Everything Changes? Or Nothing?

by David J. McGraw

Last week Actors’ Equity Association announced a major change to the Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) program. The stated goal of the change is to modernize the EMC program and to advance stage managers and actors from EMC status to full membership more quickly. Previously, AEA membership could be earned by accumulating 50 points, one point for each week you apprenticed on a show with Equity stage managers. Now SMs can become AEA members after just 25 weeks at EMC-participating companies.* So what does this mean for stage managers?

One immediate but short-term impact is that we could see a flood of new actors and stage managers join the union in the next 10 weeks. At the time of the October 19th announcement, there were 13,318 active participants in the EMC program and Equity was contacting all those who have already accumulated 25 points to join with the incentive to join now as the union initiation fee will increase by $500 on January 1st (from $1,100 to $1,600). There is no available data to determine how many of those 13,318 candidates have already reached 25 weeks and how many of that group are stage managers, so it is difficult to estimate how many stage managers are suddenly going to earn their union cards. While some actors have been very vocal about the sudden increase in competition at auditions, there appears to be less concern among stage managers. An actor may be hired based on an incredible audition and the right look for the part, but stage managers tend to be evaluated based on resumes, so those new members are unlikely to be displacing more established stage managers. For now.

But perhaps the bigger question is what is the purpose of the Equity Membership Candidate program? For those of us old enough to remember, there used to be a test that you could take as an EMC after 40 points/weeks. That test was discontinued in 2001, but the original rationale was logical: after working for 40 weeks in a union environment, you could demonstrate your knowledge and therefore join the union. It was much like a driving exam: practice with a guide and then take a test to get your membership.

Will the change from 50 to 25 points impact the preparation these stage managers will possess when they start on union contracts? It is important to bear in mind that, prior to this change, many stage managers joined the union well before reaching 50 points. I believe I joined at 24 points: I had apprenticed in a summer repertory theatre for two years plus I had worked one standalone production. By that point I had demonstrated my ability to a producer who felt I was capable of taking the reins and offered me a union contract. How many stage managers earned a full 50 points under the old system?

Is the EMC program even about training? An Equity Membership Candidate pursuing acting does not have a specific mentor on a show. At least an EMC pursuing stage management is likely to receive direct guidance and mentorship from an established SM. But we should remember that the current push to require more Equity ASM contracts (which I support) would also likely reduce the type of work those EMCs can do on a show. Future EMCs may observe more and manage less.

There is no evaluation at the end of the production as to whether the candidate performed well, only that the candidate was employed for 25 weeks. Moreover, since there is no minimum salary for EMC participants, it could mean simply that the producer found the candidate worth a $50 stipend or no pay at all for 6 months. So perhaps we shouldn’t see the EMC program as a test of worthiness. After all, remember that the other ways of joining AEA is to simply be offered a contract or to be a member in good standing in one of the sister unions. In both cases, networking, not experience on the stage, is all that is required.

I do have one piece of advice for those considering the jump to Equity. I still remember my first day of rehearsal for my first union show. I was at a new theatre and the only SM on contract at the time. I realized during prep week that I had to manage the deputy election even though I had never actually witnessed one (my mentor had me working with the Non-Equity actors in another room). The deputy election sets the tone for how the company will interact and how it will view the producer. So I found myself at a pivotal moment in cast relations and I didn’t even know how to start the meeting. May new members never enjoy such a baptism by fire….

* EMCs can request to extend their candidacy to 50 weeks (“Phase II”), particularly if they are currently mixing Equity and Non-Equity work. Even with the change, all candidates have up to 5 years to accept membership, though they cannot work at Equity theatres during this period once they have reached 50 points.