The Actor's Equity Association defines itself in this way:
Actors' Equity Association ("AEA" or "Equity"), founded in 1913, is the labor union that represents more than 45,000 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. Actors' Equity is a member of the AFL-CIO, and is affiliated with FIA, an international organization of performing arts unions.
Let me tell you what else Equity does and how it operates. If a theater is Equity, which many many here in NYC and around the US are, (and all are on Broadway), there are rules set up by the Union that it must follow. Such rules as...the amount of rehearsal hours it can require of its actors and crew, how many breaks the actor and crew receives in a given amount of hours, even small details such as what is required for the actor in the dressing room, and most importantly, wages. There are different levels of contracts that determine the pay scale for particular theaters. The differences in pay spread throughout a wide range, depending on things I don't much about. An Equity contract will sometimes pay more than a non-Equity contract, but in many cases, that doesn't hold true.
Another perk that Equity members receive is a more organized and managable audition process. When an Equity theater is casting for a show, there are two types of "open calls" they can hold, after they have held appointments for those actors with agents and whatnot. The first type is an EPA: Equity Principle Audition. This is a call that seeks principle performers, i.e. the leads, the supporting actors... At an EPA, the Equity member arrives early to form a line. At one hour before the call opens, the line of Equity members files through to the monitor to get an audition appointment. The actor picks which time they'd like to audition, and the monitor hands them a card with that time, then writes their name down in that time slot. The Equity actor then comes back at least ten minutes before their time to check in, is seen, and is done. The other time of call is the ECC: Equity Chorus Call. This call is for, you guessed it, the chorus. Singers, dancers, understudies, small cameo parts. But of course, the theater could cast principles or chorus from either call. There are two types of ECC's. 1) For singers. 2) For dancers. At an ECC, the Equity member signs up a week before the audition on a sign up sheet at the Equity building in Manhattan. They arrive 30 minutes before the call begins, and the monitor calls off the list in the order they are written. He gives the actors a card with a number on it 1 - however many there are. The actor waits for his number to be called to audition.
How does one become Equity if one so chooses, you might ask. What you canNOT do, is simply decide you want to become Equity, and therefore pay your dues to a man in an Equity coat (no, the coats don't really exist) and be a member. There are two ways of becoming an Equity member. One is a point system. A non-Eq member "crashes" an Equity audition, or the theater holds a separate call for non-Eq because that particular theater is allowed to offer non-Eq contracts. A non-Eq member works for an Equity theater and for every week worked, receives a point. 50 points equals an Equity card, at which time the actor can pay his dues and join the Union. The second way is for non-Equity members to "crash" an Equity audition and get cast even though they are non-Equity, and are therefore "given" their card no matter how many points they have, if any. The actor then has the opportunity to pay their dues and become an Equity member.
There are good things to being an Equity member, and then some not-so-good things. And there are good thing to being a non-Union actor, and then some not-so-good things.
I am currently a non-union actor.
And since I've bored some of you for entirely too long, and since I've got to work not too long from now, I'll explain the advantages and disadvantages to each in my next post. Till then...