Author Topic: Candidate for Life (or why I haven't joined AEA)  (Read 3801 times)

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Candidate for Life (or why I haven't joined AEA)
« on: Nov 04, 2006, 06:30 pm »
It's that time of the year again.  We're starting to get requests for interviews from stage managers to be in colleges and high schools, all asking worthwhile and meaty questions.  This article came out of my reply to the following question:

In my class, the teacher implies that all stage managers join the AEA, could you refresh my memory as to what EMC is and why is it that you are a candidate now after having been involved with so many productions already, and what it just a personal choice not to join the AEA? I'm just confused because he makes it seem that you are basically "not wanted" if you are not in the AEA.

My answer might not ring true for some, but for me, joining Actors' Equity (AEA) has never been a hard and fast rule.  Not all stage managers join AEA, but most do if they want to get paid on a level commensurate with their talent. I have been a member of the Equity Membership Candidacy (EMC) Program since 1997--the program allows prospective members to gain "points," one point per work week in an equity house, in order to establish a background and a level of knowledge about equity procedures to allow for smooth transition into the union once you acquire 50 points. I have hovered at 48 points for the past two years.As for why I am still a candidate, there are many different reasons. You can only get points working as a non-equity Production Assistant or Assistant Stage Manager on an Equity show. This makes it limited as to the number of places where you can get points. Out of the shows I have worked on, only 10 have been in situations where I could have earned points. Of course, I spent a full year working at Steppenwolf in such an environment where I could have easily amassed over 50 points, but I chose not to. In fact, I deliberately did not report some of my work weeks to Equity so that I was not forced to join the union.

Joining the union makes you a "professional," and those who join are faced with a whole new level of challenges and choices. You cannot work in non-equity houses once you join, which for many people means that the majority of their contacts are useless once they make the big jump. There is a greater responsibility, time commitment, and level of expectation of an AEA stage manager. All of this I respect and acknowledge, and when I feel that I am ready to take on the task of creating a whole bunch of new relationships and can financially sustain the sudden drop in work that every new Equity SM encounters, I will perhaps consider this second point in a new light.

The second point is that AEA houses are forced to hire only AEA actors for the most part. True, on large shows they can bulk up the cast with non-union extras, but generally for the bulk of the shows they are using only AEA actors and Stage Managers at higher payroll costs. This means that the shows they are producing must bring in big houses--they need to be crowd pleasers, and therefore the artistic experimentalism and risk taking that I have come to value working in the non-union world gets sacrificed in many cases in order to earn enough cash to pay the actors. It's a vicious cycle.

Take a look, for example, at Steppenwolf. This is not to name names, but more because my personal experience allows me to cite them as a concrete example.  Originally, they were thought of as a cutting edge theatre, doing risque works and pushing the envelope of the socially acceptable. The year that I worked for them, 1998-99, much had changed. The season: Berlin Circle. Okay, somewhat adventurous. Glass Menagerie. Ho hum. Three Days of Rain. Everyone was doing it that year. Morning Star. Not seen since 1912, and just about as socially liberated as a corset. The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Again, everyone was doing it. I would rather work for a company that can afford to stick its neck out and put up a really weird turkey now and then instead of doing "A Christmas Carol" year in and year out just to pay the rent.
The AEA doesn't descend like a fairy godmother and say, "we choose you to be a professional." If you elect to join the union, it is your own choice. Even then, unless you're willing to fork over the $800 required to join, you need to find a theatre that's willing to foot the bill for you--not an easy task for many newbies. Most people do choose to join if they wish to take their careers beyond the "three day jobs for spare change" level, but if you are fortunate enough to live in an area with an active non-equity/experimental circuit such as Chicago or NYC, then the odds are in your favor to get work either way. Look at it this way. Non-equity theatres in Chicago outnumber AEA theatres in the area by about 5 to 1. Most of the AEA theatres are either doing Bus and Truck only, or have resident stage managers already. Or, they're so far out on the suburbs that it's impossible to get there using public transit as I do.  I've worked regularly since I got here as non-equity. My close friend, who came out here already a member, has had tougher luck. And guess what? We're earning about the same pay at this point.

The other thing to remember is that AEA is not the only union. Many SM's join AGMA instead or as well.

All of this is not to belittle AEA or what it provides to the working SM. They have revolutionized the industry and impose limits on what companies can demand of us. The health insurance is not a bad benefit, either. However, the decision to join AEA is always a personal one, as is the decision of *when* to join if you decide to go that way. A poorly prepared union member does no one any good.

My local AEA rep is aware of my sentiments and will probably spend a considerable amount of time snickering up his sleeve when I wind up joining. I know that I'm not ready yet, though, and so I'm taking my time and enjoying the weird life of storefront non-equity until I have no choice but to join the union.


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