URTA Celebrates 50 Years

by Lisa Mulcahy
in Feature

2019 is a milestone year for the University Resident Theatre Association (URTA)—it’s the organization’s 50th year in service, and what great service has been provided. URTA’s founding intent was to foster excellence in professional theater training. During the past five decades URTA has developed a wide range of programs and services geared to assist and support students, instructors, and working professionals. Of course, MFA students also know and have participated in URTA Auditions and Interviews, where they’re seen and evaluated by top theater program faculty recruiters. URTA member universities have graduated scores of working artists who have racked up incredibly impressive credentials in every aspect of theater business and education. “Essentially, we have three missions: to support student artists; to support faculty; and to support theater professionals as they move through their training and careers,” says Tony Hagopian, URTA’s executive director. 

To that end, consider URTA’s agreement with Actors Equity: originally negotiated more than 30 years ago, the agreement has paved the way for the employment of thousands of actors and stage managers; allowed students the chance to work alongside professionals as they work toward their career goals, and enabled faculty members to work to their full potential as performer-teachers. The AEA-URTA agreement has led to special agreements between URTA and other artists’ unions. URTA also provides an innovative Artist Engagement Service for actors, stage managers, directors, designers, assistants, crews, and administrative staff. The service’s achievement is incredibly significant: in 2018, a record number of artists were employed through this service, in more than 200 productions, totaling more than $2M in artist earnings.

Want to learn more? Let’s delve deeper into how the organization works and with Hagopian’s insight, find out about valuable programs URTA has developed, and learn about how URTA is celebrating its anniversary through by encouraging its many participants to share their personal experiences of success. 

Opportunities on Offer
Hagopian is a great personal example of how a young theater artist can become involved with URTA. “I came to theater as a young person, performing in plays at Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) in California, one of the largest producers operating under the AEA-URTA agreement,” he recalls. “I then got my first professional acting job at PCPA; after college, I did the URTAs and was accepted to Temple University, an URTA program. As a performer, I later worked at numerous URTA partner theaters, including PlayMakers Rep at UNC Chapel Hill, and Kansas City Rep (Missouri Repertory, at the time) at UMKC. When I then knew I was interested in transitioning to more of a management-oriented career, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by URTA’s executive director, Scott Steele, who’s since passed away. I’ve spent six years now at URTA, and I am now its executive director; it’s been a time of continued development for me, and for the organization.” Hagopian previously served as URTA’s business and communications director since 2012, where he was responsible for doubling the size of the Artist Engagement Service over that period and helped launch a number of new initiatives including the URTA Candidate Awards. Last spring, Hagopian was the staff lead during URTA’s collective bargaining with Actors’ Equity Association. As when Hagopian began his association with URTA, the organization today provides several highly beneficial programs and services for its participants. These include:

Auditions. It’s well-known that URTA’s auditions and interviews program annually introduces recruiting faculty from dozens of top training programs to hundreds of prospective MFA candidates in all areas of theater including design and technology, stage management, acting, directing, and arts leadership. Candidates can choose to be seen in a central location—either New York, Chicago, or San Francisco—by recruiters from URTA’s 43 member universities, as well as other prominent institutions. URTA also facilitates a Satellite Auditions program, which allows auditioning acting candidates to connect with non-member training programs, including international schools and producing companies seeking to hire for professional summer employment or apprenticeships. “We want to help prospective students find the right individual approach regarding the path forward in their careers,” Hagopian stresses. “We help them with the points they need to be aware of when auditioning for various training programs.” 

Artist employment/business assistance. URTA offers a unique non-profit contracting and paymaster service, making it easy for union guest artists to get hired at universities and other theaters. URTA’s relationships with Actors’ Equity Association, the Society of Directors and Choreographers, and United Scenic Artists allow URTA to operate as employer of record in terms of bringing professionals to campuses and cutting through preventative red tape at university policy or state legislation levels. Additionally, URTA’s paymaster service helps navigate business necessities such as payroll requirements, tax withholdings and reporting, pension and health contributions, workers compensation, and more.

Career Outreach. URTA’s staff offers guidance and perspective to aspiring theater professionals whenever they need advice and solid facts about their career track. “We answer questions about graduate school, as in, ‘What should I expect?’,” Hagopian explains. “It’s also important for us to address the concerns of undergraduate students who will be bypassing graduate school. They often want to know, ‘How do I go about replacing that training program in terms of my development?’ We can address things like professional mentoring, and tailor that information for them. It’s also important that we provide information regarding what kind of graduate school education is available for those students who are interested in theater management.”

The Umbrella Retirement Program. The URTA Umbrella’s goal is to educate and empower arts professionals to attain financial security; this is done via a team of industry-leading advisors, investment managers, and administrators to create and manage comprehensive retirement plans. The program also provides live seminars to exclusive podcasts and monthly email commentaries; a digital experience so that participants are able to view, update, and manage their investments from an online portal and mobile app; and personal advice on matters like budgeting and debt reduction strategies through one-on-one meetings with financial advisors. “The program is aimed at nonprofit theaters that don’t have staff large enough for group retirement plans,” Hagopian says. “This can be very helpful if an employer would like to offer staff the opportunity to make contributions. As we all know, being an artist can be really challenging in terms of making a living. A retirement plan can grow wealth and provide stability for an artist’s future.” 

The Past Informs the Future
In its 50th year and beyond, URTA’s personnel are enthusiastically pursuing new goals and partnerships. “It’s an exciting moment in our organization,” Hagopian says. “We’ve reorganized and expanded our staff, and we have a very engaged board.” To this end, here are just a few of URTA’s current initiatives and activities:

Registration for the 2019 URTA Auditions & Interviews is underway now (go to www.URTA.org for details); more than 1,200 candidates seeking graduate training in design, stage management, acting, directing, and arts leadership participate in tryouts/interviews, as well as classes, workshops, and panel discussions on a variety of topics.

The URTA Candidate Awards guarantees free registration to participants in the areas of sound design and arts leadership. Candidates may also choose to make a small donation to the Candidate Award fund when registering for The URTAs. Those donations will be matched by URTA sponsor Vertigo (up to $1,000); the money will ultimately be used to establish new awards open to attendees in more areas.

Want to Be Part of the Celebration? Share Your URTA Story
URTA wants its past participants (faculty members, university alumni, or working theater professionals) to share the impact the organization has had on their lives and careers. It’s easy to do: just use the hashtag #myURTAstory on social media or you can e-mail your URTA story directly to info.urta.org. Stories submitted can be long or short—each is meaningful, and part of URTA’s tremendous success. In the words of Hagopian, “To me, those 50 years represent many thousands of individual URTA stories. When one begins to reflect on the number of lives URTA has touched over those years—in so many different ways—it’s really staggering. “ Not to mention hugely inspiring.

Stage Directions sends its congratulations to URTA on its 50th Anniversary and we look forward to continuing our close working relationship with the organization for 50 more years! 

Learn more about all URTA has to offer by going to: http://urta.com