Equity vs. Non-Equity

Finding the Right Path for Your Acting Career: Equity vs. Non-Equity

What is the Actor’s Equity Union? Do you have to be a part of it to find work as an actor? Will you only be successful if you are a part of Equity? These are common questions amongst young actors beginning to try and find work. Alex Miller, an Equity actor and professor in the Theatre and Dance Department at Millikin University, shares his thoughts and knowledge about his experiences as an Equity actor. Joel Kim-Booster, a Non-Equity Millikin graduate working in the Chicago area shares his side as well and explains the ins and outs of what a Non-Eq job is like.

Non-Equity acting students rehearse for Cinderella. Photo courtesy of Emily Gardner.

Taking the Non-Equity Route

 

At first, just taking this route may not seem as appealing as Equity; however, Joel Kim-Booster shares his thoughts about his work as a Non-Eq actor. Being Non-Equity certainly has its benefits, “I can only really speak to the market here in Chicago, but-- I can say honestly that there is probably twice as much opportunity to work in a city like Chicago for non-equity actors. Not only are you able to work with some incredible non-equity store-front theatres like The HypocritesThe New Colony and The Inconvenience (just a few companies that are doing some truly prolific work in the city) but being non-equity doesn't discount you from doing work at the bigger houses like Steppenwolf or the Goodman.”

There are definitely more job opportunities if you choose to remain Non-Equity. You don’t have to stay Non-Eq forever though. When asked if a person should build their resume through Non-Eq jobs in order to get their Equity card, Joel responded inexactly, “That's going to depend on the context of the situation. Chicago is a very community-based theatre town. Everyone knows one another, and while it is very easy to "break in" to the theatre scene here, building up those relationships is definitely helpful in sustaining a career (this is true for almost any city). While I know a lot of actors who have graduated and turned Equity very fast, it doesn't always leave them with a lot of opportunities afterward. One great part at the Goodman does not always mean you'll continue to get that caliber of work, especially in a city that is over saturated with talented actors. But the same is true even if you have a non-eq resume a mile long-- it's a tough situation.”

Non-Equity has its downfalls as well. Actors are notorious for struggling financially. This is a main reason that many people choose to turn Equity as soon as possible- Equity demands a fixed minimum pay. Joel bluntly stated that one cannot make a substantial living while acting in Non-Equity jobs, “Most non-equity contracts will max out at or around $400-500 for the entire run of the show (on average 6 weeks). I did a show last spring that included a $200 weekly stipend (I think after rehearsals and the run of the show I made about $3000 in total, but this was a real unicorn of a gig) and I've done shows where I've made $50 for the entire run of the show, including rehearsals. It's a total crap shoot. Most non-equity actors I know maintain steady day jobs to supplement this kind of work.”

 There are Non-Equity actors that are able to work as actors though doing extensive Non-Eq work or doing on-camera or voiceover work. “There's a ton of that in Chicago, and if you're lucky enough you can make a decent living doing commercials and day playing roles on the few television shows that are filming in Chicago,” Joel explained. These jobs tend to be high paying but elusive.

Many Equity houses in the city will often hire non-equity actors under a "showcase" contract (this is largely dependent on the size of the production, and other mitigating factors). Joel shared that “a few non-equity actors are lucky enough to book a good number of these jobs which are high paying, but don't tend to be consistent enough to live a sustainable lifestyle. So again, high paying but elusive.

  Ultimately, as an Equity actor you're guaranteed (depending on the level of contract) a certain weekly salary, as well as health benefits (depending on, among other things, how often you work). Additionally, “there are certain standards that are set for [Equity] shows. Regular breaks, healthy working conditions, even things like over time. None of these things are guaranteed as a non-equity actor.”

 

non-Eq actors rehearse late into the hours of the night.

Photo courtesy of Jane Davis.

 Joel shares in more detail his struggles with Non-Eq, “While I would say 80% of the non-eq work I've done in the city has been artistically fulfilling, well received and involved incredible people, the other 20% has been grueling, idiotic and done with people who I felt were taking advantage of me. This is in part because there are just no guidelines to govern non-equity theatres. Some non-equity theatres will treat you as poorly as you will let them, and unfortunately-- with a city full of hungry young actors who just want to work-- these theatres will continue to produce [poor-quality] shows.”

            Despite the rough ends of Non-Eq, Joel shared that he has indeed enjoyed his time as a Non-Equity actor. “I've met some truly incredible actors, directors and designers as a non-equity actor. The energy is young and electric, and it's very much the fantasy "starving artist" kind of life that I (and every other kid who grew up listening to Rent on their discmans) dreamed of when I first decided to become an actor. I'm feeling artistically fulfilled, and much of the work I'm doing is being well received critically, so I'm happy,” Joel raved.

Taking the Equity Route

Equity negotiates wages, making sure that there is a minimum amount of pay that must be met for the actor. It also negotiates working conditions and provides many benefits such as health and pension plans. Alex Miller explains, “It doesn't so much benefit you as protect you.” Equity actors are given much better working hours and much better pay for their time.

Non-Eq Actors proudly finish their first tech rehearsal.

Photo by Alanna Lynette.

So as an actor, you’d think that you’d want to become Equity as soon as possible: however, Miller shared, “There are fewer and fewer jobs for equity members.  More and more work is becoming non-union.” An important point to take note of as well is that once you become and Equity member you can no longer be cast in Non-Equity jobs. So although Equity jobs pay better, it is much more difficult to find them, let alone get cast in something.

In order to get your Equity card, there is a lot of work that goes into it. “There's always a small bit of pride that comes with it.” Miller became Equity by landing the role of Bernard at the Rep Stage in Maryland. He advises that, “If [actors] go to NY become equity right away.  Any other market, remain non.”

 

Non-Eq actors prepare to go on stage

Photo by Lexis Danca

If you’re interested in the pay more than the artistic experience, Equity may be the route for you. Joel Kim-Booster summed it up nicely, “being Equity is no guarantee that the work will be artistically fulfilling, but you at least know you'll be payed and treated well.”

  Every actor is different and it is important to do what is right for you in the moment. A time may come along where all of the grueling Non-Equity work pays off and you get your big break in an Equity show. One just never knows. It is important to weigh the pros and cons of each and decide carefully what you need to do to have a fulfilling acting career.

      

 

 

 

               

 

 

 

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