The Actors’ Equity Association is the labor union representing theatrical actors and stage managers across the United States. While SAG-AFTRA negotiates contracts for film, television, and radio performers, Equity takes care of those who perform onstage, whether on Broadway, in national tours, or at scores of regional houses. The perks of joining the union include important protections, health-care and pension, collective bargaining rights, and more. Becoming a member used to be an arduous process that involved either getting an Equity contract, becoming an Equity Membership Candidate, or joining through a sister union. In July 2021, however, Equity enacted an Open Access membership policy that has made the process much easier. In February 2023, the union made the policy permanent.
Getting hired under an Equity contract still earns you membership in the union—but getting your first one can be tricky. Depending on a variety of factors (size of the house, budget, ticket prices, etc.), theaters may be operating with a limited number of Equity contracts per show or season. Those contracts are likely to go to actors who are members already—but not always. When a contract is left over with no Equity member to fill it, it’s bestowed upon a nonunion actor who qualifies.
After signing an Equity contract, an actor is paid union wages and becomes eligible to join during their term of employment. If you’re interested in becoming part of Equity but were hired as a nonunion actor (particularly by a larger company), it’s worth asking for one or two contracted weeks during your negotiation process.
This policy stipulates that any actor or stage manager who has worked at a theater within Equity’s geographical jurisdiction is eligible to join the union.
Before July 2021, only theater professionals who were working for an Equity employer or were members of a sibling union were eligible for membership. But as of that date, the union has started allowing theater professionals who have worked as an actor or stage manager within Equity’s geographical domain to become a member. To kick off the three-year phase-out process, Equity will stop admitting new Equity Membership Candidates (EMCs) starting May 8, 2023.
After May 8, 2026, EMCs will no longer have access to prioritized auditions. Equity’s statement about the Open Access policy lays out the union’s commitment to create equal opportunity for all actors. “Because our membership rules until now have left access to membership in employers’ hands, they have implicitly created a disproportionately high barrier to access for actors and stage managers of marginalized identities,” the statement reads. “We have inadvertently contributed to the systemic exclusion of people of color and people of other marginalized identities from the benefits of union membership. We are taking steps to change that. Open Access is one major step.”
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1. Work professionally as a stage manager or actor: Regardless of your place of residence, country of origin, or citizenship status, you are eligible for Equity membership as long as you have worked professionally as a stage manager or actor within the union’s geographical jurisdiction.
2. Fill out the joining questionnaire: Your answers to this questionnaire will determine whether you’re eligible for Equity membership. If you qualify, the union will send you an application.
3. Submit your application: This document asks for proof of work and proof of payment, such as contracts, tax forms, and pay stubs.
4. Pay your initiation fee: New members must make a $600 down payment toward the $1,800 initiation fee. They can pay the rest over a span of three years.
There's another way to get your card: Actors can buy into Equity after a year’s membership in one its sister unions, so long as they have at least one principal contract or three background contracts that they’ve worked. Eligible unions include:
- SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists)
- AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists)
- AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists)
- GIAA (Guild of Italian-American Actors)
Performers who want to join this way must provide proof of membership (and good standing), evidence of jobs worked within that one-year time frame, and at least $600 towards the Equity initiation fee.
Initiation fee: It costs $1,800 to join Equity. You must pay this fee within three years of joining, provided you’ve submitted your initial $600 down payment.
- Basic dues: $176 per year, broken into two $88 payments in May and November.
- Working dues: 2.5% of your gross earnings under Equity contract. These dues are taken through payroll deductions.
As with SAG-AFTRA, joining Equity is a major decision and a big commitment. The union bars non-Equity actors from taking nonunion contracts, so nonunion tours, certain Off-Off-Broadway companies, and some small regional theaters may be off-limits to members. On the bright side, union actors enjoy tons of perks, such as salary protections, health care, and a community of talented colleagues.
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