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Union Blues, Buzz Kill

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Dear Tombudsman:

I've been in the four entertainer unions in some capacity. I was Taft-Hartleyed into SAG when I was fairly new to the business. I'm on honorable withdrawal from AFTRA. I got kicked out of AGVA for non-payment of dues, and I had to join AEA although I tried to avoid it.

After having been a dancer for 11 years I've pretty much retired and started on my second career. My problem is, I stopped dancing because I couldn't get a job once I was in Equity. Being an Equity female chorus dancer is like shooting myself in the foot. The parts for me are spare (I'm a 4-foot-10 Asian female—guess which shows I've done), and the competition is fierce. I didn't want my Equity card because I didn't think I was ready.

I used to work all the time, but now I can't get a job. Now that my insurance has finally run out I'm wondering if I should give it up and go back to community theatre to get some practice again. And even if I did give up my card I still can't audition for touring shows because SAG doesn't support them.

I just want to perform again. Being in the unions is not all it's cracked up to be. I don't know why so many young performers want to get in them. You're competing against seasoned professionals, and the jobs are scarcer. You could get so much practice working in theatre and non-union projects.

I agonize mainly because of the great insurance. You need only 12 weeks of work for a full year of insurance. You can't beat that. But I'm not working. So is it worth it to stay? I haven't danced in a show in two years. I'd like to have my options open again, but I'm not willing to move to New York to make my membership worthwhile. I know I'm leaning toward getting out of the union, but that $1,000 initiation fee makes me think twice.

Liza M.

via the Internet

Dear Liza:

Well you've got yourself in a bit of a situation here that is not all that unique to many in the world of professional show business. You're a performer who is struggling to figure out how far you can cut back and still hold on to your dream of finding work. Only in our field can it often be a dream just to find work. It says a lot that someone seems to be holding on to her union card only so that she can get insurance that she currently isn't even eligible for.

You've obviously done your homework. Full resignation from AEA, and maybe even SAG, would potentially be the best way for you do one of those non-union touring shows, but maybe you needn't go that far just yet. It seems like a stretch, no dancer pun intended, for you to give up your Equity card completely when there are still some stage avenues to explore.

Why not consider going on temporary withdrawal from Equity, as you did with AFTRA? This way you can buy yourself some time to decide whether you want to continue as a dancer/actor while not digging a deeper financial hole for yourself. Because what I didn't garner from your letter was how strongly you still want and need to perform. If it is still a passion, then you need to find work to get yourself up to speed after your two-year layoff. If you only take a withdrawal from AEA, it'll cost you one dues period and a $25 reinstatement fee to get the dust off your card to become an active member again.

You're in a place now of trying to decide whether to can the unions or can your whole dancing career. A lot of that decision will be based on whether you are getting work—any work. Auditioning for those non-union touring shows (and by those I mean the large-budget ones that AEA is working hard to get under its umbrella) might be attractive from your current perspective, but there's no guarantee if you drop your AEA membership that you'll land work in the non-union world, either. It's definitely a Catch-22. Add to it that SAG certainly doesn't want its members doing that same non-union theatre work, and it gets even more dicey.

I went through your letter with the very informative and helpful John Holly, Western regional director for Actors Equity in Los Angeles—not surprising, as Equity almost always sets the high mark among the unions in its response to phone inquiries from this office. Holly offered: "An actor on withdrawal is still legally a member of the union. Therefore she may not do any performing without an appropriate union contract. A withdrawal is meant for people who wish to take a leave of absence for an indefinite period. If she resigns, she could rejoin by getting an Equity contract and paying the current initiation fee, $1,000. If she resigns only to work non-union, she would have to be reviewed by the President's Planning Committee before being allowed to rejoin."

Now, I'm sure given your situation, Equity would take you back later. For the moment, however, let's assume you don't resign from Equity but instead go that withdrawal route. Is there anywhere you could perform? You mentioned community theatre, but AEA will usually not allow its members, active or on withdrawal, to perform there; but there are a few exceptions that allow an AEA actor to work, such as on college and university stages, but only if you are a matriculated student or teacher, and you are also able to do performance in churches, synagogues, etc.

So you're saying, "Tom, I'm not attending UCLA and they're not casting too many Miss Saigons at my local church." I hear you, but you are in Los Angeles and can also legally work under that AEA 99-Seat plan contract even if you are on withdrawal. I understand there usually isn't much evidence of or even room for full-blown chorus lines under the 99-seater, but there could be a modicum of opportunity there. Again, this affords you some extra time to decide whether you're truly retired from acting and into a new career, or whether that new career is just a survival job in disguise.

If you don't need that time to find out and have already decided that large-scale non-union musicals are the only way to go, then maybe resigning from AEA will be your only choice. You can always go that route, but you still might face some problems with SAG. The Guild cannot legally forbid you from accepting non-union touring stage work, but it will try to convince you to support its sister union AEA. Indeed in its recent newsletter SAG reiterated its solid backing of fellow 4-Aer, AEA.

Think it through clearly before you make your decision. No performer wants to be put in the position of having to consider stepping away from the member organizations she longed to be in in the first place, but ultimately you need to find a way to survive the business. How each person does that is of her own choosing. And to you actors just entering the field, pay close attention to Liza's story. Don't rush the process to get any cards until you are fully ready for what that means, and understand that the cyclical nature of our business is the norm and not the exception.

Dear Tombudsman:

I am in a musical drama. The same play has been touring all over L.A. for several years. It has not been picked up by a big production company, Equity theatre, big money backer, or anyone major yet. But it deserves to be because it is very soulful with a powerful message. We get standing ovations! I am very proud to act in this production. I want to push it. I tried to send a letter on behalf of my director, but she said she wants it on her own stationery.

My opinion is, in this business things just don't happen naturally. You have to push it, market it, create a "buzz" around town. You have to ask people more than once to see the production. What do you think the director is thinking? What am I missing? Should I give up and find something else to push?

Phyliss

Los Angeles, Calif.

via the Internet

Dear Phyliss:

Creating a buzz around a show does not happen by osmosis—at least most of the time. There's always something going on in the background to create that good vibe that might turn a new show into a new hit, then a bigger hit, then maybe a Broadway topper or even a feature film. Influential angels, connected publicists, agents and managers, a hot actor joining a cast—these can help take a show to the next level.

Of course the show has to be terrific, because the audience will quickly see through anything that's not. It sounds like your production is, and it's great you're so passionate about helping to make something bigger happen. However, unless you have access to a money truck, and even then, you'll have to do it the way the producer, creator, and director see fit.

Word of mouth is a fabulous way to generate good buzz, and you're doing just that—even though you didn't give me the name of your show. And cast members are second only to the audience in being able to talk up a production that must be seen. That helps put people in the seats. But the next step requires the desire and game plan that must come from the powers that be.

I don't know what your director is thinking. Have you asked her? Seems like a good place to start. If you and the cast are of like mind, I'd suggest a sit-down with the producer and director to see where this play is going. How far do you take it? Follow your passion and give it your best effort, but if you don't find the owners of the material and/or the production team are on your page, then it might be time to move on to other buzzing.

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