Becoming Actors’ Equity: A Character Actor’s 2 Cents
As a brand new member of Actors’ Equity (the performing arts labor union for American actors and stage managers in theatre), I feel like I’ve sauntered through the pearly gates and landed in some kind of audition heaven! It’s another realm of 32-bar luxuries belted out in the room, signing up for appointments, and in general, less waiting, more getting seen. When it comes to an actor’s employment, the AEA team is made up of master negotiators of proper salary, benefits, and work conditions, making a plethora of grown-up goodies, like health insurance, available. They are also serious detectors of “shade,” ironing out the kinks of any contract with your safety and value as an actor first and foremost. And after many years of dancing the non-union hustle, it just feels so good to know this organization and all its rules got my back.
But man was it a journey to get here! And everyone’s journey is different.
Reflecting back on my wacky and winding path as someone typically cast in “character” roles, I’ve found that your type and long-term goals in this business can help serve as guide posts to skyrocketing and sustaining your career. Now it’s not my intention to add to the long list of debates over when and how you should take your card, but rather to help you take advantage of the abundance of opportunities open to you before you join AEA so you’re in the best possible shape when you do take that card.
So here’s a handful of mile markers that can set you up for success when you hit that AEA milestone!
SPEND A SUMMER IN STOCK.
Summer stocks are fast and furious theatre contracts, banging out a full season of shows from Memorial Day to Labor Day, typically in some dreamy town smack in the middle of nowhere (and nature!) with a resident company of 20-somethings and college kids. To me, at the ripe age of 19, it felt like a paid vacation with multiple personality disorder! Besides transforming my resume with a crew of new characters, I got to put my college training to use, bridging the gap to the professional world.
But here’s the real kicker. My resident companies from all 3 summers I spent in stock remain some of the best friends I have in the business, not to mention some of the most successful.
With that being said, summer stock is many actors’ and even directors’ debuts in the professional world and there is an enlivened, exciting energy that comes with that truth. You get to collaborate with the incoming generation of artists out in the wild; that’s pretty special. Many of my past summer stock directors and choreographers are now artistic directors at various regional theatres and/or associates on Broadway. Amazingly enough, the director of my next gig now, as an AEA actress, is actually a director I met in stock way back when. Bottom line: I owe so much to my years in stock for laying the foundation of where my acting career is now.
The regional theatre scene is hip and happening, alive with opportunities for both union and non-union actors. Before coming to NY, I took a detour out to Philadelphia to do a season-long acting apprenticeship at a big regional theatre house. It’s where I got my first chunk of EMC points and saw what it’s like to be a successful regional theatre artist, something I was clueless about before. I thought you could only live in LA or NY, so this local thing was super intriguing! And then before I knew it, my little detour soon became a love affair. I stayed based in Philly for four wonderful years, growing my acting career as well as becoming a teaching artist. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
So I encourage taking a detour, taking advantage of any local housing opportunities you may have (from your folks out in Seattle to your second cousin in Chicago), ESPECIALLY if you are having a hard time getting seen for anything AEA in the city. This is a wonderful way to get your foot in the door with AEA at praised venues (local housing is a plus), work on high caliber productions, and get creative in advancing your career. And who knows? You may have a raunchy love affair all your own!
MAKE A TRIUMPHANT RETURN.
Loyalty in our favor is what every actor dreams about – knowing we have a theatre or directing team that respects and values our work so much that they want to work with us again and again. THAT’S THE HOLY GRAIL. So I say whenever you have the opportunity, work at the theatres you love or with companies you love more than once and truly get to know them beyond work, immersing yourself in the community. This business is built on investing in relationships. One of the only things I wanted to know before becoming AEA was that I had a theatre home base that would potentially hire me once I joined. It’s paid off. The more you invest in others, the more they will want to invest in you.
EXPAND YOUR RELATIONSHIPS.
Continuing on the relationship theme, know who you want to work with. Follow the directors, choreographers, casting directors, and music directors who tell the stories you want to be telling. Then find ways to connect and get in front of them. Classes right now from places like the Growing Studio and Stage Door Connections are hot and a great way to show your work and introduce yourself. Non-union touring can also be a fantastic “in” to working with big time Broadway creatives before joining the union, giving your resume a little clout and another friendly face to know in the room of future auditions.
A personal tip of mine is to work one-on-one with any past directors you click with who offer coaching. It’s a killer opportunity to explore new shades of yourself and grow with someone you trust and are inspired by. You are responsible for recruiting your dream team!
CHALLENGE YOUR SKILL SET.
I know no greater challenge than the non-union bus-and-truck tour. It can feel like the trenches of the performing world, hopping from venue to venue crammed on a bus all day and whipping out a performance every night. But let me tell you, non-union tours are the makers of stamina. Think of it as a bootcamp for Broadway. If you can perform 9 show weeks changing time zones and climates on the regular, you’re a sexy rock star! Your self-care and instrument have no choice but to strengthen. You may even witness some transformations, observing what used to be hard become easy. So take that show that scares you shitless. It may be the kick in the ass you need!
CONTINUE TO CLARIFY YOUR ACTOR VALUES.
When I first emerged out onto the theatre scene, my only goal was to work. My resume was a blank slate, craving some credits, and I was hungry. I pounded the pavement and went to everything and anything. I owe a great deal to that hustle, but now as I’m getting older and starting to daydream about marriage and starting a family, that’s not quite how I tick anymore. My values have changed, including the need for more financial stability, and most non-union salaries are not practical in supporting that lifestyle. I also became tired of being worked to the bone in non-union environments for wages that didn’t match up. I wanted to see higher value.
You will know when it’s time to check in with those values; something will feel off. Maybe you are tired of fleeing town with the gypsy lifestyle and want to stay planted in NY…or you want to boom a side business that can support your acting career…or you’ve mastered your type and no longer have to go in for everything and anything. Trust the universe to throw you some tell-tale signs, and know that you’re on an ever-evolving journey. Most importantly, you’ve got to be true to who you are. So make sure you listen.
Becoming AEA is an achievement to applaud. Just know your path will be a unique one. It is my wish to you that you cherish the journey!
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