Actor's Equity 101

Is union membership a panacea or a pain in the ass for the city's performers?

Actor's Equity is a national labor union founded in 1913 as the first American actor union. Equity's jurisdiction covers actors and stage managers in the professional theater. What Equity isn't is a synonym for "professional" or even "quality" work. Pick the TV or movie actors you most love to hate. They almost certainly have their Equity card.

Why is Equity an issue in the SA theater community? In general, it isn't. Most producers believe that ticket sales won't support the large increase in production costs mandated by Equity contract minimums. Yet, in real-world terms, the minimums are not exorbitant. Most local theaters would qualify for Equity's Small Professional Theater contract (394 seats or less outside of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles), which calls for, at the lowest range, $160 per week for actors who perform in four shows or put in 22 hours of rehearsal over the course of that week.

Local productions generally run three to four performances per week for up to one month. Rehearsal periods (usually three to four hours five nights per week) run four to six weeks. Under Equity's SPT contract, most local actors would be entitled to approximately $1,600 for 10 weeks of work. Hardly a living wage, but still prohibitive for many local theaters where the entire budget for a non-musical production is $5,000 or less.

Not only has producing under an Equity contract been seen as disadvantageous for local producers, having an Equity card can be more of a burden than an asset for local actors as well. For an Equity member to work, even for free, without an Equity contract is a very serious violation of member rules. SA actors with Equity cards have to act under a different name to appear in local productions.

While an Equity card is desirable and, in fact, necessary for aspiring professional actors, particularly in New York where Equity productions are generally prohibited from hiring non-Equity actors, the model in San Antonio is very different. Certain theaters, such as Jump-Start and the Guadalupe, have historically paid a per-hour amount that equates to a living wage and often meets or exceeds comparable Equity minimums, but these are still per-show, part-time employment opportunities.

Magik Theatre, which does have a full-time company of actors, is looking into Equity Guest Artist contracts, which would permit them to hire one or two Equity performers per show and participate in the Equity Membership Candidate program, allowing Magik's company members to earn points towards eventual Equity membership.

Magik's Executive Director Richard Rosen is excited about the opportunity for his company to learn from bright young actors from all over the country, and about building toward a future that might include full-time acting opportunities for the performers who train here. But he remains unsure about all the ramifications. "We're still in the examining stages," he says. "For a board to really face the issue of what Equity demands financially will determine whether a theater has stability or not." •

By Laurie Dietrich


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