Wherever a stage or screen performer gets hired, chances are there is a union that helps represent their interests. For singers and actors (and whatever hyphenation of the two that you fall under) the process is no different.
Unions can be massively helpful for a variety of reasons, provided you are a member of an effective one. They can negotiate working conditions, set schedule/break requirements, and streamline pay; in a process of collective bargaining. Unions also provide vital personal and family services for their members, including health/dental plan options, savings/financial services, legal services, and even access to childcare (among other benefits). In return, the participating member pays an initiation fee and a set of yearly dues.
“Union participating” theaters and productions are coveted by every artist because of these entitled benefits. But, for many of the unions in the arts, there are some barriers to entry that every aspiring artist must clear; before they become full-fledged members.
I am going to be highlighting what many of these guidelines are, as well as how you can move between unions (should you decide to switch from concert, to stage, to film).
The main organizations representing actors and singers
AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists):
AGMA is a union that represents all musical artists, including operatic singers, choristers, and dancers. These artists are usually represented in the context of the classical or ‘legit’ singing medium. The productions, in which these artists are performing, are put on by Non-Profit theaters and associations (such as the Metropolitan Opera Association). These industries are typically going to program music which upholds a particular tradition or style that is culturally important, but may not have the same mass market appeal as more ‘commercial’ brands of music.
The great thing about this union, if you want to get started singing/acting in this genre, is that, unlike other performers unions, there is no proof of work required in order to join.
“AGMA applicants must pay a one-time-only Initiation Fee of $1,000 and a yearly fee – referred to as basic dues – of $100, payable every December for the following calendar year.”
For AGMA actor-singers, there is a charted pay-scale, detailing the minimum a person should be paid both by house (A-D rated houses) and by the size of the role.
There is also a similar union that represents variety artists called AGVA; including such acts as the Rockettes. These artists are generally represented by AGVA when the productions in question aren’t Equity shows.
Equity is a union that represents professional actors and stage managers across the United States. Any major productions of plays and musicals are going to be filled with equity talent. The main difference between Equity and AGMA is the focus of the productions; as equity productions are for-profit endeavors.
This can mean that a certain show can be scheduled for a run over a specified amount of time, and if it makes good money, it can be extended. The flip-side of that coin is that unprofitable shows can be shuttered for their under-performance. Actors’ Equity is a member of the AFL-CIO, and is affiliated with FIA, an international organization of performing arts unions (this detail will be important later on).
There are basic dues and working dues associated with being a memeber of Actor’s Equity:
- Basic dues: $170 annually, billed at $85 twice a year each May and November 2018$172 annually, billed at $86 twice a year each May and November 2019$174 annually, billed at $87 twice a year each May and November 2020$176 annually, billed at $88 twice a year each May and November 2021, and forward
- Working dues: 2.375% of gross earnings under Equity contract.Beginning 11/2019: 2.5% of gross earnings under Equity contract, which are collected through weekly payroll deductions
The maximum Equity earnings subject to Working Dues are $300,000 per year. Please note: gross earnings do not include the minimum portion of out-of-town per diem expense monies.
On top of those dues, there is a one time $1600 initiation fee, to be paid within a maximum of a two year period. This rises to $1700 on 1/1/2020, and $1800 on 1/1/2022.
In order to join Equity, you have to take one of several available paths:
- You may join Equity association if you are offered an Equity contract. If a director hears you, and decides they need you in the production, you are able to become a member. Applications into the union are only valid during the term of that contract, and certain contracts have a length of employment requirement (subject to the discretion of the membership department.
- Artists may join Equity if they are associated with the Associated Artists of America Affiliation; which includes AGMA, SAG-AFTRA, AGVA, or the GIAA (a union of actors who promote ethnic Italian-American descent). In order to commence the process of initiation, the artist must have been a member of their respective union for one year, must currently be in good standing with the parent union, and must have worked under the union’s jurisdiction on a principal or “under-five” contract; or at least 3 days of extra work. Once you meet these requirements you have to bring a written notice form the parent union that states you are eligible; along with a $400 payment toward the initiation fee (this rises to $600 on 1/1/2020).
For plays and musicals, the payscale can be generous, and is usually divided by the size of the ‘house’ in question. An ‘off-broadway’ sized house can command actor’s fees at a minimum of $1145.70 minimum a week (rising to $1191.20, if required to perform on Sundays). A broadway house artist can expect to be paid $2034 minimum a week.
SAG-AFTRA, or Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, is a guild that represents All of those artists who appear on television, radio, and film.
Like Equity, there are guidelines that artists must meet in order to qualify for membership; drawing on the same reciprocal relationships and hallmarks. from the membership page:
Proof of Employment
SAG-AFTRA membership is available to those who work in a position covered by a SAG-AFTRA (or AFTRA or SAG) collective bargaining agreement, provided that any person qualifying through work as a background actor must have completed three (3) days of work as a background actor under a SAG-AFTRA (or AFTRA or SAG) collective bargaining agreement. Membership is also available to those who work one (1) day of employment in a principal or speaking role (actor/performer), or as a Recording Artist in a SAG-AFTRA (or AFTRA or SAG) covered production.
Employment Under an Affiliated Performers’ Union
Performers may join SAG-AFTRA if the applicant is a paid-up member of an affiliated performers’ union such as ACTRA, AEA, AGMA or AGVA for a period of one year, and has worked and been paid for at least once as a principal performer in that union’s jurisdiction.
Potential broadcast members should contact the National Broadcast Department or their local for information on joining.
Each application is vetted for legitimacy. That means your proof of employment will be fully investigated by SAG-AFTRA for validity. Your application for membership will be denied if you have falsified your credentials, or if your qualifying employment is not bona fide.
While it is your responsibility to ascertain the validity of your qualifying employment, the Union will be the sole arbiter in determining whether the employer was legitimate or bogus, and whether the qualifying employment which you performed was actual production work or work created solely to enable you to gain Union membership. Please be aware that false representation or deception on your part will jeopardize your chances to join SAG-AFTRA.
Moreover, if after your application has been granted the Union discovers such misconduct on your part, you may find yourself subject to disciplinary proceedings, which could result in your being fined, suspended and/or expelled from SAG-AFTRA.
Appointments for Admission
If you are eligible under the conditions stated above, please contact your nearest SAG-AFTRA local so that we can advise you of the amount of your joining fees.
Submitting Proof of SAG-AFTRA Eligibility
You may contact us about your eligibility status. If your file is not on record or incomplete, you may submit one of the following documents as proof of eligibility:
- Original paycheck stubs.
- Original activity print-out or report from the payroll company that states your name, social security number, the name of the production company, the title of the production, the salary paid in dollar amount, and the specific date(s) worked. The payroll company must submit this document directly to the SAG-AFTRA Membership Services Department.
Background vouchers and copies of paycheck stubs are not acceptable as proof of work. Submitting these types of documents will only delay verifying your SAG-AFTRA eligibility.
If you provide the Union with your original paycheck stubs, please make copies for your records before submitting them to the office.
In addition to enclosing proper eligibility documentation, you will need to include a separate piece of paper with your name, current address, current telephone number, and date of birth. A self-addressed stamped envelope must also be included so that we may return your documents to you. We ask that you print clearly to avoid input errors. Once verification is completed, you will receive a letter of eligibility from SAG-AFTRA.
The initiation fee for SAG-AFTRA is $3000 dollars; at the national level (varying state to state). There are also semi-annual dues: 1/2 of base dues in the order of $214.32 as well as, 1/2 of work dues (calculated at %1.575 of covered earnings up to $500,000).
Why crossover through mediums?
Performers have many advantages and disadvantages to consider, when moving from one medium to another.
An opera singer who wishes to take part in a broadway production, may not have the same amount of moment experience required of people who have worked in broadway for years. They might not be accustomed to the different style of singing that is done in many modern musical; like that of pop, rock, or other belting-style singers. It can be an adjustment, going from an operatic production schedule to that of a musical schedule (generally musicals can run 7 or 8 shows a week, whereas opera singers would never have such a clustered performance schedule). If they wish to transfer to screen-work, it may be difficult to acclimate to the smaller-scale style of physical acting required of the screen. Facial gestures and body movements, that wouldn’t normally be register on stage, ring loud and clear; when the camera is up close. And, hate to say it, opera singers (while not universally unfit by any means) are generally in worse shape than their musical and film counterparts.
The good news is that there are also several advantages: opera singers are usually quite well trained in music and diction (often to a higher degree than non-classical musicians); opera singer have great analytical skills, and can prepare methodically; opera singers are trained in diction and acting, just like their other stage performing counterparts. It may be relatively easier for an opera singer to “pare-down” their voice to meet the requirements of stage and screen productions.
Crossing-over non-classical singer/actors are presented with a very similar ven diagram of strengths and weaknesses. The scale and movement required for the stage is always going to be more exaggerated than that of the screen. And the required level of preperation, language/protocols of the production, and rehearsal schedules can differ wildly.
For a screen actor, the rehearsal and performance of the piece are one entity. They can keep running/shooting the same scene over and over, until they have the sequence of shots they desire for the final edit. this can make for very long shooting days, but with relatively low amounts of pressure being put on a single performance.
The plight of the stage actor is the opposite. Their rehearsal schedules are very finely geared toward mounting consistent, live performances. The product is the result of the process, and each performance is like an irrevocable, single, long snapshot in time. Mess it up, and it stays messed up. People see whatever you give them in an evening.
For non-classical performing artists to enter into the classical singing stage is almost unheard of. Opera and classical singing is an exceptionally fine tuned skill, that involves years of specialized training; in order to use the artists body as the amplifier of the voice. To cross over into this genre would take great discipline, oin the part of any actor/singer. There are many examples of operatic singers moving into the more commercial realm of acting/singing; including such artists as Forest Whitaker and Kristin Chenoweth.
Here is a little diagram that maps out the methods through which crossover artists can negotiate the various unions:
I hope that this helps aggregate so many of the questions I have heard about the business around art, and the process of being a multi-faceted performer.
Have any questions or issues related to the performing arts community that you want addressed on this blog? Let me know, at the contact section!
Until next time, keep swimming!
Ciao for now…