Each market is different, but in any major metropolis there is a juncture at which an actor, dancer, musician, or stage manager (henceforth, the artist) must decide whether to pursue work as a union member, or not. There are challenges inherent with each. Union members face limitations on employment and more specific regulations onstage and in the rehearsal room. Non-union members have no contractual support, no bargaining rights, and often low pay. Much of this falls outside of the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that the costs of one choice are the benefits of the other. In this case, taking on the higher pay and ostensible opportunity for benefits that becoming a union artist affords strips the artists of much of their individual flexibility.
This paper will focus primarily on the regional artist. This eliminates the need to address Broadway and Disney contracts, which can be very specific and written exclusively for the producer. In this paper, a regional performing artist is defined as someone that works in their specialization of the performing arts, in a city of more than 100,000 residents, 6 days per week, at least 25 weeks a year, on union agreements. One artist may work in several different cities, under several different disciplines each year, and/or under several contracts in one calendar year.
As far as representation, the primary unions are codified as “sister unions” as the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, or the 4A’s. Member unions are the Actor’s Equity Association (AEA, or Equity), SAG-AFTRA (formerly two separate unions: the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), and the American Guild of Visual Artists (AGVA) (“Equity”). AGVA contract work is extremely limited and, again, outside the scope of this paper.
AEA is responsible for actors and stage managers working in live theatre (“About Actors’”). According to their website, “SAG-AFTRA represents more than 165,000 actors, announcers, broadcasters, journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers, news editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists and other media professionals” (“About Us”). They are responsible for TV, film, and radio artists. Finally, AGMA recognizes the following active artist categorizes: Solo Artists, Stage Directors, Stage Managers, Chorus Members, Choreographers, and Dance Members (Constitution 4). However, AGMA only has jurisdiction over those individuals in “fields of music, concert, recital, dance, oratorio, and opera…particularly including, but not limited to those persons who are concert and operatic singers, including both soloists and chorus, instrumental soloists, dancers, and stage directors, stage managers and prompters of opera performers” (3). A careful reading indicates that stage managers fall under AGMA jurisdiction only where opera or dance are concerned. In addition, the Articles of Incorporation notes that AGMA will not compete with the American Federation of Musicians, a separate union responsible primarily with orchestras (4).
Simply determining which union has jurisdiction seems like a nightmare, but due in part to their status as branches of the 4As, these unions have largely settled their differences, aided by the merger of SAG-AFTRA. All of the unions are part of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and are intended for American artists.
Each of the unions approaches agreements slightly differently. AGMA writes a contract for each company that chooses to hire union artists. These individual agreements primarily define each of the categories of performers and the pay rate and allowable hours for each. However, there is essentially a universal code of conduct that each member agrees to every time they sign a contract.
Equity has around 30 contracts, with some of the most well known being the Small Professional Theatre (SPT), the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA), League of Regional Theatres (LORT), Guest Artist Agreement (GA), and a set of localized contracts tailored for areas like New England and the Bay Area (“Document”).
Each performing arts organization is assigned one of the contracts above and a level that corresponds with the size of the organization, audience size, and income. These assignments are set and the artists have no say in which agreement they sign for any given employer, except to accept or reject the position. The number and prescribed uses of contracts has changed drastically over the last 20 years and the matter has started to come up in the courts.