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June 08, 2007


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Mike from Philly

it's interesting that you should still be talking about this, because the Equity question is becoming a discussion point for both Flashpoint and my boyfriend right now.

the small non-Equity theatre scene in Philadelphia is a burgeoning one, and i've noticed a steady increase in the number of talented non-union actors in this town. and that's great for the emerging artists and the companies who hire them, but when do you tell yourself the time has come to turn theatre into a career, not just something you do while holding down a boring day job to pay the bills? is it possible for a small non-Equity theatre to reach a level where it's paying its artists a living wage, just without the union benefits? will Equity be the perpetual gold standard? the indication that a theatre artist has "made it"?

in Flashpoint's case, it makes sense for us to continue to hire non-union actors, because we are committed to supporting new and emerging artists (many of whom have not even joined the EMC program). but what happens when we want to produce a script featuring actors in their 40's (all of whom are Equity in this town) and we can't afford to pay the going rate for the 35 Equity actors being cast in EVERYTHING here?

(not to mention the fact that it just kills me when we get our rights agreements in the mail, and i see the words "Non-Professional" or "Amateur" at the top.)

in my boyfriend's case, he's just about reached his maximum number of EMC points, and he is really trying to treat acting as a day job. he realizes there will probably be times when he has to wait tables, and he's seeking out teaching gigs at some of the local theatres, but ultimately he wants to be in the union. but he also doesn't plan on staying in Philadelphia, so what happens if he moves elsewhere and can't get work right away as an Equity actor? why does Equity status have to mean something completely different in a different city?

so i guess i don't really have any answers for you. just more questions. i appreciate Equity's intentions, but i wonder if it might be time to make some adjustments to the system, considering the ever-growing amount and the ever-increasing quality of non-union talent in small theatres across the country.



Excellent post. You had me looking at Don Hall’s comments in May, and all I can say is that I’ve thought about this quite a lot.

Our company (Janus Theatre) went through this stage earlier in our development but it was more geographical. We originated doing storefront/café theatre in the suburbs. The work was solid but we felt inferior. We wanted to be more “professional.” So we paid our people (something/anything we could) to show our commitment. But that wasn’t enough and we moved to Chicago, splitting time producing shows in the suburbs and the Athenaeum Theatre. The idea was we could learn what it was like to be part of the Chicago “scene” all-the-while knowing we were a very small part of it.

What can I say from our experience? There is a lot of bad theater in the off-loop community calling itself professional. I’ve seen better shows in the suburbs. Still, the companies that stood out (Hypocrites, Timeline, Raven, etc) were the ones that you hear about all the time. So you might say justice is being served.

Still, after a time, we grew tired of playing with the term professional theatre. In reality, we all work during the day. And paying someone $100 bucks to do a show is more of a gesture than a salary. (I don’t even think the Hypocrites pay their actors – correct me if I’m wrong – and you wouldn’t call them amateurs).

But I can relate to Hall’s post (or someone’s) about theater being a lifestyle. It is for us. Does that make us inferior? Or amateur? I don’t think so. The biggest breakthrough I had on this subject concerns our approach to the work we do. We’re very serious about it. It isn’t a social experience like a mixed bowling league. We work our people hard, offer them training and do interesting work. All this is done with a commitment that is expected from everyone. You can call it a professional attitude.

Perhaps that doesn’t answer the question fully, but it helped us find our place and where we stand. We still pay (when we can) to show our commitment. But the work always comes first.

A side note on seeing shows. Some of the best work I have ever seen was in small theaters with no budget. The honesty, clarity and intimacy were worth more than any $100 spectacle. This is the theatre of Brook and Grotowski: open and honest. The spectacle is the human being on stage, which you’d think everyone would want in today’s age of openness.

Sean Hargadon


A lot of the current state of affairs is because Equity has never come to terms with professional theatre moving out of NYC to where we now have professional theatres throughout the country. Both the LORT and CAT contracts (and all their Byzantine levels) are based on a broken model-driven by what NYC used to be.

I wonder what would change if their overt emphasis moved from enforcement to advocacy?

Instead of saying only equity members are professional and actively enforcing the existing model (which by the way, costs $1100 for an actor to join) what would happen if Equity worked to get more funding to small and midsize companies, to be used to pay actors.

No one wants (or should want) to purposely not pay actors, but when 80% of many production budgets go for renting performing spaces, most small companies simply don’t have any money to pay stipends—let alone a living wage.

And when you have a city like Chicago with 38 out of 200 theatres with an equity contract, Equity should see a motive to work to change that.


Kris - Ah, there's the rub, right? Equity, or non-Equity. I was there when my sister went through the contortions that every Chicago actor both dreams of and dreads: decent paying and relatively flexible day-job (with benefits), relatively consistent non-Equity work when - BAM! - she's offered a plum role at the Goodman. She, of course, took it, and did alright for about a year - another role at the Goodman, a small film role - but she still had to run the whole North Shore Nanny route in between. Ultimately, she packed up and went to LA, where's she's doing well but missing (I think) the vibrant Chicago theatre scene (but not our weather).

It's the second right of passage for anyone who sticks it out in theatre here, and I completely think we - artists, institutions, and funders alike - should be asking some serious questions as to where, exactly, this relationship is going.

Are we too NYCentric? Of course we are. The roots of that are deeper than the last 20 or 50 years.

I'm going to do a little more thinking on this and post some more cogent thoughts on the ol' Homunculus.

Dan Granata

Kris Vire

Mike, perhaps as the non-Equity arts scene in Philly continues to grow, you'll get your Kate Harrises who realize there are non-Equity companies in need of over-40 actors. And your commentary to me about the "amateur" rights agreements has long stuck in my craw as well. When Dramatists and Samuel French treat all non-Equity companies like they're high school productions, it results in situations like two simultaneous "Midwest premieres" of Mr. Marmalade, adding injury to the insult of calling them "amateur."

The problem, it seems, is this New York-based assumption that Equity membership/Equity contracts are the universal goal. In New York, it's true, and as Jay points out, the Equity model goes back to this outdated perception that Professional Theater emanates from New York. Again, Equity wages and benefits are awesome and desirable, but when Broadway in Chicago is booking non-Equity tours and charging the same ticket prices as for Equity tours, I think we have to admit that non-Equity doesn't equate to non-professional.

Sean, thanks for sharing Janus's experience. It's true that there are some crap non-Equity companies around, but I'm sure we've all seen Equity shows that have bored us to tears as well.

Mostly I'm dismayed that, in a city whose theatrical legacy is arguably based on the legend of the storefront startup, there are critics and fans who would be so dismissive of non-Equity theater as that commenter on Chris's blog. I'm reminded of Lyn Gardner's comments at the Guardian in the midst of last month's British critics kerfuffle. To paraphrase: what happens in the big-time theaters starts from the smaller theaters, and if you ignore the small you're not seeing the whole picture.

Kris Vire

Dan, yeah, it's the eternal dilemma. Of course there are some actors who are perfectly happy holding down the day job for the salary and health insurance and working steadily in non-Equity theater for years, and I think it's a disservice to call them amateurs. And some non-Equity actors here can make a decent living acting full-time—doing voiceovers, industrials, and other commercial work (a route that may not be tenable in, say, Philadelphia. Mike?). Of course they don't get Equity's benefits. And the flip side is those Equity actors like your sister who still have to nanny or wait tables between gigs.


Yes, but we have to pay more for our AMATUER rights than high schools.

Chicago is a unique theatre scene because it (seems to me anyway) is overrun with small companies making it work and truly outnumbering the big houses by their presence and staying power. I don't think it would be fair to compare Philly theatre to Chicago theatre - they are different beasts. Which is why it it also not fair to compare Philly theatre to NY theatre, as so many people want to do around here.

It was a big adjustment for me when we started FP, because I went from working at a well-paying LORT D theatre to asking people to be naked on stage for 35 minutes for free. And thank god they did it because where would we be otherwise? But every time we talk about the future, I talk about Equity. Not because it is the difference in talent (honestly, sometimes it is the other way around - but you know that) but because it is the difference here in how important your company is.


also, to answer your question above, there is some commercial work, not a lot of industrials or things like that, though. NFL Films is right in Jerz, so that's where a lot of people make some extra bucks. Oh, and M. Night Shamalan movies.

The real "other money" comes from design work. Many actors in Philly are also designers in some vein. Like puppets, for example.


Nationwide the average "professional" equity actor (87% of whom are white)worked 17 weeks and made $7,000 last year.

I don't necessarily see being Equity as a beacon of hope--or a mark of excellence.

And really for actors who make a living doing roles they hate in shows they loathe, how is that better than a day job they hate, which enables them to do shows they love?

Kerry Reid

Great post, Kris (and not just because you gave me a couple shout-outs!)

I'm continually amazed by people who insist that only actors who "make a living" (which is near-impossible) at their craft deserve to be called "professional." If we applied that standard to, say, 20th century poetry, then William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot were rank versifying amateurs with day jobs.

Kris Vire

Thanks, Kerry. To bolster your point and complement Jay's statistics, here's something from Novid Parsi's profile of Mary Ann Thebus in the current TOC:

But acting and teaching alone, she makes plain, don’t provide a decent living. “My mother died and left me some money. Otherwise I wouldn’t be [her no-nonsense laugh emphasizes the point] in this nice apartment.” Unless supplemented with voice-overs and commercials, stage work alone won’t cut it, she says. “You know, non-Equity people, they’re: Oh, I wanna be Equity cause I wanna have that be my living. And I’m like [that one-ha laugh again], It’s not gonna happen. Not in this city.”

Kerry Reid

Well, I just saw "Show Business" tonight and of course Tonya Pinkins' experience is fresh in my mind -- win a Tony, then lose your kids and be out on the streets less than a year later.


I moved here from the Pac NW nearly three years ago, already an AEA member. Nearly everyone I met told me I'd have a hard time getting work.

But I've worked steadily since I got here, no day job. I have worked out of town twice (but was hired out of Chicago).

Great post, just wanted to contribute another experience from a working Chicago AEA member-- we do exist. :)

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

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