the union as a way to invite and encourage more members, especially those in the BIPOC communities, to join. As stated earlier, this program is open to actors and stage managers who can prove they've worked professionally (i.e. received compensation) within Equity's geographical jurisdiction to join the union, effective immediately. And you don't have to be in the United States to be eligible under this membership program. The down payment of $600, which will be used towards the $1,700 initiation fee, and overall eligibility will be applicable until 1 May 2023. This is especially important for former members and former applicants who left the union for various reasons and decide to apply again. All of the previous initiation fees are credited towards the amount owed for renewing membership. The nice thing about this is that the full payment can be made within three years. And they don't have to secure a new Equity contract to do so. The reasoning behind this new policy? As Kate Shindle, the current president of AEA states: “The old system had a significant flaw: It made employers the gatekeepers of Equity membership, with almost no other pathways to joining. The entertainment industry is disproportionately white, including and especially theatrical leadership. The union has inadvertently contributed to the systemic exclusion of BIPOC artists and others with marginalized identities by maintaining a system in which being hired to work those contracts was a prerequisite of membership. We hope that artists from all backgrounds will join us in building a union that uplifts the entire theatre community, especially those who have not felt included or welcome in the past.” It seems like a good idea to address racism with this program, and I'm sure plenty of people are on board with this, right? Well, not exactly. I've been doing a lot of investigating and reading the comments and statements from current union members, theatre practitioners, and more to see what they think about this. Let's start with those who don't think this is a good idea. (For some of these comments from both sides, I'm keeping the names omitted out of respect and privacy purposes.) "This is a very shortsighted move that will ultimately weaken the union. Adding a bunch of people that will ultimately become vanity cardholders does not make you stronger. Ask AFTRA and then SAG-AFTRA." "I don’t understand how this is a diversity and inclusion initiative.” ~Nattalyee Randall, one of the March on Broadway Organizers. "This decision has major ramifications throughout the industry and begs a much more detailed discussion." "What does that mean for the little theatres who can’t afford to pay a full cast of equity benefits? And won’t the actor be kicked out of the union if they take the non union contract because they still have to feed their family?" "This is such an incredible shock and disappointment. I’ve been a paying member since 1991…worked my butt off to achieve that goal and now what? You just pay in? Way to go lowering the standards of our industry…what next?" "I don’t think this is the way to… AT THIS MOMENT. Is AEA holding producers and institutions accountable for having diverse casts? Doesn’t seem like it. I feel like this is opening up the gates meanwhile everything inside said gates is either closed or not for ALL performers. Until we see that change in the institution that is theatre, you’re just going to have a ton of new AEA actors but no work to for ALL to be even considered." "This has nothing to do with diversity or inclusion. This is money-grabbing on the part of a failing union whose leadership has consistently disappointed it’s members for the last decade." "Sounds more like a way to bring more money for the organization." "Not very fair to the people who worked for years to obtain their card." "Oh, so are you also going to make it more affordable to join? How about changing how the healthcare benefits work to make it work for the influx of these members?" "I wonder at the decision that they seem to have made not to lower membership rates because that excludes people who are economically oppressed. So, what exactly do they mean by ‘inclusion’?” ~Michael Kennedy, founder and Artistic Director of Creative Action Unlimited. "Can't wait to see the newest round of "how I got my equity card" stories. This is a grift and a slap in the face to DECADES of actors who struggled and earned it. And it's not gonna get anybody more work. I guess the answer to "is it equity?" is now...."does it matter?" "Is it a bit of a money grab from a union that has had nearly every member out of work? Is it a needed boost financially to rehire laid-off staff? It’s complicated at best.” "I feel it’s about collecting more money. I’d like to see them make some financial concessions in terms of their overhead. Do they really need expensive office space in Manhattan? How much have they reduced staff during the theatre freeze? I would guess that it doesn’t match the reduction in work for struggling actors and stage managers.” “I worry whether financially marginal theatres — from the BIPOC communities or any other community — will be able to stay afloat if the changes in union membership increase production expenses.” ~Sandra Boynton, Artistic Director of worker-owned cooperative theater company Will Kempe’s Players. "All the regional, stock, SPT, and the like still have built in non-Equity ratios in their agreements with AEA. Until that changes, there won’t be more AEA jobs. Most theaters budget for the minimal amount of AEA contracts that their are obligated to have and round out their casts with non-Union talent. That will not change. This move by AEA will just (maybe?) bring more people into the Union who will not be working as AEA already has an astronomical percentage of unemployed members. Don’t tell me that there magically won’t be any more non-Union actors when anyone can join the Union. This is NOT the way. Also, framing this thinly veiled money grab as Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is gross." “Is it addressing the system, which is a much more difficult, complex issue? It’s a step in the right direction, but it feels like there’s a huge missing piece here.” "Please stop pretending this is an EDI initiative. It’s a money grab and covered up by the disguise of helping Black, POC, and marginalized communities. Equity continues to trample on us." Oy vey. LOTS of negativity and skepticism here. But now let's look at the responses from those who think this is a fantastic idea and the hopes they have with this new membership program. "I see a lot of negativity in the comments. AEA and other arts unions have been so exclusive and impenetrable for so long, that it has convinced us that this is normal. But it’s wrong. Labor Unions are not meant to be exclusive. The ability to join a union and have protected rights should not be a privilege. My family are union workers. My sister is a labor rights activist. So, to me, the arts unions have always felt antithetical to the labor movement. This is a step in the right direction. It also doesn’t mean that work suddenly will go to those less qualified. Let’s not forget, you still have to audition. You still have to compete for jobs. Also, you still have to pay to join. The important thing is that now, as an artist you have the choice. You can decide if now is the time to join, or if it makes sense in your market. What I see here is step 1: Protect as many artists as possible, while increasing collective bargaining power. Step 2: Demand more union jobs from producers and theaters. Demand more diversity. There is power in numbers. If theater professionals have a more powerful and well funded union behind them, then change is much more likely." "I cannot wait to tell my students from the Bronx!!!! 🖤🎭 Equity has been out of reach for far tooooo many native nyers- especially in that borough. Many said change wouldn’t be achieved. I am very proud of my union! Cannot wait to see what expanded open eligibility will do for it. Competition is only worthwhile when it’s a level playing field. Earning a role will mean even more now. Not less!" "This decision was made by our elected Equity reps/council, not the paid staff of AEA…for those saying its only a money grab. It will likely bring an influx of money to the union but the people who got this through are members, not employees." "All y’all People mad about making a union more accessible really need a lesson on what a union is. We are more powerful together… period." "I’m glad the choice to join the union is now a little more in the hands of the actors. So many talented folk who have worked professionally, just not under AEA contracts will have the chance to be seen as competitively as those who have had those other opportunities. My hope is that this helps level the playing field and that the elitism that surrounds equity and casting evaporates." "I see a lot of stinky old “Broadway privilege” being challenged and dismantled in these comments, and rightfully so 👏🏻 Not sure when AEA became synonymous with “Broadway,” but I have a hunch that for a lot of folks, the elitist miscalculation originates in the BFA programs where we’re taught we aren’t worth sh*t unless we’re working on Broadway or 1st national tour - but that’s an argument for another day. No one individual’s membership is weighted more than another’s. This is a labor union, not an exclusive country club." "This is fantasic. In addition to the most-important increase in access to marginalized artists, this will widen the base of union talent. In doing so we decrease the number of non-union artists that the non-union theatrical market has relied on for decades. Following this necessary first step, we need to work with some of these smaller, less-well-funded markets to produce union shows, increasing the number of jobs for our growing base and access to quality theatre for underserved communities." "Lol at all the “cash grab” commenters who didn’t read the fine print and see that no membership fees are due for TWO YEARS. I applaud this initiative and look forward to welcoming more siblings to union membership!!" "Awesome! 👏" "Love this!!! How exciting ❤️" "This is a long overdue solution to an antiquated system for membership. I agree with this wholeheartedly." "As someone who has toiled in Non-Equity productions for an average stipend of $250 per run, I'm hopeful that this change will pave the way for smaller independent theaters to become Equity houses and/or boost the number of Equity contracts so those theaters can pay livable wages. There's plenty of dedicated and talented artists working in non-Equity houses. They deserve all the fair wages and workplace protections afforded to Equity members." Yeah, there's a lot to take in from these comments and statements, and it's from BOTH sides, not just one. (This is an especially heated topic to be writing about as part of my Acting Reflections series, but just the same, I enjoy sharing my thoughts and observations on this and many other discussions, ideas, and reflections about my career and life in general. I will say this - I will not tolerate any offensive or disrespectful comments of any sort from anyone. You are welcome to disagree with anything I've written down or reflected on, but if you spew any hateful language, I will block you. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.) What does one do after looking at all of the articles, forums, chat rooms, and comments on social media on the Open Access membership program for the past week? Well, I've gotten better at doing this lately. And that's to let the words simmer in my mind before adding my observations on this very blog. Even if it takes several days and lots of long walks to do so. I even reread some articles that would make sense for this week's post, including one that lists some important pros and cons to joining AEA. Here's a recap: PROS
*AEA negotiates your minimum salary
*AEA negotiates your hours and fair working conditions
*Supplemental worker’s compensation during injury
*Health coverage (especially important after you turn 26 and can no longer use your parents’ health insurance)
*Pension/401K (if you ever plan on eventually retiring)
*Guaranteed Paycheck: Equity requires most producers to post a bond to ensure payment; even if a show closes or a producer defaults, you still get paid and won’t get stranded.
*Audition Access: Equity has negotiated required auditions including Equity Principal Auditions and Equity Chorus Calls. More than 1,300 audition notices are posted on Equity’s website annually. *Endless union discounts on rehearsal studios, spas, gyms, hotels, restaurants, travel, etc. CONS *AEA actors are limited to performing in Equity shows only, you can’t take non-union job offers *Sometimes less opportunities for work equity actors than non-union actors *Heavier competition *Hefty initiation fee ($1,700 paid within a maximum two-year period. While working on contract, deductions will be made based on your weekly salary.) *You must pay basic dues ($176 annually, billed at $88 twice a year each May and November) *Working dues are taken out of your contract (2.5% of gross earnings under Equity contract, which are collected through weekly payroll deductions) *As a union member, you cost the producer more to hire because they pay into your larger union salary, pension and health insurance. With all of this research and observations taken into account, I think it's time to share what I think about all of this and how it will impact my life as an actor. First of all, for the past five years in my career, I've worked primarily in community theaters and small, non-union professional theaters. Much of the work wasn't paid, but the ones that were paid made me smile a little bit bigger. Granted, receiving money for an acting job is secondary to me, but it's a nice added bonus to my career. The reason I became an actor goes back to doing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat back in sixth grade. I felt free, alive, and my truest self whenever I am on stage telling a story, and I feel a special connection with others on a regular basis to remind all of us our humanity and how much alike we all can be when we think about it. That has been the driving force behind my inspiration to keep going in this unpredictable and fulfilling career. My center. I didn't even hear much about the words "union" or "Actors Equity Association" until my very first year as a professional actor, but I knew that I was nowhere near ready to join the union until I felt comfortable with the amount of experience I've amassed, but more important, I believed in myself and the gifts I have to offer. As a non-union actor, I can tell you first hand how hard it has been to be seen, let alone considered, for an Equity project. Getting up at ungodly hours in the morning for an open call or EPA just to arrive at the theatre to place my name on the unofficial list, and then waiting around at a Starbucks or walking around the area until the building opens. After that, it's waiting around some more for your turn to audition while those who are union members and EMC go before the non-union members. Or even submitting self-tapes to Equity theaters in this day and age are a lesson in frustration and patience. You put in all of the work to make sure the framing is correct, there's enough appropriate lighting, the microphone works well enough so that you can be heard without it going out at the worst possible moment, and it's as close to perfection as possible (and that includes LOTS of takes without driving yourself crazy!). And then after you edit, make it watchable via YouTube or Vimeo, copy the link, and send it off to the casting team. But what happens? You never hear back from them again. For a long time, this was the way so many non-union and EMC actors had to go through in order to be seen, even considered, for a show with an Equity theatre. We literally had to work just as harder, smarter, and even tougher in order to have a shot. And many times, we got frustrated and confused as to how this process could've worked for so long. "That's the way it is," some of my friends and acquaintances would reply. But even they must've reached a point in their careers wondering if it's truly the ONLY way things were meant to work? Especially if they're BIPOC? I can definitely see why the ways to join the union were a gatekeeper model, and that it was high time for it to go. I've looked at all of the comments from individuals in the union on social media, researched articles detailing the Open Access membership in as full detail as it can, and let it all rest in my mind and heart before coming to this week's post. Here's what I personally think about this. I can see why so many of you in the union feel like this is a money grab and it comes at a particularly bad time for all of you. You were still required to pay dues even though you weren't working at all this past year (with theaters and other performance spaces closed, who could?), you lost your health benefits because there was no work available, and even some you left the union all together because you believed in not having to choose between keeping your union card or having a roof over your head. The union wasn't as transparent as you'd like them to be over the course of this entire pandemic, and it had to take petitions in order to get their attention. The union has always been racist, as sad as this sounds, but you're unsure if this membership program is going in the right direction to combat the racism and open the doors for more inclusivity and accessibility. But here's something I want all of the union members to consider, and it comes from award-winning director, choreographer, and educator, Jim Cooney. Those of you who are upset could benefit from zooming out for a while. Let me explain. If you look at this through "today's lens" (not many Equity jobs, more Equity individuals than jobs, non-union people are working more than union people, etc.), of course it doesn't make sense for AEA to open up the doors to let more people in. But we're not meant to stay in "today's lens." We shouldn't have to look at "today's lens" constantly. We're meant to look towards "tomorrow's lenses" aka the future. We want to be in a different situation, so we can't stay in this same place if we want things to change. We have to change the way we do things or else things aren't going to change at all. Try looking at it through the lens of "where do you want to go?" Operating at a "scarcity mindset," as Mr. Cooney calls it, and thinking about how there's not enough jobs, the initiation fees are too high, I'm not good enough, or there's too many people, that's where you'll end up staying. You can't do your best job in audition rooms or even the performances if you're feeling hopeless, angry, or even resentful. I know that's not what you want to be. And I also know that being in the union shouldn't have to make you believe that you are above everyone else in the world just because you have your Equity card. Also known as elitism. Because that's exactly what I've seen in some of these comments from those of you who don't think this is a good idea. No one is saying you didn't work hard enough to get to where you are now, and that can never be taken away from you. But have you at least taken into consideration how many of the non-union actors and stage managers out there who are working very hard day in and day out like you did before you joined AEA, and are hoping and praying each day for the one opportunity that changes everything? Have you forgotten what it was like for you to be in their shoes? You shouldn't put down hard work, no matter if you're in the union or not. It takes so much more than talent to thrive in this business. It takes dedication, patience, determination, courage, hope, and even lots of compassion. No one should have to believe that they are better than the other person because of their union status. That creates just as much division and discord in the union, and right now, I know that's not what you want to have in your lives at the moment. No one is taking away the hard work, persistence, determination, and passion that is needed to join AEA. Not from you, not from anyone. So please put that out of your minds right now. Is the union perfect? No. Did they do a good job of announcing the Open Access membership program? Probably not. Do they need to do better at being communicative and transparent with their members? Of course! But it's not going to change if you operate from a mindset where all you see is limitations, or even placing yourself higher on the totem pole than everyone else simply because you have your Equity card. And if I'm not mistaken, a union is for the people, which means all of you and all of the non-union actors and stage managers who want to be a part of this. That means YOU have the power to make the changes and transformations you want to see in AEA. And that includes making it easier for people to join so that more voices and job opportunities for everyone, and even working with smaller, independent non-Equity theaters to provide funding and resources for union actors to be able to work. It's not going to be the union you want it to be if all you do is moan and groan and do nothing, let alone see the potential of what new members can do for bringing about the long overdue change that's needed right now. For all of those in the EMC program and non-union status, I know the Open Access membership program is a big win for all of you who longed to join AEA for so long. Whether you've been working professionally for under three years or over 10 years, this is quite a blessing for all of you who longed to be a part of this union. Something that's necessary to consider as you debate joining the union through the Open Access program is this: Be sure that the proof you have for joining the union is from a production or opportunity that shows your credibility as a performer. Current members and even some of the non-union actors are worried that now they can list doing a project or show with a relative or community organization as part of the proof for joining the union if they were compensated for it. There's nothing wrong with that, by any stretch of the imagination. But at least take into consideration the amount of experience you've had in your career leading up to this point, and if you feel you need more opportunities to work professional companies, even if they're small, professional non-union organizations that offers payment, that's okay! Look at the list of credits you've had so far, and ask yourself this question: will joining the union provide me the chance to get more chances to be seen or considered in professional Equity productions with what I have now, or should I continue building my experience by working with small professional companies as a form of education before I join? If you feel your experience is enough for you to join through this program, go for it! If not, it is okay to keep on learning and building experience. There's no rush. Really, there isn't. I want you all to listen to me very carefully: I don't want you to rush into joining the union without thinking this through. And I do mean THINKING this through. Whether that's weighing the pros and cons over and over again, looking at whether or not to move to a location that offers Equity work, or even just praying about it on a regular basis, I need you to seriously think about whether or not it's in your best interests to join Equity right now. In case you didn't see the list of pros and cons from earlier or even from my previous blog, there's a lot to consider. Like not being able to work in any non-union jobs ever again. Like heavier competition for roles. Like a hefty price tag for the initiation fee. Like even becoming an elitist. It's okay if you decide not to join the union right now. There's no shame in that. The door will always be open, and hopefully with a more permanent membership program along the same lines as the Open Access membership. But if you do decide to join the union and you feel you're ready to handle all of the challenges it brings, you have my support 100%. I just need you to promise me something. Please don't become vain after you've received your Equity card. Remember all of the hard work you've put into your career, the persistence and determination even when things looked their bleakest, the kindness and support of your circle of family and friends who are rooting for you, and most of all, remember your character. You are so much more than a card will ever define you as. It's okay to help the next person who wants to follow in your footsteps or even to reach their dreams in whatever they want to pursue in their careers. It's okay to admit that you don't have all of the answers right now because we're all learning. It's okay to just be yourself. Remember, your talent will get you in the door, but it's your CHARACTER that will keep you in the room. And that matters just as much as a card will ever be. And then there's AEA itself. It's sad what is has become in the past decade, or even longer than that, depending on how many of the members remained in the union. It has become more of a business, instead of the labor union it's supposed to be. And if I'm not mistaken, a labor union is supposed to be for the people, not for their own interests. I watched an very informative and passionate video from actress Mel Cabey about why she's not joining AEA through the Open Access program right now, and she made some very good points for us to think about. A big reason why she's not joining - the cost. Remember, it's $600 for a down payment towards the $1,700 initiation fee, and that's a huge chunk of change. Not everyone can afford that these days, and if they were able to come up with those funds, it's money that could've been used for rent, food, healthcare, paying bills, and so much more important needs that $600-$1,700 could be used for. I saw a comment from someone who is in the union who has a friend that was on the AEA BIPOC committee presenting their list of demands to the union in terms of more accessibility and inclusivity for the BIPOC communities. One of those was waiving the initiation fee for the BIPOC members, or even everyone for that matter. Unfortunately, that demand, along with so many others on that list, were ignored by the AEA board. There is much truth in what the current members of the union say about this program being a money grab. But it shouldn't even be considered mandatory for people to join through paying a hefty price just to keep AEA running. Especially for the BIPOC communities who are disadvantaged financially. And then there's the rules for joining the union that makes me sad and confused. The big one that gets under my skin? Not being able to do any non-union projects EVER again. Question: if all of the Equity theaters were closed this past year, how do you expect those in the union to work and provide for themselves and their loved ones if the only things available are non-union opportunities? I don't think that's very fair, in my humble opinion. I hope there's someone out there on the board of directors or even in charge of AEA reading this because there's some important things to take into consideration from here on out. Ms. Cabey has auditioned for Equity theaters and organizations for a while now, and is often saddened by the fact that not everyone can be seen at this Equity auditions, even though it is required that all members be seen. With the Open Access program, there will be an influx of new members which will potentially lead to overcrowding, and since we're still in a pandemic, I don't think that's a good idea to have overcrowding in the the audition spaces right now. Ms. Cabey has a good suggestion on how to tackle this: Let the auditions be more than just one day. Seriously, it would be fair to the current and new members of the union to have the chance to be seen, and it would even give those in the EMC program and non-union actors a chance to show their talents to the casting team as well. Plus, there's a variety of talent out there that can be seen in several days, and it gives the casting team a break each day to mull over the talent and make a decision from there. You would still follow the requirement of seeing all of the Equity members at the auditions, but it would be over a period of 2-4 days to allow everyone a chance to be seen and for the casting to get a chance to look at all of the talent that attends the auditions. I think that's a good idea, don't you? Here's another idea for you to consider: Waiving the initiation fee to join for EVERYONE, including the BIPOC communities. $1,700 is just too expensive to join the union, especially these days. Those funds could be used for so many things that members need in order to survive, like keeping a roof over their heads or paying their bills. If you kept the payments to something below $1,000 or even $500, it would be much easier to have people join the union and still be able to have income for themselves to provide for their needs. And here's one more thing to mull over, and this one is a biggie for me: Working with small, independent theaters across the country to join the union in order for more jobs to be available for the influx of new members. Or even allow union members the chance to work with non-union companies and organizations. In a Times Union article I read, many of the theatre practitioners and founders are worried about how the Open Access program will negatively impact their theaters, especially if they're in neighborhoods and communities serving the marginalized and minorities. If they lose all of the non-union actors to this program, it could mean raising their ticket prices, or even be forced to close the theatre that they've spend so much of their lives building and creating from the ground up. And I know that's not what they want to do, or even what you want them to do either. I'm not sure how reaching out to small, professional, independent theaters works, but it's absolutely necessary to do so if you want to be able have more available work for the influx of new members and the current members. These organizations are losing some incredible talent to the union through this program, and I hate to think what would happen if these beloved fixtures in their communities were forced to go through drastic lengths in order to keep their doors open and serve the community. By encouraging them to become an Equity theater, they are still able to serve the people they want to reach out to through the arts, and also providing funds to the members. And if that doesn't work, why not allow the members of the union to be able to work with non-union companies and organizations through increasing the amount of AEA Guest contracts for a show or project, or at least with those that follow the AEA guidelines and rules without it being a penalty? I was lucky enough to be with a small, professional theatre company on an AEA Guest Contract for a virtual reading of a new play, and they followed the guidelines and rules of the union, which included a payment to their actors and the creative team. By offering the non-union theaters and organizations this option, you would allow current members the chance to keep on working at their craft and still following the rules of being in the union. They shouldn't have to lose their membership because they have to look to non-union projects that are being offered more than the union projects at the moment, and they have to eat, have a place to stay, take care of their health, and pay the bills. Nobody should think that non-union productions are beneath the union because they can be just as fantastic, organized, and important as the union productions. They deserve a chance to offer opportunities to union members who need the experience, money, and opportunities to shine without sacrificing their membership for the sake of having funds. Give them a chance by offering them the option to have more AEA Guest Contracts available or at least follow the guidelines of the union in order to give union members the chance to work and shine at their craft. If you really want to be a union, and I do mean a LABOR UNION, shouldn't you at least listen to the needs of the members and treat them as people and not commodities? It's time to start actually listening to them and take these thoughts and more into consideration as you start to move forward dismantling racism and how things were for over 100 years. It is okay to change from within just as much from the outside. It's the only way we grow as human beings.
Whew! That was truly a mouthful. But just the same, I'm glad I wrote this week's post. And I couldn't have done this without the following articles that helped me gather all of the information and statements that I will share with you: Actors Equity https://www.actorsequity.org/join/openaccess/ American Theatre https://www.americantheatre.org/2021/07/21/actors-equity-announces-open-access-to-membership/ DC Metro Theater Arts https://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2021/07/21/actors-equity-association-opens-membership-with-its-new-open-access-policy/ Broadway News https://broadwaynews.com/2021/07/22/actors-equity-forecasts-change-with-opened-membership-program/ Deadline https://deadline.com/2021/07/actors-equity-eligibility-open-access-diversity-inclusion-effort-1234797252/ MarketPlace https://www.marketplace.org/2021/07/22/what-the-change-in-membership-rules-for-actors-equity-will-mean-for-the-theater-world/ Times Union https://www.timesunion.com/theater/article/Actors-Equity-opens-wide-16342954.php Actor Aesthetic https://www.actoraesthetic.com/blog/equity-pros-and-cons YouTube: Actors Equity - why I'm not joining yet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vLQQdaJqIM A special thanks to Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Backstage for providing me with comments from union and non-union members about the Open Access membership program, specifically from the official AEA social media accounts. And a special thanks to Wikipedia for the information on the history of AEA. Before I leave you for this week, I want to share something that's important to me. If you've recalled my previous blog, The Next Right Thing, it talks about my desire to join AEA, and the struggles I have with whether or not it's the right thing to do right now, even as I'm celebrating five years as a professional actor. The Open Access membership program is a big deal to me for so many reasons, but the biggest one is that it's easier for me to become a member, without going through a gatekeeper and spend many years trying my hardest to join the union. But if I did have a reason why I want to join the union, it would be this: more access and opportunities to be seen in auditions, be considered for performances, and of course work with incredible individuals where I continue to learn, grow, and thrive. Money is honestly secondary to me. And while there's so much more information I need to learn about being in a union, I would take it very seriously. But I would also help out others who want to join and give them the information and guidance needed in order to thrive in this business. Again, there are plenty of pros and cons for why I should join the union, and so many of you in my inner circle know about my desire to join. But say that if I did decide to sign up through the Open Access membership program, should I take that leap of faith and go for it? If I did decide to take advantage of this opportunity, I would personally go for it. I'm at a point in my career where I'm moving away from community theatre projects and shows and starting to do more professional ones for the experience, exposure, and joy. I'm moving forward in my career. And while I will miss working with all of my friends and acquaintances I made during the rehearsals and performances from community theatre and non-union opportunities, I also believe that they would want me to be happy and living out my dream as an actor. I know many of them out there are scared about if I could handle the increased competition, not working as consistently, or even the fees that come with it. Here's what I think: after doing this for five years now, even spending the past year submitting for virtual projects through self-tapes, headshot and resume submissions, and cover letters, and especially working on my mental and emotional well-being to strengthen the armor I wear to auditions and callbacks while still allowing myself to feel, and more importantly doing all of the the hustling and putting myself out there constantly, I believe I will be okay. I appreciate all of their concern, and I will always look to them for guidance and support. But I believe I'm ready for the next big step. I will say that I won't change who I am just because I get the card if I am deemed eligible to join or even after I get more experience so that I can be eligible to join the union. A card doesn't define who I am. My character does. I will also say that I will continue to treat each experience as a way to learn, grow, and thrive in my career. And I will finally say that each opportunity will open doors for me, and if they're not meant to be, I will keep on looking until I find a window or even make my own opportunities. But like so many things, if I do decide to fill out the application to join Equity, I will leave the results in God's hands and trust that all things will work out for me, even if it's not exactly what I wanted it to be. I've learned so much in these past five years, and I know there's more learning and growing pains to come. I believe I'm ready to take that chance. If I decide to sign up. Finally, I will leave you with this thought: "There is nothing permanent except CHANGE." Ready or not, change is coming all around us, especially in the arts. Especially in AEA. Especially in all of us. Be ready to embrace it, even when fear tells you otherwise. And it WILL be okay. I promise you, it will truly be okay.