Ask if it’s Equity

The first thing that some people asked me when they heard about me going on tour is if it was a Non-Equity or an Equity tour.  LOTS of people asked me this. I was really irritated by this question and purposefully didn’t answer and I couldn’t figure out why it affected me that way. Then I was messaged by some people and also asked in person how much money I am going to make. I automatically felt self-conscious about doing a Non-Equity tour. I felt self-conscious about the fact that while I am very happy with my contract and that it is more money than I ‘ve ever made (Chicago Equity houses included), that some people feel inclined to scoff at it.

So, at first I felt inadequate and then slowly I  became really angry. Let’s not even talk about the fact that it is nobody’s damn business what the specifics of my contract are. Let’s focus on WHY people need to know that information. Is it so they can decide whether or not they should be happy for me? Is it so they can compare my situation to someone else’s? Is it just old-fashioned nosiness? I’m not sure what it is, but it’s obnoxious. And it brings up a bigger topic.

I have Equity friends, who I love by the way, who don’t even acknowledge that there is a Non-Equity scene in Chicago. They don’t see any Non-Equity shows, they don’t take non-union awards seriously, and they certainly wouldn’t see a Non-Equity National tour as a legitimate achievement. About 5% of my Equity friends even acknowledged that I was leaving or that I had landed a great opportunity. Now…I have PLENTY of support, more than I could ever need. I certainly don’t need everyone fawning over me, but it was an extremely noticeable thing and it hurt my feelings whether I wanted it to or not.

I’m not trying to start a battle of Non-Equity vs. Equity. In a perfect world, we would all be Equity and all theaters would be Equity. I fully plan on joining Equity in the next couple of years. My argument is not against hard-won fair wages and benefits for actors AT ALL. It is what we all want. It is what we all deserve. What I DO have a problem with, is snobbery.

The fact is that some of the best and bravest work being done in Chicago is Non-Equity theater. And OF COURSE it is. Non-Equity theaters aren’t spending as much money. Most of them don’t have subscription bases that they feel like they need to please. It is easier to take risks, especially with Musical Theater which cost much more to produce. But with few exceptions, if you want to see a musical that is about more than just privileged white people problems, you have to seek it out in the Non-Equity scene. I’m not trying to say that Non-Equity is better than Equity or vice versa. I am JUST SAYING that there is validity in the work on both sides of the aisle. I will not be a better actress the day I turn Equity than I was the day before it.

In Chicago there is now a campaign called “Ask if it’s Equity.” The gist is that if you’re a patron of the theater and seeing a National tour that you should make sure you ask the theater if it’s an Equity tour. The campaign states the following:

When you pay full price for a Broadway Tour, you expect to see a Broadway production. Performers and stage managers on Broadway work under Actors’ Equity Contracts, which means they receive fair pay with benefits and enjoy quality working conditions. Unless you are seeing an Equity production, you’re not seeing Broadway.

Show your support for fair treatment of actors and stage managers who are traveling to bring Broadway to you.

Every time you buy a ticket, ask if it’s Equity.

Because if you’re paying for Broadway, you want to know you’re really seeing Broadway.

“Because if you’re paying for Broadway, you want to know you’re really seeing Broadway.” Many Non-Equity actors, many on tour, have taken offense to this campaign and taken to Facebook to vent about it. And many Equity actors have come back and said “it’s not about the quality of the performers, it’s about how they’re being treated.” It’s about making sure that the performers “receive fair pay with benefits and enjoy quality working conditions.” Well, I’m receiving fair pay with benefits and enjoying quality working conditions. I’m staying in 3 star or above hotels. I’m working with the original Broadway artistic team. We’re doing the original Broadway staging and choreography. We’re wearing the Broadway costumes.

So let’s call it what is is, shall we? The only thing not “Broadway” about our tour is the cast. Right? Can we agree? You’re right. None of us have been on Broadway….yet. But let me tell you, our actress playing Deloris (the lead in Sister Act) is one of the brightest stars I’ve ever worked with. Talented and a BONA-FIDE STAR. She will be on Broadway one day. I would put her up against ANY Equity actress and she still  would’ve landed this part. But guess what? If this had been an Equity production, chances are she never would’ve even been seen. She would’ve stayed in a holding room for 12 hours only to go home without being seen. They would’ve missed out on this beautiful star.

Am I saying that all Non-Equity tours are perfect? Absolutely not.  I have heard of many horror story Non-Equity National tours, both in quality and in how actors were treated.  But are all Non-Equity tours created the same? I say they’re not. And to imply to the layman that they will only see quality IF it’s filled with Equity actors IS insulting. Sorry, it is.

Essentially, you are saying that I shouldn’t have this job. Wrap it in as many bows and ribbons as you want, that’s what you’re saying. And if I didn’t have this job, I’d be temping. I’d be trying to figure out how to eat AND pay rent, crashing the same Equity auditions over and over, watching them cast the same folks over and over. And I know when this is over, I’ll go back to that. But THIS IS THE THING…

Isn’t the whole point of Actors Equity to give their actors a living wage and benefits…t o protect the actor? Shouldn’t we want that for ALL actors? Shouldn’t we celebrate that those who are not ALLOWED to join the union until we pass the test of the seven wonders, travel to Mordor, find Aslan, the Allspark, and the golden fleece….are able to make more than a $200 stipend (including at some Equity theaters).

Do you want to solve this problem? Make it easier for actors to go Equity. I’ve worked at 6 Equity houses, shouldn’t I be allowed to join the union? I would still have to earn my weeks to receive my benefits. What’s the harm? If all actors were union, then theaters (and NATIONAL TOURS) would be forced to follow suit.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy not being a starving artist for a change. Peace out.




One thought on “Ask if it’s Equity

  1. Well said Harmony. Thanks.

    Decades ago, back in England, I fought the good fight to make British Equity available to to all. Decades before that, some ‘gentlemen’ met in a ‘Gentleman’s Club’ to decide to form British Equity. They called it a union. It was an exclusive club. The ‘gentlemen’ who formed it didn’t want young whipper-snappers wandering in & taking jobs away from the ‘chaps’, from old friends, from the old-boy network. They were mostly old & mostly boys.

    It always felt to me & my non-union mates that British Equity had more rules to keep folk out than to help members once they were in. We got in eventually, mostly because we made a nuisance of ourselves. But British Equity candidates still face an obstacle course before they can join their artistic tribe.

    Nineteen years later, here I am in the USA. I’ve been a performing artist for nearly half a century. And this year I’ve decided to bite the bullet & put up with being a ‘prentice actor again as I do the AEA’s EMC dance.

    So I’ll go thru the understudy gigs & all the other stuff I’ve done before. I’ll accept being treated as someone who needs to prove I’m good enough to be a canditate for Equity. I’ll take gigs just because they fit the criteria of an EMC: I’ll be an Equity Member Candidate.

    And if I manage to get enough gigs with the right number of weeks & all the hoopla that EMCs have to do… well then I’ll be allowed to pay lots of money to ‘my’ union. And by so doing, I’ll support an organisation that makes artists do a ridculous bureaucratic dance to join it.

    One definition of ‘ bureaucratic’ is ‘To be overly concerned with procedure at the expense of efficiency or common sense.’

    We unionise to get better bargaining power. We unite to look after each other. But when our fellow artists want to join this great idea we spend a hella lot of energy & time keeping ’em out.

    Hey, Equity: Let us pay the entry fee. Let us go for any damn audition we can get. Let the people who see us at auditions decide if we’re good enough for the gig. Do your job AEA; sign us up & let us unite to look after each other.

    Rant over.

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