- by David J. McGraw
In honor of Labor Day, here are three common myths about being a union stage manager:
Myth #1: Union stage managers are better than non-union stage managers.
Joining a performing arts union, whether Actors' Equity Association or one of its sister unions (AGMA, AGVA, and SAG-AFTRA), doesn’t mean that you have passed some test and are therefore better at your job. What joining a union means is that you are committing to work exclusively on union productions.* Being union or non-union does not make you a better stage manager. There are plenty of incredible stage managers who have taken both paths.
That being said, working under a union contract can give you more opportunities to focus on your art. In general,* you will earn significantly more on similarly sized shows if they are under a union contract. And the benefits package, if you qualify, often frees stage managers from having to seek other employment to cover their health needs. But an overlooked advantage is that a union contract restricts the ‘responsibility creep’ of your job. When I work under an AEA/LORT contract, for instance, I don’t handle payroll, I don’t handle firing or closing notices, I don’t manage housing or transportation or even meals, nor do I have any custodial duties. I’ve had all of those duties on my shows before I joined the union. Could a non-union company offer me a great salary with full benefits and none of these extra jobs that could compromise my SM work? Yes. But a union contract gives me all of these wonderful things by default.
Myth #2: There is an Equity rulebook.
This is a two-fold myth. First, it is not a rulebook and there are no “laws” – it is a negotiated agreement. The union does not hold all of the power, nor do the producers. And like any collectively bargained agreement, it is an evolving contract and when there is trust between the two parties, there also is flexibility if both parties benefit.
Secondly, even if you want to call a negotiated agreement a rulebook, there is no single rulebook. Every group of producers use their own agreement and there are dozens of agreements with Equity alone. So when an actor or director claims that “there is a rule that lets me do this…”, there very well might be but it is also quite possible that such a rule does not exist in your contract. The contracts are renegotiated in cycles and even a really great new idea will take a few years to work into the major contacts and perhaps even longer for the smaller agreements. So don’t bother memorizing the agreements – or even the rule numbers – as it is all up for change every few years. But we do need to know the evolution of our agreements to better understand the changes and to see where we might be headed.
Myth #3: The union salary is set.
This myth is important for all union stage managers to remember. It can be rough to ask for more than the union-guaranteed minimum, especially when you know – particularly on smaller productions – that you may be the highest paid member of the production team. Moreover, when budgets are especially tight, we get paid before other staff. But remember that the union scale is the minimum that we earn. So if you have been stage managing for multiple productions or especially multiple years, ask if your loyalty and experience can be recognized. Even if you only earn $10-25 more a week, it means more than a dollar amount: it means that your producer truly recognizes your contribution.
So the next time you catch a glimpse of the secret handshake,** remember what being a union stage manager means and what it does not.
* The beauty/frustration of union work means that there are always exceptions to the rule.
** Okay, this is Myth #4. Or at least no one has shared it with me….