Monday, June 15, 2009

To Equity or not to Equity

Often (okay, occasionally I'm asked about my decision to avoid, at all costs, getting an Equity card early in my career. It's one of the biggest questions that a young artist faces when they're starting out if only because it has real, immediate-to-moderate term effects on how much you can work. Let me start by saying, I'm a big union fan. I think that they're really valuable and the only way that a large percentage of both the artistic and non-artistic populations make a livable wage, along with having reasonable working conditions.

But an Equity card isn't for everyone who just left University, in my opinion. Anecdotaly (which really is what I have to go on, there not being really great stats on this sort of thing,) I've seen a number of friends who are offered a professional chorus contract or single show right out of school only to have it be the only thing that they are able to perform in for the foreseeable future. A number of times this is because a number of the smaller opera companies in Canada, which are the lifeblood of stagetime for the bulk of singers who aren't accepted into a major Young Artist Program (YAP) directly out of school, won't even hear Equity singers as a simple matter of affordability. You need to continue to pay dues whether you're working or not, and you'll also be a new singer, up against, funtionally, every other professional singer in the country in your voice type, including your teacher, idols, and that woman you saw at the COC least week; A pretty daunting proposition.

All the more disconcerting, once you become an Equity member, you can't un-ring the bell. That said, you can put your membership on Withdrawl, but that only allows you to work for the handfull of small companies not covered by any form of Equity agreement and once on withdrawl, you must stay on it for at least a year, meaning you can't jump in and out on whim.

Personally what I feel that we, as opera singers, need is what the Theatre branch of the union has: an apprenticeship program, that lets singers accumulate credits over a three year period to gain exposure slowly, and doesn't require them to become full members right away. Unfortunately that isn't an option right now so until it is, it's an all or nothing game and for me, nothing seemedto make sense. I've been very, very fortunate with the results of this choice. I had opportunities to perform in a number of operas, (3-5 full operas a year since leaving school while holding a full time day job), some with larger companies that are able to engage non-union singers along side full Equity members, and some with companies that don't have the budget to hire Equity singers but nonetheless put on fantastic shows and give opportunities to perform in full length lead roles that most people don't have the chance to do outside of school when they're in their 20s. In the end, it's a decision that everyone needs to make for themselves but is one that requires carefull consideration. From the Equity website:

A Word of Advice

It is important to realize that becoming a member of Equity is a big step in your career. So it is equally important to know when to take that step. Membership opens up opportunities, but at the same time it closes off others. Membership gives you certain rights and protections, but it also means certain responsibilities. Becoming a member at the first available opportunity may or may not be to your advantage. So take advice. Think about it. Make the decision that serves your interests best. Remember Equity will always be there. If you dont join today, you can tomorrow. And if tomorrow is better for you, then in the end it is better for us. We want to help, not hinder.

1 comment:

Elizabeth McDonald said...

I totally agree with you on the apprentice idea for Equity. Once you join you are locked ...although since having kids and doing more teaching, I have successfully been in "withdrawl" for at least 5 years!

Thanks for the great blog!