A Ramble on Actors Equity Open Access plan

Recently the union of actors and stage managers announced a change in how new members can join Actors Equity. For the next couple of years (and possibly beyond) one must only prove that you were paid in any previous production to get an Equity card. You must still pay initiation fees and dues but the other hurdles have been eliminated. There is considerable grumbling from current members that it is a union money grab and will create crowded, chaotic, and overstuffed audition conditions. Yeah, many who are in the castle happily raise the drawbridge after they have crossed.

“The old system had a significant flaw: It made employers the gatekeepers of Equity membership, with almost no other pathways to joining,” Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association, said in a press release. “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.”

Kate has a point but it is broader than that. I am a member of Actors Equity and my entry is one illustration. I had worked multiple shows for the Oakland West Dinner Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, Florida as a stage manager, technician and actor. While the theatre had a union contract it required just a few union spots with the majority of performers being non-union. Because I traveled the country working for different theaters, when I had a gap to return home I would check in with the co-owner and producer/director, Brian C. Smith, who often hired me for whatever production was going up, but always as non-union to keep his costs down.

There were two routes to joining the union: have a producer sign you to an Equity contract (seldom happened) or join the Membership Candidate Program where you were a lightly paid intern to an Equity theatre at far reduced rates and being a glorified go-fer for several years to “earn points” and then pay the large initiation fee and dues after your internship. I couldn’t afford that as I was earning a decent wage in theaters across the country. In December of 1979 I had a few weeks between gigs and Brian needed a set builder and painter for his next show: “Light Up The Sky” by Moss Hart.

The crazy work schedule kept me at the theater much of the time and I would work between rehearsals and sit back and watch the rehearsals between my tech assignments. The show was only a week from starting public performances and to be honest the role of the young playwright (Peter Sloan) in the showbiz comedy was played by an actor that simply wasn’t cutting it. Brian sidled up to me during a rehearsal and made the same point and asked if I was interested in taking the role. He had directed me before and knew I was a quick study. I thought about it and replied that I required an Equity Contract to take the role.

I knew I had him over a barrel and saw my chance to get my card quick and easy. He hesitated because he hadn’t budgeted to make that role Equity. I thanked him for the thought and said I needed a nap to return to painting the scenery after rehearsal. He handed me the script and promised. I required that he sign the contract before starting rehearsals. He was good to his word and I spent overnight memorizing my lines to be ready to go the next morning after he fired the other actor. He got someone else to paint the scenery.

It worked out well, the show was a success and I was suddenly part of Actors Equity. It is not so easy for most people to join, until now. Good for Equity. This is a noble and positive experiment. Yes, it could swamp the union with new members. But if handled correctly, this could create a whole new group of eligible and talented performers. I am in favor.

The cast photo for Moss Hart’s “Light Up The Sky” at Oakland West Dinner Theater, I am standing second from left.

As always you can find more at www.walterthinnes.com and on Twitter @walterthinnes

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