Actors have unions too: The Actors’ Equity Association

Outside of the Studio Theatre
Outside of the Studio Theatre

The Actors’ Equity Association is a labor union for the American stage performer. It covers all actors in places as varied as Broadway, in small professional theaters, and in Disney World.

Before the union started, show producers could set whatever they wanted as minimum wage, as working conditions, and the number of hours rehearsed.

The AEA was founded in 1913 when a small group of actors came together against “the exploitation of the stage performer,” according the AEA’s handbook. Demanding recognition as the actor’s representative, the AEA went on strike against producers in 1919. With time and other strikes, the association has been able to protect worker’s rights such as minimum salary, payment for rehearsals, and receiving pensions and health trust funds.

A number of theaters in Washington D.C. hire equity actors. For example, according to Jennifer Harris, the associate production manager and casting associate for the Studio Theatre, the total number of equity actors at Studio is about 80%. The rest are non-AEA actors.

Moreover, each theater has specific guidelines it must follow, which include audition and travel guidelines. “The rules are there to protect the actors and stage managers, however, they are also there to protect the theater. Because everything is spelled out for both parties, there are fewer questions of fairness when you get right down to it,” Harris said.

Today the Actors’ Equity has over 49,000 members and has three main offices in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Read more of the AEA handbook:

Visit the Studio Theatre’s website:

Read the rest of the interview with Jennifer Harris below:

Q: Does the Studio Theater hire both equity and non-equity actors?

JH: We do use both AEA and non-AEA actors. The Studio Theatre is on a Small Professional Theatre 10 Contract (SPT10) and so we are required by our contract with Equity to employ a designated percentage of AEA Actors each season. This number is negotiated year to year with our Equity representative. Currently it stands at 80%.

Q: What are some of the regulations that go along with hiring equity actors?

JH: Regulations. Interesting word. There is an entire book of guidelines that are specific to our theatre that we must follow for our equity actors. They include auditions guidelines, housing and travel guidelines for OOT Actors, guidelines about how many hours you can rehearse, how many breaks you have to take, how many shows you can do, what you can and cannot ask an actor to do while performing, and how much they have to get paid. The rules are there to protect the actors and stage managers, however, they are also there to protect the theatre. Because everything is spelled out for both parties, there are fewer questions of fairness when you get right down to it.

Q: Do you feel like there is a difference working with Equity vs. Non-equity actors?

JH: That’s a tricky question. I don’t think the difference lies in AEA status. It’s all in the person. Some non-AEA actors are some of the best in their craft and are very professional and just choose not to join the union. And then there are AEA actors that are the exact opposite. It’s really hard to judge it that way. The way Equity sees the difference is Union actors chose Acting as a profession and non-AEA actors do it as a hobby. (Kid you not that’s how they explain it). It’s just like any other field a doctorate doesn’t always mean you are good at it. With that being said, being AEA allows you access to more auditions, agents and salary so that you are more likely to be able to afford to live as just an actor, hence the benefit. I usually tell actors who are thinking of joining to look at the work they are being offered frequently and ask “Would I have gotten this if I had my [AEA] card [membership]?” and “Could I have gotten a bigger role/salary if I had my card?” If the answer to both is NO then you should NOT take your card. If the answer to both is YES, sleep on it and then maybe take it. The thing is, once you take a contract with the union you can’t turn back. You have to pay dues and you can’t really work at Non-AEA houses without special permission so the work really has to be coming in for it to count. I should also say that this is swayed to my DC mind. If you are in NYC, you will RARELY get an agent, audition, or legit work without your card. You can do theatre, but a Broadway house is not going to sign you.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JH: A fun little fact about how to BECOME AEA. Actors and stage managers can either be offered an AEA contract by a theatre and join the union by default or they have to enroll and participate in what is called the Equity Membership Candidacy Program (EMC). This is a program run by AEA to help non-equity actors become Equity by earning points work they do in equity houses under non-equity contracts. The clear example at The Studio is that our understudies receive EMC for their work on any project they understudy here. They receive one point for every week of work, so in Studio time that’s 4 points for rehearsal and 6-10 points for running of the show. After receiving 50 points they are what is considered a MUST JOIN. This means that any audition they attend that is at an Equity house they must inform the casting director that they are a must join and if cast they will be offered an AEA contract. You can also receive EMC points for being in a show as a non-equity actor at an equity house or for assistant stage managing/ floor managing an Equity show as well. There is a $100 entry fee to join the EMC program and once you are AEA you have an initiation fee, quarterly dues, and working dues (2.25% of your weekly salary) to continue your membership.


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