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I performed in my first musical show at age seven, when I played Young Cosette in the musical Les Misérables. When I was sixteen and in my fourth professional show, I started the process of joining the Actor’s Equity Association—the union representing stage actors—by becoming an Equity Membership Candidate. Although I wasn’t a part of the union, performing in an Equity production gave me a look at unions in action. I remember, for example, a cast member mentioning that moving furniture entitled him to additional compensation. I also remember our schedule shifting during tech week because the orchestra’s union required more frequent breaks.

I most likely would have found myself replacing my EMC card for one that certified me as an AEA member had I not pivoted career goals. Even though I never ended up joining, reflecting on my experience of being an actor—and, importantly, wanting to be an actor—I can see yet another benefit that AEA (and other unions for artists) might have. Beyond more readily apparent protections like requiring break time and payment for manual labor onstage, unions can play a role in protecting workers from themselves.

Though I can’t speak to the experience of depending on acting for your livelihood, I was vulnerable in a different way. I was in the youngest age bracket of all the professional rooms I was in. For my first three shows, I was under the care of a child wrangler. In my most recent professional theatre experience, as the only teenager, I was well aware of how young I was compared to the other people in the room. I was part of an immensely talented cast (which, it’s important to note, was filled with caring people who looked for me), and I wanted to do a good job. I didn’t want to do anything that would suggest a lack of cooperation. Had I been asked to do something I was uncomfortable with, my mix of youth and anxiety would’ve made it very difficult for me to say no, especially working in a pre-#MeToo environment. 

Worrying that I wouldn’t be able to set certain onstage boundaries was part of the reason I stopped hoping to make a living as an actor. Interestingly, I don’t remember ever being concerned about work-life balance, working reasonable hours, or even avoiding poor treatment.

You may have heard that acting is something you shouldn’t pursue unless you can’t see yourself doing anything else. I don’t know if that’s true, but there’s an interesting sense of all-or-nothing romantic tragedy inherent in this sentiment. Show business is a notoriously hard industry to “make it” in, and rejection abounds. Aspiring actors will have been informed of those facts on multiple occasions, but their love for the theatre bars them from walking down an easier path.

This is not to say that sacrificing for something (or someone) that you love is problematic. Being willing to undergo hardship for love is beautiful, and pursuing acting as a career is too difficult to do if you’re not passionate about it. But there’s a difference between being willing to undergo hardship and being willing to undergo exploitation. Viewing the latter as an opportunity to prove one’s devotion rather than a deterrent is a problem.

… there’s a difference between being willing to undergo hardship and being willing to undergo exploitation. Viewing the latter as an opportunity to prove one’s devotion rather than a deterrent is a problem.

I certainly don’t want to give the impression that actors are desperate people who love their craft so much they will do anything for it. I find it hard to imagine, though, that there aren’t any actors out there who see withstanding suffering in the industry as a chance to prove their love for it. I think I did. Granted, my perspective is shaped by looking at a career in theatre through the lens of my angsty teenage self, but I didn’t really process the problem with my mindset until I took a step back from the stage. 

I suspect that the nature of acting itself may tie into this as well. Most actors have been pushed to tap into their vulnerability and pain and are praised for honest performances. It isn’t a huge leap to see offstage pain as potentially serving one’s craft. If one sees their job as core to their identity, that may not feel like a bad trade to make. It doesn’t help that dramatic themes of love and suffering are present in the stories actors come to intimately know as they play them out onstage.

The confluent factors of the difficulty of the business, actors’ love for the craft, drawing on one’s pain while doing the job, and the narrative of the “tortured” or “starving” artist can make theatre a potential breeding ground for exploitation. If you’re acutely aware of how lucky you are to have made it to the rehearsal room, it may be easier to act against your best interests in order to make or foster a good impression. This is especially true if you carry the assumption— conscious or not—that suffering is a part of the gig. Put the wrong person in power, and you’re in dangerous waters.

Enter unions. The existence of a union for actors serves as a reminder that performing is a job, actors are workers, and workers deserve fair treatment and wages. Although I never joined Actor’s Equity, in my experience with AEA and my exploration of labor activism, I’ve never gotten the sense that unions hold any space whatsoever for a romanticized view of suffering. The legal approach, emphasis on rules, and push for contracts that are meant to safeguard the wellbeing of actors serve as a counterbalance to the suffering artist narrative. 

Image credit: Sipa USA via AP

Unions place workers in a protective solidarity. You owe it to both yourself and others to refuse what is not reflective of your dignity. Union protections restrict one’s potential to inadvertently make someone else look bad by putting a self-destructive amount of effort into one’s own work. They protect against the possibility of a race to the bottom to prove oneself. They raise the bar and remind members of the importance of their rights, and with their emphasis on solidarity, they can remind workers of the importance of the rights of their coworkers. 

Actor’s Equity is different from another union for actors that’s been making headlines for their strike—that’s SAG-AFTRA, with “SAG” standing for Screen Actors Guild. It’s worth mentioning that though television and movie stars tend to get attention for supporting the strike, well-known figures are not the only ones who are fighting for their rights as workers: SAG-AFTRA has over 160,000 members with various jobs in media. Even if it were only big-name actors, demanding protections for actors as we watch the rapid development of artificial intelligence is hardly out of line. 

It’s easy to envy the jobs that actors have. They’re living out what we assume to be their dreams. Whether on Broadway or in Hollywood, though, actors are a part of a grueling business that can push them to their emotional and physical limits. The difficulty of the path they have chosen does not need to be exacerbated by maltreatment justified by an assumption that artists should suffer for the love of their craft. Given that actors can be vulnerable to this line of thinking too, it’s a good thing unions are there to protect them.

Anna Nowalk graduated from Fordham University in 2023 and she was a 2022-2023 Duffy Fellow. Nowalk is the host of All Who Labor.