Friday, October 23, 2009

How I Got My Equity Card -or- Pump Your Brakes

Actors' Equity Association. "AEA" or "Equity", founded in 1913, is the labor union that represents more than 48,000 Actors and Stage Managers in the United States. Equity seeks to advance, promote and foster the art of live theatre as an essential component of our society. Equity negotiates wages and working conditions, and provides a wide range of benefits; including health and pension plans, for its members.

During my sophomore year at NYU I got a job as an EMC (Equity Membership Candidate) at The Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ. Their producer, Roy Miller and their artistic director, Robert Johanson, wanted me to be in the ensemble for their production of Man of La Mancha and also understudy one of the principal roles. It took a long time for me to find out because they had to make a special deal with Equity to allow me to be able to do that job. I appreciated it – not only did it allow me to do that show, but the way the artistic staff believed in me gave me the confidence I needed to perform at such a prestigious venue for the first time.

But I was still just an EMC. While my ego was bruised at first, it ended up being a good thing, because I was able to play some roles while I finished university that I would most likely not have been able to if I had my equity card. I played the Witch in Into the Woods. As a woman. Charles in Pippin. The Senator in Hello Again. Let’s face it, I would not have gotten to play roles like that as a 20 year old if it weren’t for imaginative directors working Off-Broadway. I now think of this as an integral part of my development as an artist. I had been exposed to highly commercial theater and I also got to get down and dirty like any twenty year old artist needs to. I still needed to cut my teeth, as it were.

After La Mancha closed, I went back to school. Begrudgingly. It was a serious reality check going from working in a sold out run at “The State Theater of New Jersey” (and all of the luxury that goes with that) to living in a dorm and getting up early for class five times a week. And I still had two years to go.

During my final semester I got tonsillitis (while I was playing Charles in Pippin, I might add) and had to miss just over two weeks of academic classes. I was struggling to keep up with my work when three weeks before the end of the semester my Art History teacher informed me that there was no way I could pass that class and the best thing for me to do would be to withdraw. Not passing that class meant not graduating early, as I had planned. DRAMA! I was beyond disappointed - I was supposed to graduate in three weeks! I moped around for a week when I saw an ad for an audition for the national tour of Freedom Train: The Harriet Tubman Story. I wasn’t too keen on going on tour at that time, but I just couldn’t imagine going back to school immediately.

I went to the audition and got called straight to the final callbacks. I wasn’t nervous until I opened the door and saw the entire creative team behind the table. There were at least ten auditors - there were so many people that they actually had to push two tables together to fit them all! I sang my song, read the scene and went home thinking that they weren't too impressed and I really should register for the next semester. Within an hour, I got the call to do the show.

Six weeks later I was on the road, freezing my ass off in the snow belt. It was cold. This was the kind of winter weather where the temperature wouldn’t get much warmer than six or seven degrees. Sometimes, it seemed like I would never get warm. I got a cold that lasted three weeks! But I got to see so many cities and perform in some of our country’s most beautiful theaters that have been around since the vaudeville age. You could feel the magic in some of these old and ornate palaces. As difficult as the touring lifestyle is, and it IS difficult, I felt like the luckiest man alive as soon as I made my first entrance onstage every night.

And I got my equity card.

Yes, I do feel fortunate to that I got to join the union while I was still in college. And yes, that is pretty rare. When you're in drama school, everyone is focused on getting their equity card or at least becoming an EMC as soon as possible because you can't even audition for big shows unless you are a member of the union. I had spent some time taking class at NYU while still in high school and I wanted my equity card then! But I was no where near ready for that sort of artistic responsibility. I remember being frustrated that I didn't get my card from working at Papermill. I think the important lesson for me was that I had to keep working hard, growing as an artist and the union status would come at the right time. And boy did it! Instead of having to go back to school when I thought I was finished, I got to take a semester off and go on the road. I finished school the next fall right around the time I got my SAG card...

But that's another story.

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Ann Marie said...

I saw Man of Lamancha at the Papermill and I think I remember you! They probabally couldn't afford to make you equity so it's a major compliment that they fought for you to be an understudy. Did you ever go on?

[soccerboy] said...

Laughing out loud, Ann Marie! I understudied the role of Pedro and I actually did go on once. I only had one rehearsal and I didn't even find out until just before half hour! (a half hour before curtain) Oddly, it was the one person in the show who was being put up across the street from the theater and had gone into Manhattan that day and had problems with NJ Transit.

I had never done a full run through as that character or worn the costume (or tech or orchestra, for that matter) so I mostly felt like I was pushing buttons and pulling levers. But it was a fantastic experience and I'll never forget it.

[soccerboy] said...

I just remembered, "La Mancha" was how Laura Benanti got her equity card!