The question every stage actor faces at some point in his or her career is whether to join Actors' Equity Association. For a person with disabilities, the question takes on added meaning. Can union membership be beneficial? Will there be enough acting jobs?
Joining Equity is a personal choice, based on a number of considerations, which puts the actor on a professional career path. The benefits of membership are the same for any actor, regardless if the member has a disability. Those benefits that are collectively bargained add up and include livable wages, Equity-only auditions, health benefits, pension benefits, a 401(k) plan and negotiated rules that address safety issues, work rules and grievance and arbitration guidelines. In addition to the contractual provisions, Equity membership offers other benefits, including the regulation of client/agent agreements for agents holding an Equity Franchise, professional seminars, protection of one's professional name and the very popular free tax preparation service offered through VITA.
There are other perks that are available to members that enhance their working, and non-working life. As a member of the professional acting community, an Equity member can take advantage of seminars on working with agents, financial seminars, work programs through the Actors' Fund of America and discounts through the Actors' Federal Credit Union as well as discounts such as floral, restaurant and other services that have been arranged by Equity with reputable vendors.
But how does any of this translate specifically to a member with a disability? Equity is a service organization that takes its responsibility to its members - all members - very seriously. Actors are rarely in control of their own destinies and the Union continually tries to find solutions to issues that will create a decent life for its members. Since the early 1990's, all Equity contracts include language crafted to increase employment opportunities for actors with disabilities. The non-traditional casting rule, which states that roles in which the gender, age, ethnicity or the presence or absence of a disability is not germane to either the play or character's development should be open to women actors, senior actors, actors of color and actors with disabilities. In addition, there are other contractual provisions that are specifically for actors with disabilities:
Along with the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Equity formed The Tri-Union Performers with Disabilities, combining resources to promote entertainment employment opportunities for union members who have a disability. In fulfillment of this mission, the committee holds periodic Q&A sessions with important decision makers in the entertainment industry, such as casting directors, directors and agents. Past committee activities have included sponsorship of professional acting workshops, publication of a newsletter and the production of a technical resource card for employers wishing to make their theatre or set more accessible for actors with a disability. An actor with a disability might also use the card to allay misperceptions members of the entertainment industry might have about hiring him or her.
Recently the Tri-Union Performers with Disabilities Committee, along with the Non-Traditional Casting Project, the Writers Guild of America, the League of American Theatres and Producers, the Dramatist Guild, ART/NY and a host of other professional entertainment organizations, sponsored an industry wide event entitled "Creativity and Artists with Disabilities," which spotlighted the abilities of talented union actors who happen to have a disability and also the accommodation devices that they might use in everyday life. Equity also annually sponsors a Diversity Networking Events, which brings together actors with disabilities, actors of color, women actors, senior actors, in an informal non-audition setting, with casting directors, artistic directors and producers.
On the downside of the equation, membership in Equity means that, after joining, an actor is prohibited from performing without benefit of an Equity contract. Any professional associations with non-Equity producers and community theatres would be curtailed. However, the efforts of Equity to encourage producers to look beyond the status quo has resulted in producers and theater companies challenging themselves and their audiences through casting roles - whether written as a disabled character or not - with individuals who have disabilities. For example, in March, 2006 City Theatre, an Equity theatre in Pittsburgh, mounted PYRETOWN, a play that explores the human condition of disability. Rather than cast the leading role with a non-disabled actor, City Theatre cast a young Californian who uses a wheelchair. In the Deaf West/Roundabout Theatre production of BIG RIVER, the cast signed their parts while the narrator/Mark Twain character provided the vocal dialogue. This production had a successful run on Broadway, followed by a National Tour. There are opportunities in legitimate theatre and they are slowly growing.
There is an aspect of Equity membership that isn't negotiated and can't be found in any printed material about the Union. It's a benefit that doesn't have a monetary value but, to paraphrase a popular advertisement, it's priceless. What I'm referring to is being part of a large, creative family. Because the nature of the business is very episodic, and can take an actor to cities across the country, it's a welcoming feeling to know that you can land in a city where you don't know anyone, but there is another Equity member a phone call away. There are liaison cities across the country that have 100 or more members and the committee hosts meetings and maintains a hotline with important information. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, the Union reached out to its members in the affected areas to assure their safety. Meanwhile, members who lived in Houston, and other parts of the country, called Equity to offer their homes -and their hearts - to the members who needed a place to stay. They didn't know the members in the Gulf Coast - they just knew there were Equity members who needed assistance.
So, when the time comes for an actor to decide whether or not to join Equity, an individual has a lot to think about. Union membership denotes a level of commitment to a profession, and conveys a proficiency of craft, both to the theatergoing public as well professional colleagues. The obstacles that an actor with a disability might face, regardless of union affiliation, are daunting and cannot be underestimated, given the shortage of projects being written that include a character with a disability. There is also the challenge to overcome perceptions that might be roadblocks to landing the role, especially if the role is not disability specific. However, what's the alternative? Ultimately for every breakthrough actor with a disability making their mark there needs to be ten to 20 more waiting in the wings because that's truly the only way to really bring about change.top