Acting Reflections: The People's Union, Pt. 2
Boy, lots has happened since last month! I've finished recording for a show that's streaming this weekend, I submitted several self-tapes to a local theatre companies in my area, I worked on a virtual monologue series with an NYC-based theatre company that can be seen on YouTube, I'm looking forward to seeing my first show in a theatre in over 18 months as a guest, and I'm looking forward to a much needed break from acting for a hot minute so I can catch a breath. (How long that break will last remains to be seen because as one of my friends put it: "I can't see you taking a break because you're SO good!") I've also had plenty discussions about unions, particularly those within the performing arts community, and it hasn't been good at all with what's going on with them. One of my colleagues at the bar where he works is a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), and he told me that while they take care of their ensembles and choristers very well, they don't do the same for their soloists. The International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts in the United States, Its Territories and Canada (IATSE) is voting for a strike that would shut down all film and TV productions across the country due to horrific working conditions, low pay, and long hours. And then there's Actors Equity Association (AEA). The Tony-winning show Jagged Little Pill is facing much controversy and outrage over the mistreatment of its nonbinary and transgender cast members. Nora Schell, one of the original cast members, posted on Twitter why they left the show: “During previews for the Broadway run of ‘Jagged Little Pill’ I was intimidated, coerced and forced by multiple higher ups to put off CRITICAL AND NECESSARY [sic] surgery to remove growths from my vagina that were making me anemic. Surgery my doctor told me was urgent.” Schell said that they told the stage manager, company manager, and the creative team about the essential surgery for their polycystic ovary syndrome, struggling with on again off again anemia due to the amount of blood loss this illness was causing. They also said that they were coerced by the team to continue performing, even when they were going in and out of consciousness. “I pleaded with the higher up who insisted I stay, and I begged for permission to go home and contact my doctor for an emergency appointment,” they wrote. “I was told to push through.” Did I mention that one of the people who coerced Schell to continue performing was Ira Mont, not only the stage manager but also the vice president of Actors Equity national council? Yeah, it's not pretty right now. Needless to say, there are investigations going on within AEA and Jagged Little Pill right now, and two cast members left the show calling out the production for mistreating the nonbinary and transgender cast members and erasing the nonbinary narrative from the show. It also doesn't help that the show won two Tony Awards, including one for actress Lauren Patten, who was originally supposed to be played by a nonbinary actor since the character was nonbinary, but that was changed. And you can imagine the outrage from fans and critics. If you're reading this right now, you're probably wondering how the title for this week's post ties in with all of this. It's pretty simple to explain: There are numerous amounts of talented individuals in the performing arts community who want to join the ranks of being a union worker, and the reasons can be summed up in one sentence: "It's a lot better than where I am right now!" In actuality, that may not always be the case. Especially in terms of initiation fees, membership dues, higher competition, and the long list of rules that come with being a union member. But in recent weeks, there's also the question of whether or not it's worth it being a member of a union that doesn't always do well by its members in terms of treating them fairly, no matter what gender, sexuality, or religion they are. I know I have some hesitation over joining AEA right now, especially if they're not doing a good job cleaning up their act over what happened with Nora Schell and the lack of action taken during the pandemic over due payments being paused, firing those in power after sexual assault accusations and admitting to them came about, and racial justice. Is it really important for me to join a union right now when they're not operating as a union for its members and the talents they offer to our national culture but rather as a business that only cares about those who have the money? Even if it is "better than where I am right now"? Is it really important to YOU? Well, if you've answered yes, I don't blame you. As much as there's a lot of negatives with joining AEA right now, there's also some positives. Like health insurance coverage (after working up to the required number of weeks). Like more opportunities to be seen for auditions and callbacks. Like better protection on and offstage during rehearsals and performances, including time off from shows. Like resources for actors on their finances, job searches, health, and more. But in case you haven't heard lately, it just got a lot easier to join AEA. It's through a little thing called the Open Access membership program. Initially, there were only three main ways to join the union: Being offered an AEA contract. Through the Equity Membership Candidacy program (working for 25 weeks in order to earn points to join the union). Or being offered the contract through a sister union (i.e. SAG-AFTRA). Now with the Open Access membership program, if you can show proof that you've worked professionally on a theatre production in the U.S. - aka getting paid - you are eligible to join AEA. There's so much information on this program that can be hard to digest, so I made as easy as possible to explain and discuss reaction from a previous blog post I did on the Open Access program. You can find it here: https://www.nessaamherst.com/post/acting-reflections-the-people-s-union?postId=7567deae-9f0e-4d83-a5a6-28cd754de803 It's no secret that as a non-union actor I want to join AEA, but have been putting it off for a while in order to get more experience and reach a place where I believe I am ready to join the ranks of fellow actors and stage managers in the union. If there was one valid reason I wanted to join, it would be for more opportunities to be seen at auditions and callback for Equity productions, whereas I probably wouldn't be seen or even considered at all due to my status. I mentioned this to my coach the last time I met with her. And she had some pretty thoughtful and educational insight for myself and others who want to join AEA. That's right. We're going to be talking about the four R's of joining Equity, from what they stand for, how you can put each letter into play, and my observations from what we both discussed about joining the union. I promise, there won't be as much research in this week's post like the first one on this topic. But I'm still excited to share this with you!
My wonderful mentor, Elizabeth Nestlerode, is an actor, musician, and coach based in NYC. I met her after finding out about a course called the N2NYT: New to New York Theatre, and it sounded like a great class to take. However, I was unable to enroll due to cost, but I was happy to discover that she still offers one-on-one sessions with fellow actors hoping to make the move to NYC in the foreseeable future. You can find out more about the N2NYT course here: https://elizabethnestlerodecoaching.teachable.com/p/n2nyt-newtonewyorktheatre I thoroughly enjoy our one hour talks together, and she has knowledge and experience in just about anything you can imagine, like resumes, auditions, affording to live in NYC, and joining Equity. About a month or so ago, Elizabeth shared four one minute videos about the four R's of what to consider when joining Equity, and her insight was quite helpful! And now, I would like to share these videos with you to look at. (All credit goes to Elizabeth, of course!) The four R's to think about when joining Equity are as follows: Roles, Relationships, Resume, and Reasons. And believe or not, they all go hand in hand. To help you out with this, I was able to download the four videos from Elizabeth's Instagram to share with you (with her permission). Let's go! First, let's talk about roles.
As much as you can see yourself in a variety of roles, when you join Equity, theaters have to take into consideration how many contracts they offer to actors. And it's not always given to all of the roles, and if that was the case, the pay rate would be larger for the more prominent roles than the ensemble and smaller roles. This is where strategy comes into play. As Elizabeth talks about in the clip, ask yourself these questions? *What roles can I see myself playing in this show? *How often is this show performed throughout the country or the world? *How many Equity contracts are offered for this show, or even at this particular theatre? If there is a larger cast, chances are the contracts will only be given to the lead roles, whereas smaller casts have a higher chance of being offered contracts. Or at least guest AEA contracts for non-union actors. It's important to know what roles you are capable of playing, other than the lead, in the event of figuring out how many Equity contracts are offered, and which opportunities are right for you. Next, relationships.
This one may be a tough pill to swallow for most of you auditioning for Equity shows. It's a lot easier for casting teams to take on people they can trust AND know from past shows than take risks on individuals they don't know as well. That's why it's vital you start building those relationships with the casting teams and the actual theatre itself in order to develop good rapport and character with others. It's just as important to have a good attitude, strong work ethic, and professionalism for the people you may work with one day rather than be the exact opposite. And here's something else to consider: would you rather be genuinely interested in getting to know the people behind the table as people, or do you want to be so desperate for a role that you only see them as entities and the only pathway to your success? Think about it. Let's move on to resumes.
I can't stress this enough. Your resume is more than just a calling card of who you are. It's what you've done and where you hope to go in the future. If the roles you have are varied and all over the place, what makes you think casting teams will know where to place you in their shows if you have a mishmash of shows and parts that don't give a clear indication of how you can be the missing piece in their project? If you aren't entirely sure of what you want to be cast in or don't have a clear enough picture on your resume on what you hope to be cast in, maybe it is better to stay non-union for a while longer to continue gaining experiences in shows and projects that show your range and give you inspiration of the roles you want to go out for in the future. It won't kill you if you do more community or non-union profession theatre productions just to get your feet wet and whet your appetite for the roles you want to play. Trust me. Doing more shows that has certain roles and character types you're interested in on a consistent basis would do you good. Your resume (and casting teams) will thank you for it! Finally, the most important R of them all - reasons.
Your reason for joining Equity cannot be "it's better than what I'm doing right now!" So spit that out of your mouth right now. First of all, even if you're not a union actor, you can still be a PROFESSIONAL actor, no matter what your status is. Your legitimacy of being a professional actor is NOT based on your union status. It's how you treat others in auditions, rehearsals, and performances. It's how you best share your talents with others to inspire, educate, and celebrate/honor. It's how you CREATE pieces of work within the craft. I'm not here to tell you that your reason is right or wrong to join Equity. I leave that up entirely to you. But I will say that you are going to face drastic changes when you decide to join Equity, specifically seeing your workload going down exponentially due to being unable to work on non-union projects or shows. Please, please, PLEASE think about your reasons for why you want to join Equity, and I do mean THINK about them. If you've been doing non-union projects for an extended period of time and want to move on to more Union projects, that's a good reason. But the ideas and fantasies of higher pay, health insurances, protection on and offstage, and more is not the best reason to join Equity. But just the same... Think about it. Seriously think about it. There's so much to consider when deciding whether to join Equity or wait a little while longer in order to apply to join the union. And I can tell you from personal experience, it's not easy to weigh all of the pros and cons because it feels like there's more of them on side of the scale than the other. The hardest part of that? It can tip over to the other side on any day you think about this. Let's talk about yours truly for a moment. If you recall from my previous blog on this particular reflection, I didn't hear about Equity until the very early stages of my career, and was told that I wouldn't be able to do community theatre ever again. For someone who was just starting out and getting the experience needed to build up my resume, that was a pretty good idea to hold off of joining the union for an extended period of time. After several years of doing community theatre and non-union productions, the talk of joining Equity came up again. This time it listed all of the pros of joining the union, which included health insurance (after working a certain of number of weeks), discounts at your favorite places (think coffee shops, stores, and - gasp! - theaters, just to name a few!), protection on and offstage, assistance with getting the best payment when you sign the contract, and many more. While this was all enticing, I still held off of joining the union because of one thing - cost. Joining the union is NOT cheap. At this point, the initiation fee costs $1,700, but on 1 January 2022, it will go up to $1,800. I understand the initiation fees, but why was it so high? That in itself was a big reason why I held off from joining yet again. Can you guess when the discussion of joining Equity came up yet again? Yup. Recently. It was when the union announced the Open Access membership program, and that was exciting news to me. To actually be able to be a part of a prestigious union without having to go through the gatekeeper system and constantly having to prove myself worthy enough to join means a great deal to me. All I have to do is show proof that I was paid in a professional production and then I would be deemed eligible to fill out the application, pay the $600 down payment, and then my Equity would show up in the mail. (At least that's from my understanding.) Of course, looking at comments from those in the union and those outside of the union, it was a mixed bag of emotions. Some were thrilled because they've been working at joining the union for such an extended period of time without much progress, and now this opportunity will open doors for their careers. Some were pissed because they saw it as a money grab scheme by the union, it didn't fully address how to tackle the racial issues, and there were some elitists who felt that those wanting to join the union should do the same thing they did and even put their noses in the air at the amount of talent out there now who aren't considered worthy enough to join the union to begin with. (Again, you can go back to my previous acting reflection on this to learn more about the comments and what the Open Access membership program entails.) Talking with my fellow friends and acquaintances who are currently in the union, it seemed like an excellent time to finally consider doing this. Especially since no time is absolutely the right time. But as I shared these thoughts and desires to join, several questions came up: "Are you sure you want to join the union?" "Do you really want this?" "Can't you wait a little while longer?" It was definitely frustrating to hear these questions and assert that yes, I'm deeply considering joining the union. But I also understand that within the past five years of my career I made so many wonderful connections and friends, and if I joined AEA, I may lose out on all of the opportunities that I have been blessed to be a part of that kept me acting on a relatively consistent basis. And as I said at the end of the previous reflection, IF I were to join the union, my reason would be for all of those opportunities to audition for shows that I never had the chance to have because of my status. Money is honestly secondary to me. The joy of acting and doing what I love brings me joy, and to have the chance to be seen by casting directors and teams for Equity shows to continue to share those gifts with others after joining the union would be a dream come true for me. I know what you're all thinking at this point. "How does this have to tie in with what you and Elizabeth talked about?" Hold your horses; we're getting to that now. I met up with Elizabeth last month to discuss many things - my career, my updated website, and joining Equity. I told her that joining the union would provide more opportunities for me to audition and be considered for the roles and shows I would want to participate in. And even continue doing what I love with all of this access. I also mentioned that her four videos was a huge help to me, especially the resume and roles. When I was first starting out, my roles were pretty much all over the place, with no consistent or clear pattern of what shows and characters I can play. After five years in this career, my resume is now showing (hopefully!) the parts and projects I've done and gives casting teams a clue of what I'm capable of doing. If you need to look at my resume now, it is pretty much a mix of lead and supporting roles in comedies, dramas, and some musicals thrown in. I was feeling pretty proud of myself at this point. But then Elizabeth offered me a piece of advice I didn't see coming. She was impressed with how far I've come in the past five years, specifically in the past year where I created, developed, and improved my website and was consistently working during the pandemic. But she also knew something about joining Equity that I didn't consider: When you decide to join the union, it's better to have at least one or several credits from Equity theaters as a way of building relationships with the casting teams at that theatre company or organization so that when you audition for other Equity theaters, they have a clear sense of knowing those people you've worked with and how capable you are of doing a show with that company. As I was hearing this, I honestly felt deflated. I thought I was finally ready to do this, to take that leap and get to where I wanted to go in my career. But looking back on it now, Elizabeth was right. I know many of you are planning on joining the union through the Open Access membership program, the EMC program, or even being lucky enough to join after being offered an Equity contract. But wouldn't it make more sense to join after you have some Equity theater experiences and projects under your belt so that casting teams know you've done it and are capable of doing another Equity show? (The theatre community as a whole is extremely tight-knit, so you can guess that people know other people in some capacity, and it's likely that when you audition the casting team will say a name you would probably know. Small world, right?) Relationships, networking, and connections DO make a difference in this business. And I get it, truly I do. We've been doing this for quite some time, and while some are good at establishing those connections and relationships, for most of us it takes a bit of creativity and doing in a way that doesn't sound desperate. The question on everyone's mind is summed up in one word: HOW??????? How do I make those connections? How do I get seen by casting teams? How do I put myself out there? If I may offer a suggestion... I currently work at two theaters in my area as a patron services associate and an assistant house manager. While I don't think I will be meeting casting teams on a regular basis, Elizabeth believes that working at those theaters and getting to know the staff as individuals is a great to connect and network. I personally suggest not bombarding artistic directors and casting teams with your resume and reel at the moment you start you job working in the theatre at the front of house, but rather get to know them. What do they like doing outside of theatre? What makes them smile? What brings them joy? When they see you as both an employee and as a person, chances are you have a shot of establishing great ties with those in casting when you eventually do submit your resume, reel, or self-tape to them for projects. I can tell you from personal experience that they appreciate being seen as human beings, and not as the gatekeepers or sole purpose of making your career go off in a way you want it to be. Another important to way to establish those connections and relationships, whether your work in the theatre or not? Sharing what you have with others. And I will add doing your own work and projects to that list as well. I know it sounds frustrating when you're constantly sharing things with the stratosphere that is the internet and social media, and you're not getting much bites. Not even a nibble. But I can promise you that you will get noticed, even if it's not right away. The best medicine I can offer for this case is PATIENCE and LETTING GO. It's not easy to stand still, wait, and let things play out the way they're supposed to. But as a Christian and a human being, I discovered that if you even tried a smidgen to place things in your control, it will backfire in the worst possible way. I've learned that the hard way, far more times than I'd like to admit. I'm speaking from a personal place when I say you have the potential, the talent, and the character to be the absolute best you can be in your craft. Believe in yourself, and simply trust the universe, God, or whatever you believe in will make all paths straight for you and the things you desire the most will come to you. Not on your time, but on the universe's or God's time. And also remember that even if you don't get every single role, it's a way of protecting you and setting you up for something even better than you imagine, even if you can't see it right now. And here's one more important thing to consider when making that all-important decision. No matter what your union status is as an actor, you are still and always will be a LEGITIMATE actor. No one should be defined by how good they are based on their union status. That's called elitism, and there's too much of that going around these days. I hope you are better than some of the elitists in the union right now, because their ideas of being better than everyone else, putting themselves in a different class and mistreating everyone else, or even believing that the Open Access membership program goes against their very way of life in letting more talented people in is harmful. Downright disgusting, even. If you truly want to thrive in the union, allow yourself to believe that you are a professional AND legitimate actor now. One whose character shines through alongside their talent. And that means not giving into the elitism some members have about themselves and the union as a whole. (I'm not an expert on the matters and details of joining the union, or any of the information I shared with you today. But I'm still glad to offer my observations on this often heated topic. I will say this: I do not tolerate any disrespectful or offensive language of any kind, hate speech, or derogatory remarks. We need more kindness than critics in this world, and I expect that to be true here. If you cannot find it in your heart to be nice and understanding of what others have to say, do yourselves a favor and don't comment at all. It would save me and so many others the trouble of dealing with you and your negative attitudes.)
There's SO MUCH going on with unions right now, and as we are trying to come out of a pandemic, there's a sense of moving forward with new ideas and opportunities. And then there's a sense of having the old guard keeping things the way they are because they worked so well without acknowledging that it never did work out to begin with. The latter seems to be the case right now. Even if there are slow strides towards progress. People you know in the union are telling you not to join right now because of all of the hidden truths, heartbreaking stories, and financial costs are too much to handle right now. And yet, there are those out there who are determined and persistent enough to carve out their own path and make their time in the union one that isn't like the others experiences. I'm not here to tell you whether or not you should join the union right now. I'm only here to offer you my observations, specifically about the Open Access membership program and what it truly means to join the union. Elizabeth was extremely gracious to let me use the videos for this week's blog as a way to help educate and inspire you on your journey to join Equity. I hope that all four of them helped you and gave you a sense of how much of a commitment and decision it takes to join the union. It shouldn't be taken lightly. From my personal viewpoint, if I were to join the union through the Open Access membership program, I would do so with the confidence of what I have to offer on my resume - the roles I've played, the shows I've done, and what I'm capable of doing (especially after getting an Equity show under my belt and establishing those relationships to help future casting teams know who I've worked with and that I can do an Equity show). And if I were to join the union, the reasons would still be the same - more opportunities for me to do what I love and having the confidence to show up in the auditions with hundreds of others in the union, even those who have been there longer than I have. I know many of you out there are anxious to join the union, especially now after the Open Access membership program has opened for the past few months, and it's starting to make an impact, if it hasn't already. But know this: Joining the union, let alone making the decision, is not one to take lightly. You are giving up so much - doing non-union productions and projects, especially if it's your consistent form of work, is the biggest one. But it's also a financial commitment - you are paying a hefty price tag to join, and the membership dues are no walk in the park, either. If, after weighing all of the pros and cons, you are still ready to join, I highly encourage you to watch the four video clips Elizabeth posted that offer more suggestions and details about joining Equity. Things like considering how many Equity contracts are offered in a show and how often the show plays in a given year. Things like establishing relationships with casting teams and people in the theatre organization or company in order to be seen at auditions (and not sounding desperate about it, either!). Things like taking a good look on your resume and seeing what roles you've played, and which roles you want to play in the future when Equity auditions come up. Things like the most important reasons for joining the union, other than "it's better than where I'm at now!" Like I said in the previous reflection, I support you, no matter what you decide. I want you to be successful in your career, but more importantly, I want you to be HAPPY. Be sure to go after what your heart desires, and also be aware of the risks, commitments, and hard work you will put in to make your dreams come true. And as always, have PATIENCE and LET GO. Before we go, I want to thank Elizabeth for allowing me to share the video clips and her amazing coaching on my career. If you want to learn more about her, go to her website: https://www.elizabethnestlerode.com/ Follow her on Instagram @elizabethnestlerode. And be sure to check out her N2NYT course, with the next round starting on 1 November 2021, and there's an early bird discount if you take advantage of by signing up by 15 October. https://elizabethnestlerodecoaching.teachable.com/p/n2nyt-newtonewyorktheatre Break legs in all of your artistic endeavors!