Inspirazione! : Equitable Solutions: A Singer's Guide to Actor's Equity

To attend many, if not most, auditions for Equity jobs, you must be a member of Equity. So it may seem like a bit of a conundrum that you have to have first worked in an Equity house in order to become a member of Equity. How can you become a member of Equity if you’ve never been offered an Equity job, and how can you be offered an Equity job if you can’t be admitted to Equity auditions? Let’s start over, and take this one step at a time.

The “How”

There are three ways that you can become eligible to join Actor’s Equity.

The first is simply to be offered an Equity contract.

The second is to be a member of either Canadian Actor’s Equity or any of three other performer’s unions in the U.S.: the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), or the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG). If you are a member of one of these unions and also meet the following three criteria, you are eligible to join Equity:

Must be member of a sister union for at least one year.

Must currently be a member in good standing of your parent union.

Must have worked as a performer under the union’s jurisdiction on a principal or “under-five” contract (fewer than five lines) or at least three days of extra (“background”) work.

The third way to become eligible to join Equity is to participate in the Equity Membership Candidate Program (EMC). Many theatre companies employ a combination of Equity and non-Equity performers. If you do a role with one of the companies listed on Equity’s website, you can “earn weeks” in the program. When you have accrued 50 weeks, you are eligible to join. There is a $100 fee to participate in this program.

Once you are eligible, you can pay the entrance fee (currently $1,100) to join Actor’s Equity. You do not have to pay the full amount at once. You can pay $400 and begin full privileges. If you have gone through the EMC program, your $100 fee for EMC will be credited toward your Equity membership. Also, AGMA members pay a reduced fee to join Equity; Equity did not, however, have the exact figure of that reduction available at press time. Annual dues are $118, and when you are working under an Equity contract, 2.25 percent of your gross earnings goes to the union.

The “Why”

There are dozens of kinds of Equity contracts for different sizes of theaters, touring productions, cabarets, casinos, regional theaters, amusement parks, and many others. Contracts specify salaries and working conditions (for example, frequency of breaks) among other things. Salaries vary widely depending on the type of contract and may or may not provide a living wage. There is a health insurance plan for Equity members, but in order to qualify for this plan, you must have at least 12 weeks of covered employment in the previous year to qualify for six months of coverage. Many actors struggle continually to meet that minimum.

The “When”

As far as competing for these jobs, I would refer you to a previous “Inspirazione!” column, “Crossing Over: Broadening Your Vocal Horizons” (Classical Singer, March 2007), for a discussion of acting and singing for musical theatre. It may seem to you that vocally you can leave your acting counterparts in the dust, and that may be so. But classical singers sometimes have a veil of technique in their sound that puts them a bit at a distance for a medium that highly prizes dramatic, personal connection. There are certain theatre roles that are traditionally given to a more operatic sound. If you want to sing Nettie in Carousel (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”) or the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music (“Climb Every Mountain”), then you can probably “come as you are” vocally to that musical theatre audition. But you may find that you want to reorder your priorities and put clarity of words, emotionality, and character ahead of vocal beauty.

Even if you don’t feel ready to go for these professional theatre jobs, if you are not working as much as you’d like, you might want to consider community musical theatre. There is no replacement for hours spent onstage, and it is well known among actors that you’re more likely to be cast in a show while you are already in a show. So that brings us back to where we started and the conundrum that to get an Equity job, you need to go to Equity auditions—and to go to Equity auditions, you have to be an Equity member.

The generally accepted “first law of the theatre” can be helpful to remember: Singers onstage tend to stay onstage. When you’re in a show, you exude a certain energy, a performer’s mojo. And if you attend auditions when you’re in motion that way, the auditioners will pick up on that. After all, they want to hire someone who can do the job, and the easiest way to tell that someone can do the job is if they’ve already done it or are doing it.

If you’re looking for inspiration and encouragement about the audition process, don’t miss the documentary Every Little Step. The movie documents the auditions, callbacks, and final callbacks for the 2006 Broadway revival of the musical A Chorus Line and tells the story of the sacrifice and heart that performers put into their work and their lives every day.

Lastly, if you’ve avoided musical theatre auditions because you dread having to do a dance audition, you might just think of it as a free exercise class. And in the worst case scenario (a combination of steps that completely baffles you), just remember to smile, to not look at your feet and, when the music ends, to stop moving. It might be the most painful 32 bars in your life, but it’ll soon be over.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at