When to Join an Actor Union? – Answers for Actors

February 26, 2012 at 9:00 am | Posted in acting, actors, auditions | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Paul Russell

Photo Credit: JackMenashe.com

There once was an impatient, young actor  hired as a non-union performer by one of my L.O.R.T. clients. The actor strongly believed that if he didn’t get his Actors’ Equity card by age twenty-one his career would be over.

I kid you not.

When hired he’d hit his self-imposed card deadline. During his contract at the union, regional theater he got his nose out joint when he wasn’t bumped up from ensemble into an understudy vacancy. So what was his reaction at his first, major, regional theater job? He sent a heated e-mail to the artistic director resigning his position. The artistic director called me. We were to go into auditions in New York and replace the soon-to-be departing peeved performer. This effort was going to cost a lot of money and time. I proposed a solution.

I contacted the actor and asked him what his problem was. He bitched and moaned about not being appreciated, and that his work in the ensemble was not fulfilling his ‘artistic soul’. He wished he were back in New York seeking work. This was during the employment doldrums of summer.

After hearing his complaints, and my not wanting to go into costly auditions, plus my desire to not want my client to focus on the discovery that they’d hired via my office a high-maintenance performer, I asked Mr. P.P. if he would stay the length of his contract if I could get the theater to offer him his union card at the end of his term. “Yes,” he replied without hesitation. The theater agreed. The actor stayed plus his contract was extended  earning him union work-weeks towards health insurance coverage.

But…

While the solution provided immediate gratification for all sides, especially Mr. Peeved Performer, it didn’t help him much past the near-term. Being young, green and an odd type he didn’t work much (nearly not at all) after that gig because he was now up against stronger, union performers. Had he remained level-headed and non-union for his early to mid-twenties he more than likely would have worked more often. Why? Because as a non-union talent he was more valuable. He had good dance skills, a fair voice, and enthusiasm. But those assets were paltry against the union performers who had many more credits, skill, and training.

Going union. Only in theater does this quandary seem to stymie participants in the performing arts as to when, why and how to join a collective barging unit. Especially since in the late ‘90s and well into the 21st century large-scale, non-union tours that looked identical to their Broadway parents (minus the Broadway budgets necessary to hire union talent on and offstage) began cutting into union work that was once a vital source of income for the theater artist. Then to compound that injury the deep economic crisis of the new century’s first decade which prompted many union houses in the regions to dump union contracts and agreements in favor of hiring a non-union, lower payroll in order to survive. Suddenly for the first time in decades the non-union artist had the upper hand for attractiveness in being hired. With a capital ‘C’ that stood for cheap it was commerce over competence that was (and continues to some degree) to be a major factor in who got work (non-union actors) and who remained unemployed (union actors paying union dues).

For each participant in the theatrical arts the ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘what’ union varies. For some, joining a union is a status symbol. Recognition as being ‘a professional’. To which I reply; bullshit. Union membership does not equal professionalism.

I have witnessed many union actors, directors, designers, and stage craftspeople behave worse than the worst community theater artist. Many of the drama deviants make Waiting For Guffman look like Broad-way.

Also being union does not mean the person paying membership dues is a talented person of high regard. Need I mention some names of actors, directors and choreographers whose dreadful work has been seen while we all gasp and allege, “My dog could have done better.”

I was heartened once long ago when sitting on a panel that included a Vice-President from Actors’ Equity Association who had said without reservation, “Being a member of Equity does not mean you’re a professional. That’s a myth.”

Yes! Finally someone from that occasionally arrogant organization openly opposed the AEA mantra that the only ‘professional actor’ is an ‘AEA actor’.

Whatever union represents your field of expertise know that the initials that follow your name designating inclusion into the club will not make you better at what you do. Only you can do that; not a union card. Membership cards are generally plastic; an adjective defined as ‘synthetic’. Your career is more substantial. How you toil at your trade should not solely be reliant upon an identification card that is renewed only when you pony-up an annual payment to a union.

A union is for protection not perfection.

Pros & Cons of Becoming Union:

Pros:

–          Basic salary minimums set by each union

–          Health & Pension benefits (if employed a certain amount of weeks per year)

–          Arbitration should there be a dispute between the union member and his employer

–          Elevates professional status (but that doesn’t mean the talent rises as well. There are many union members who are outclassed by non-union talent)

Cons:

–          Less opportunities for work (unions forbid and fine members for accepting work without a union contract attached)

–          More competition (and often of higher caliber)

–          As a union member you cost the producer more to hire as they pay bigger bucks for your larger union salary, and also must pay into your pension & health payments funds.

For the theater artist there’s a lot of non-union work in the regions and on the road. The younger and greener (i.e. less work history) you are the less likely you are to work as a union performer. The actors who have a solid resume with numerous union and/or first class (Broadway and sit-down tours) are the actors who get the audition appointments over the newly joined union actor who has one or two credits at small regional theaters or summer stocks. Yes, the situation sucks but that’s life.

Going union is your call. But before you make the choice, when the card is offered, ask yourself the following questions:

Do I want to work?  Or do I want to work occasionally with the possibility of better pay and benefits? As a performer; does my age, skill set and experience equal my union peers?

If the final answer is ‘no’ then possibly reconsider your choice to stay and grow doing non-union work. You’ll become a stronger union candidate.

But eventually, the choice will always be yours.

My Best,
Paul

AMIYB_AmazonRead advice from legendary talent agents,
plus Hollywood & Broadway actors in Paul Russell’s Best-Selling Book ACTING: Make It Your Business!

 

Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.

Bookmark and Share

E-mail This Post to a Friend or Two…

Get One-On-One:

Get New Insights:

Get The Feed:

Classes with Paul Russell Paul's book ACTING: Make It Your Business!

Answers For Actors Feed

Visit Paul @ PaulRussell.net and/or:

Paul Russell on Facebook Paul on Twitter Paul on MySpace

3 Comments »

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. Great article. I made the mistake of taking my SAG card at a time I was getting non-union commercials and TV gigs. I reacted – over reacted – to a number of poorly run non union auditions. At the time I made the argument that the numbers games did not makes sense for non-union. I figured I was making less than $10/hour if you added up all the the time waiting for disorganized non-union castings etc.

    At the same I was disillusioned by getting the first SAG commercial I was sent in for. Every time I collected a royalty check, I thought why not use this to get the card. I waited two years all the while booking $200-1200 non union shoots.

    I finally had a horrible experience with VH1. One commercial became two. But I was still paid for one. And it took 8 months to get paid. My manager asked me to call as his commission did not pay enough to cover his efforts. (I should have fired my manager not my non union status). I finally had a producer friend – from TV show I did – call and get the ball rolling.

    “That’s It!” I am getting my card. AND I have not worked since (On camera) except for self-produced. I have been booked for ABC pilot that got canceled and a lot of call backs. BUT There is so little work, the numbers game cannot work for you often enough.

    Meanwhile I have worked non stop in theater and comedy without AEA. And I make enough on stage (Where I prefer to be anyway) that I do not miss wasting time on low paying maybes. However, a lot of those low paying maybes might be credits on MTV etc that in my comedy work have been very powerful.

    All that aside, my over reaction was NEVER shored with a producer, director, CD or agent. I maintained a professional attitude and enthusiasm. The biggest mistake above was an actor making his problem everyone else’s. Be professional and you will work. Your career may or may not go the direction you had in mind and you may have to be proactive and creative off stage, but if you have the talent you will work.

  2. A very interesting article, indeed and from a very unlikely source to take such a stance on the on-going issue of Union vs Non-union.

    First, I’d like to say that Mr. PP in the example should very well consider and keep in check his attitude. Most producers would rather hire a “decent” actor than an excellent actor who may be notorious for his or her attitude. I speak from experience because I AM one of the producers who has the abitliy to hire such folk, both union and non.

    For the most part, my experience is with film and the recorded mediums, so what you’re about to read (if you’re not already frightened) comes from the independent film arena.

    I think it should be noted that in no way do you EVER “have” to join the union. Of course there are significant benefits and the “concept” of a union is admirable, to say the least, but the fact of the matter is that you can work on any production you choose. Will the unions try to make it hard for you? Sure they will…they want your membership dues. Will agents and casting directors attempt to sway you in one direction or another. Sure they will. They have an agenda just like you do, so whatever their take is on a topic will surely be supported by whatever it is they are trying to accomplish. Such is life, folks.

    Also, in the film industry, you can get releases from unions to work on a project that is non-union. They do it all the time. You’ll be working for less pay, sure…but at least you’ll be working. This is of particular interest to both the performer and the union. You can’t get blood from a turnip, so if said actor is not working, they won’t be able to afford his or her union dues. Enter: THE AMENDMENT. The unions can “allow” you to work non-union and still keep your status. Works for you and it works for them as well. Win/win.

    Another note, from a producer’s perspective. Is it less costly to hire non-union folks? Absolutely. Do you get a better caliber of actor by hiring ONLY union actors? Not necessarily, and depending on your budget, most likely not. My company produces micro budget indies. Budgets are below $1M, so we put the money on the screen and on one or two “names.” Not only does this help the film be more marketable, but there’s a LOT less union paperwork to deal with. Then the other hundred or so folks we hire are non-union. Once we get in with a core group we know are pros, we often times bring them back. We save money AND get quality cast and crew.

    The other thing to remember (from both sides of this fence) is that the minimum “union” rate is not ridiculously high. Where it gets costly are in areas most people don’t understand at all. The hoops and paperwork the union requires is THE #1 most deterring factor for small budget projects. They require deposits of the costs involved in paying the union folks. (from their perspective, it’s a way to guarantee the project actually has the money to pay said performers) But from the Producer’s side, it can be a nightmare! THEN when you try to get back any differences in the amounts (that were “estimated” before production) Good luck!

    I know one producer who forked-over quite a bit of dough in order to get their union folks covered. When they didn’t utilize that entire amount, simply because they didn’t shoot with X-performers for the entire estimated X-days, there was somewhere in the neighborhood of $30K left over. The union NEVER returned this money. How’s THAT for power? If they don’t feel like giving it back, they simply don’t. Is that fair? Definitely not and yet it happens more often than you’d think. They can just say “no” and there’s little a production can do about it. What are they to do? Hire an attorney and spend another 10 or more thousand to chase 30? Most likely not. Then tie-up the film’s completion or release over $30K? Not very wise, but yet the unions have this power and they know it.

    Then how about the unions believing that they have the right to come on to a union set and stop the production? This happens all the time. Just ask around. Even if there are ZERO union people working on a production and the union has NO business sticking their nose into the process, they do and they get away with it. How can this be? Who gives them such authority?

    So there are definite benefits to joining unions. Without a doubt. But anyone that tells you that you HAVE to join the union (or your career will be over) is either lying or they are simply (and sadly) uninformed. You don’t “have” to do anything. But remember this: (Some) casting directors will remove you from the list if you EVER argue with them over this union issue. They’ll tell your agent that you’re a “problem” and that they won’t see you for any more roles. Again…this is really petty, but it happens all the time as well. It’s a shame that people feel the need to throw such weight around especially in a non-union state such as Florida. The very same people who are telling the “noobs” that …their career will be over” is just nuts. Don’t forget that the casting companies tend to make more money on a union project as well, so of course they’re going to be “pro” union.

    The bottom line is that you can move in and out of show business any time you want. You can be in or out of the union any time you want and you “can” work on any project you want. “IF” you’re talented, that talent will inevitably dictate not only the number of jobs you procure, but also the caliber of jobs. Keep that in mind. Cream always rises to the top. Maybe take a close and hard look at those who are telling you that you “have” to do something. See what their motivations might be and why they will seem so incredibly hell-bent on making their point. I challenge you to learn about these rules, regulations and guidelines and be fully aware of what is rumor, conjecture and what is fact. BE a professional and KNOW your career. Combine that with enough talent and drive to succeed and you have a fine mixture for success. (and don’t be afraid of the unions…or anyone else for that matter)

    I think in addition to those real (and very excellent questions) suggested by Paul, you may want to add an addition one. Until you’re fully prepared and financially capable of joining a union, AND you have the kind of work lined-up that justifies such a move, would you really even WANT to be part of such an organization? See what folks in both live performance and film & television have to say about the unions. Ask a PRODUCER what they think. Ask the very person who is in charge of hiring or not hiring you. That should be the real smell test in all this. The person who can make the decision as to whether you land your next job may have some significant things to say about their experiences and THAT is to whom you should listen.

    -Russell Hess
    Commodity Films
    Tampa, FL

  3. Paul,
    Does the same apply to SAG?

    GJ


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: