Most actors think they’ve made it when they’ve joined the union. One of the first questions I am often asked by parents is when should their child join the union. Parents think the union is the ticket to booking jobs when their children get started in the industry. It is a common misconception that the union is a marker of success and guarantees representation or work.
Joining the union is not that simple. The most common ways in are getting hired in a union production or earning points to become an EMC (Equity Membership Candidate) in the theatrical union, Actors Equity Association. It takes hard work and often many auditions before becoming eligible. So instead of pondering why a child actor should join the union right away, why a child actor should hold off is the more important question.
1. Union membership is expensive. Acting is an expensive career for you and your family. Between headshots, training, travel expenses, and time, you devote many resources to acting. The national initiation fee for SAG-AFTRA is $3,000 and the annual membership is hundreds of dollars. Membership is the same cost for a veteran actor getting continuous work and a 5-year old just starting out. Why pay to join something until you have to?
2. Children can always be seen. It is a myth proliferated among actors that the union is essential to getting seen by representation and getting auditions with casting directors. Membership in the union doesn’t give your child preferential treatment in the eyes of agents or casting directors. They almost always see nonunion children at the end of the day. The bottom line is industry professionals are interested in genuine talent and actors who will make their projects successful.
3. Gaining experience is more important. The most important thing to know before joining the union is that an actor is trained and well rounded. It is a fact there is more nonunion work than union work available to young performers. Gaining experience in all types of projects including student films, independent films, local and community theater, and even Web series will add experience to a résumé and provide learning opportunities in professional environments.
4. Don’t limit your child. The union can keep your child from working. Once your child joins the union, they are ineligible for nonunion work. Your child might get a union job and then may have a dry spell. Auditions for actors go through cycles; sometimes it’s nonstop auditions, and other times it’s quiet. The quiet times are a great opportunity to submit your child for local theater, student films, and even extra work. As I said above, it keeps them busy and adds valuable experience and continued exposure. In this business, working constantly in a variety of environments is more valuable than holding off for jobs that are strictly union.
When your child is starting out in the entertainment business, it’s important to leave them open to all the opportunities available. The union has been protecting actors and securing jobs for over 80 years, and its work is not to be under-appreciated. There comes a point when your child will have to join the union, but when they’re just starting out and building a résumé, why restrict them? You never know if your child’s big break can come through a small opportunity