When Actors’ Equity announced that its Open Access policy would take effect immediately last July, equity and non-equity workers on both sides of the issue took to social media to express their views. On one hand, according to Kate Shindle, the President of Actors’ Equity, this policy builds a union that uplifts the entire theatre community, especially those who have not felt included or welcome in the past. Critics, however, say that this new policy is bad news for an industry already hard hit by COVID and question the union’s motives. To help me understand Open Access better, I reached out to Actors’ Equity and was put in touch with two of its representatives, Bear Bellinger, one of the union’s Central Principal Counselors, and Matt DaSilva, a delegate to the Actors’ Equity Convention. Listen to the conversation (or read the transcript below), then let me know what you think.
For additional information visit The Actors Equity Diversity and Inclusion Retrofit Page.
Beltline to Broadway: (00:05)
This is the Beltline to Broadway podcast. I’m Lauren Van Hemert, your host, and on this episode, I’m chatting with Bear Bellinger and Matt DaSilva about Actors Equity and open access.
Beltline to Broadway: (00:29)
When Actors Equity announced that its open access policy would take effect immediately last July, equity and non-equity workers on both sides of the issue took to social media to express their views. On one hand, according to Kate Shindle, the President of Actors Equity, this policy builds a union that uplifts the entire theater community, especially those who have not felt included or welcome in the past. Critics, however, say that this new policy is bad news for an industry already hard hit by COVID and question the union’s motives. To help me understand open access better. I reached out to Actors Equity and was put in touch with two of its representatives, Bear Bellinger, one of the union’s Central Principal Counselors and Matt DaSilva, a delegate to the Actors Equity Convention. As a side note, this conversation was held via Zoom, and since that technology doesn’t always render the best sound recording, I’ve captioned the episode and posted it on both YouTube and our website. Here is our conversation.
Beltline to Broadway: (01:50)
So talk to me for people who may not be a theater artist or theater-maker, talk to me about what joining the union entailed prior to this open access policy taking effect.
Back when I was looking to join, the most common way, at least was an accumulation of, I think the most common way, I don’t know, uh, was an accumulation of, uh, what’s called EMC points, Equity Membership Candidate. If you were working at, uh, equity theaters on a non-union contract each week, you worked was a point. It used to be 50 points to join, and then I think it was like three, four years ago, Bear, two, three years ago that they dropped it to 25 points. So that was one way, and then another way, uh, was just being offered an equity contract, so being hired by a producer, essentially, um, to do a job, which, you know, in both of those situations, we were sort of relying on the, the boss, uh, essentially to determine who, you know, was able to join the union and receive all the protections and benefits of being in the labor union. Bear, did I get it?
Yeah, you’ve got, uh, two of the three. The only other, uh, way into the union used to be, that you could join if you were a member of one of our sister unions. Uh, so if you were a member of SAG Aftra or AGMA and wanted to join, uh, you could pay to join and become a member of Actors Equity.
Beltline to Broadway: (03:43)
I want to go back to April 2021, April of this year, a lot of theater workers marched down Broadway, and they were mainly protesting Scott Rudin, but they also took the opportunity to protest the union, which they saw as being ineffective in protecting the membership from racism, sexism, and unsafe work environments. So after that, they had a convention and during that convention, several BIPOC members walked out. But most of what we’ve heard about that, that convention was behind closed doors, I shouldn’t say behind closed doors, it was open to delegates, but it wasn’t open to the public, and most of what we’ve heard about that convention has been via social media. So tell me about the convention, Matt, you were there, you were a delegate and, and what happened there.
Yeah, it was, it was three days. We heard and discussed and argued passionately and voted on, uh, a number of different resolutions, many of which I’m really excited about, many of which, uh, you know, coincidentally, uh, and being related to, uh, all the open access stuff that’s now happening, um, which tells me as someone who’s new to equity governance, um, that there are a lot of folks who are looking to, uh, get involved and take, uh, take Actors Equity to a sort of new, uh, direction, which is really exciting. Um, as far as, you know, the way things ended, there was some unfortunate stuff that went down. Um, I don’t, I don’t know exactly what happened to be a hundred percent clear. I know that there were, uh, BIPOC members who, you know, thought that the space was not necessarily, uh, as welcoming as it’s needed to be, is probably the sort of most basic way of putting it. It just shows that even though there are, we are making strides as a union, there are still interpersonal growing pains, uh, and unfortunate white supremacist sort of ideology, not ideology is a strong word, but the union itself is still, uh, a reflection of American society in general. Um, it’s a microcosm in a lot of ways, uh, and that there are, you know, uh, going to be missteps and, and things shitty things that happened. Um, putting it bluntly,
Beltline to Broadway: (06:29)
You can be frank, it’s fine.
Yeah. A shitty racist thing happened. I don’t know who, I don’t know exactly who or why or what the intent or motivation was, but the result was folks not feeling comfortable in the room, uh, and then opting to leave.
Beltline to Broadway: (06:50)
Bear, what’s your impression of the convention and how it went down?
I also am a BIPOC member of the, of our council and our delegation. I would say in terms of, uh, specifically open access, in terms of what we’re, what we’re we just put out, the convention, uh, put forward proposals that supported and passed proposals that supported, uh, what had already been, been in the works for a few months at that point. And in the case of the convention, the convention is a reflection of American society at large. Uh, you know, every institution in this country is about to suffer from some institutional racism, uh, that does not suffer from the effects of white supremacy culture in some way, and our convention are not absolved of that either. Uh, that being said, I can’t throw the entire convention out because I can’t throw the entirety of every structure in America out right now. We, we live in this country that is, that is founded, that was founded upon and has been, uh, built upon the backs of, uh, of, you know, specifically, Black Indigenous People in this country to begin with. And so we live within that, at all given times. I live within that in my everyday life, uh. There are things that we need to fix and those things that we have to fix in the country, also affect Actors Equity Association. There’s a lot of work to be done, and we are working towards that.
Beltline to Broadway: (08:32)
And, you know, the truth is, um, on this platform, and Actors Equity, in the theaters that I’m close to here regionally, the work is ongoing. It’s not just a one and done thing. So it’s, it’s, it’s ongoing work, and it’s hard work, so I appreciate what you’re saying for sure.
Yeah. And I think, I think crucially, it also, it’s, it’s about, you know, engaging, um, members of our union and, and, and sort of, uh, you know, creating as, as democratic, you know, an organization as possible, which I think one of the reasons I’m very excited about open access is, I see it as an opportunity to get more voices in our union and, and hopefully get more voices organized in our union to continue that work, to get, to continue, um, pushing for, you know, things that that folks want, and, and not just relying on, you know, top-down, uh, service model organization, and more of like a member-driven, you know, organizing model of an organization, which, uh, again, I, I do think there are, uh, a lot of people in, you know, on our national council and, and, uh, certain, uh, delegates and just rank and file members who are, um, you know, really waking up to that, or really sort of engaged in that. Myself personally, I joined the union back in 2015 or 2016, and I didn’t really think about it much for a few years, uh, as far as what it really meant, but then I sort of had a you know, wake up call, uh, politically, professionally, whatever you want to call it. And, uh, it’s been really rewarding in the last couple of years to, to get more involved, um, and to sort of, uh, feel like part of a collective, uh, you know, that we can do more things together, uh, organized together, than I could do on my own.
Beltline to Broadway: (10:44)
So what happened between April and July to result in the open access policy? It sounds like the groundwork for open access happened even before the convention.
So, uh, the groundwork for this convention, uh, starts last year when, uh, when Actors Equity put together an anti-racism statement. After that our, uh, diversity inclusion strategists put together a diversity inclusion retrofit that is addressing, uh, the full organization and all of the different ways in which it can become a more anti-racist organization, how we can be more diverse. And this is one aspect of that retrofit. It has eight pillars that it stands on, the things that we could do to change within the union, and so the first thing was that was done was to begin, uh, ongoing training for our staff side. This was another aspect of that. We started meetings for open access back January, uh, and we started those meetings with the idea of a small working group that came together asking: How do we open access? Do we need to open access? Why do we need to open access?
And we worked over the course of nine meetings and over 20 hours of meeting time to work through all of the individual ways that we might want to open access. We started with the question of, well, why don’t we just throw the doors open? And the group was like, okay, that’s maybe a little extreme. And we went, okay, well, let’s break down all of the small ways that we could open access. So we went systematically through, okay, what if we open access by lowering the amount of EMC points? What if we open access by, uh, getting schools involved and allowing people in through a school program? What if we open access by allowing folks who have worked at an equity theater before access. And at the end of working through all of these different systems, we’ve looked at what we’ve compiled and said, well, this kind of looks like we’re basically opening the access.
And, so, we said, okay, here’s what we want to do. We want to open access these couple of different ways, which is, you know, we want to open access, fairly, we want to open access, uh, immediately, and then we wanna open access permanently. Uh, those recommendations were put in front of our council right before convention. We went to convention, a couple of different convention resolutions came forward that supported or were directly in line with this policy. Uh, those convention resolutions passed, and then coming out of convention, we had another council meeting, and we ended up passing the recommendations from the working group. It feels like for other people, this was all done very quickly and in response to convention, but this has been in motion for almost a year at this point.
Beltline to Broadway: (14:04)
So are the EMC points gone and now anybody can join if they’ve worked in a theater and gotten paid in the last year?
There is no look back period. It is open to if you have ever worked professionally, by professionally, uh, it just means you have received payment for your work as an actor or a state manager.
Beltline to Broadway: (14:29)
Is there a scale for payment? I mean, there’s a lot of theaters around here, for example, that give a stipend and not necessarily any type of what would be considered a living wage. So, is there any threshold on the payment?
Nope, no threshold on the payment. I mean, we have the same, same thing here in Chicago. We have, uh, a very large non-union theater scene in Chicago, that’s vibrant, and that storefront scene in Chicago is kind of the bread and butter of what Chicago, uh, theater practitioners think of as Chicago theater, you know. And I have been a part of productions in storefront Chicago, I came out of that, where, you know, I, I got $150 stipend and that is, uh, absolutely applicable.
Beltline to Broadway: (15:19)
It seems like when the policy was announced in July,the theater community, as with many things as with many communities, um, was, uh, uh, divided on this. On the one hand, it is like you said, Bear, one of the pillars of the diversity and inclusion efforts that opens access. And then on the other hand, the membership dues could be cost prohibitive to a lot of marginalized, um, actors, a lot of stage managers who may have worked professionally, but they’re not, I mean, there’s a whole other conversation to be had about making a living wage as an artist, as a stage manager, That’s another conversation for another day, but Bear, you’re an advocate for this. You have been an advocate for this, you’ve come out and, and, and made statements about this. So how does this move the needle towards making equity a more inclusive organization?
I am an advocate for this. I obviously have been, like I said, involved for, uh, pretty much the full run of, of, of it from inception to implementation. Uh, so I’ve seen the whole thing happened, and I’ve seen the way it was shaped the body that shaped it, how it was at every step. Uh, it was a diverse body of folks, uh, working to make this happen and shape the policy in a way that was inclusive and was, uh, pointed towards getting, uh, having the ability of our, to join the union, put into the hands of the member. And I think that is, uh, the important thing to focus on here. Uh, any single effort in the history of, of the United States that benefits marginalized groups is also going to benefit folks who are in the majority, folks who are in power. That’s just kind of the way it works.
You know, if you look at this history of things that we’ve thought of as benefiting, uh, marginalized groups like, uh, welfare or affirmative action, they have widely actually benefited, uh, white folks more than necessarily a marginalized groups, but they have also benefited those groups. In the case of open access, historically, like Matt said earlier, the path to membership went through producers. Our producers, as we know, are generally, a large percentage, white men. Uh, they bring their own set of biases over whenever they decide to put someone on a contract. Who deserves it? Who they uh, might have gone to school with? Who they might socialize with. Uh, when you’re casting a show, as much as we like to think that the industry is, or as much as folks want to think that the industry is based solely on how good of a performer you are, how good of a stage manager you are, often it’s based upon who you know. Uh, those circles, those circles that we live in, are influenced by all of the different social structures that we’ve grown up in.
And so that means that racism is at the core of all of these structures, and by opening access, by what we did now, we’ve taken that out of the hands of the producers and put it into the hands of the individuals. So if you, as a stage manager or actor, think that you deserve union protection, you get to make that decision for yourself. It doesn’t open up the job pool. It doesn’t immediately mean, you know, that there are more union jobs. But it does say that when a producer comes to you to offer you a contract, especially if you’re outside of New York, where in New York, there’s more closed houses that are solely Actor Equity Association contracts, outside of New York, there’s a lot of ratios of what, what we call ratios, where, uh, some of the performers are union and some of the performers are not, and the producer decides which people they want to offer with contracts. But if you’re outside of New York andyou’re on a ratio contract, or, uh, working to either to audition or interview as a stage manager for a ratio contract, you get to decide beforehand, I’m an Actors Equity Association member, you have to provide me with a union contract, which comes with union protections, which comes with union salary. And so that power has now been given to the individual rather than to the producer. That in itself allows folks who were previously marginalized to claim more ownership over their future.
I’ll just jump in and say, personally, I think fundamentally what excites me about this is in the broader context of like workers in the United States or workers in the world, if you want to take it to that level, really, I think if you, if you work for a living, you deserve the protections of a union. Uh, you deserve the right to join a union. Um, and that should be up to the worker, not up to the boss, if you want to just take it into like super simple terms, which I think this is a step toward accomplishing, which is really exciting.
Beltline to Broadway: (21:28)
Bear, you mentioned Chicago being this robust theater community with a lot of non-equity houses. We’re in the same spot here in North Carolina, we have a handful of professional theaters, or what may be categorized as professional theaters. And, um, a majority of our theaters are not. Does this hurt the local theaters, community theaters that are not equity houses that haven’t been equity houses?
I don’t believe so. Uh, you know, the, the thing that I have maintained and said over and over again, is that this isn’t going to immediately dry up the pool of non-union talent. Uh, there are, there are folks who have, you know, been able to join who have been at their points under the old EMC system, who had been at their points for years, and hadn’t joined. Uh, I know folks that used to be members and decided they didn’t want to be Actors Equity members, that that wasn’t what they, the way that they wanted their, their professional path to go. There’s always going to be folks who come out of school or come into the industry without going to school, who want to work a little bit before they join, or before they make that decision to join for themselves. There’s always going to be a non-union talent pool. Uh, what this does is just allow folks to claim their own agency.
Beltline to Broadway: (23:09)
I know a lot of the conversation, the social media conversation around the convention was that equity didn’t create a safe space for its BIPOC members. So Bear, as we invite more members into equity, how can theaters create that safe space as we move forward?
You know, the very first step is letting marginalized bodies, marginalized voices have power. When we look at the landscape of the American theater, we look at a landscape that is primarily white, that is overwhelmingly white, especially if we look at our directors, especially if we look at our artistic directors, especially if we look at our casting directors, our executive directors, it is overwhelmingly white. If the voices making all of the decisions that shape the direction of your theater are all homogoneous, then you’re never going to be able to work towards change. No matter how many trainings that you do, no matter how much you, you put up your black square, no matter how much you call your senators, you can’t internalize my struggle. I have been working on this both from a, an academic perspective and a personal perspective for my entire life. I’ve come from this from both, you know, focusing on African-American studies in my college, in my, as I was going through college.
And, you know, getting pulled over by the cops all the time. This is my life. It’s not just something that I came to because because of George Floyd. It’s not just something that I came to from knowing other people who had struggled. It is an everyday occurrence. I wake up every day, I walk out into the streets as a Black man. That’s what you need more of. Our theaters have historically kept out voices like mine. And when they have allowed a few, uh, marginalized voices in, they have curated which marginalized voices they allow though the door. And that is not to say that those voices are not powerful and beautiful and incredible artists and incredible administrators. But, again, when the voice that’s shaping who gets let through has a perspective, then we need to always acknowledge that perspective. And so that perspective is put on every single decision. That includes the decision of who deserves to be able to come forward and run our theaters, or direct the show, or write a show, and so when a historically, uh, empowered group, uh, generally, uh, we’ll say like men in theater, that theater landscape, decide which marginalized voices come forward, they tend to avoid the voices that scare them the most. We don’t even know how many incredible voices have been left behind because the system was never set up to accept them. That’s the fundamental change that needs to happen in our industry.
Beltline to Broadway: (26:56)
And the idea of relinquishing power, I think is, is a tough hurdle for a lot of, um, predominantly white theaters, predominantly white institutions to, to, uh, wrap their heads around.
Absolutely. When you’re, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality looks like oppression, you know, that’s, that’s the idiom. It is, it’s that way for a reason. We are working against the programming that has been instilled in all of us since we were born.
Yeah, I mean the amount of like, well, intentioned friends, good people who I know, who are like, man, I just feel like it’s, it’s with all the, you know, there’s more diversity in casting and being white right now, it’s tough. And I’m like, what, what are we that is not the, that is not the, the, the move. Um, and, and, you know, it’s, I feel like that that was the conversation like three years ago. And, and amongst my friends, a lot of my friends, a lot of my white friends, um, there’s less of that, but I’ll, I’ll say there are still like talent agents and managers, and it’s at every part of the industry, where there’s just like this undercurrent of like, well, I’m not racist, but like, you know, gosh, if you were Latino right now, I’d really be able to submit you for like, you know, so many different projects. And it’s like, are you watching the same stuff?
Like, what theater are you watching? I see a lot of me on TV. Like, I don’t know. It’s just a lazy, lazy, like excuse, um, that people are, are, are kind of, you know, in their worst moments, uh, turning to. Um, the other thing I wanted to just add in terms of like promoting, uh, you know, diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice into, into our theater spaces, I think part of that is about, you know, um, equity as a union, sort of prioritizing it as we head into all of our various contract negotiations. Right? And sort of trying to make sure that like, hey, these are important things that, that we, that we want to have happen. And I think that ties into, um, a potential benefit down a line of, of this open access type policy, which is hopefully going to bring more members aboard, hopefully to, to change the, um, sort of demographic breakdown of, of the union, which just will make us more equipped to have those conversations in a more productive fashion.
If I can, I’m going to go even one step farther than Matt on that, in that, uh, the union is never going to stop an employer from instituting policies that are safer than what is negotiated in their contracts. I want to say that again. The union is never going to stop any employer from instituting policies that are safer than what has been negotiated in our contract. So at any given point, all of our producers can choose to make steps that are more safe for our members, that are more inclusive for our members. They can make those decisions on their own. What we right now have to do, is go into the negotiating room, when we negotiate new rounds of contracts and say, okay, uh, this is a priority for us. Diversity equity inclusion is a priority for us. Anti-racism is a priority for us. Having spaces be safer for marginalized communities is a priority for us. So we’re going to pay attention to that in this give and take of a contract negotiation. Everything in terms of diversity inclusion anti-racism should be something that we are working on at all times together with our producers outside of the actual negotiating part of contract. Yes, it’s inside of contract negotiations that there has to be written into the contract. But it shouldn’t be something that’s negotiated. It should be something that is, what’s the safest thing that we can do for stage managers and actors, for the American theater. And right now that’s a battle that’s not necessarily as, even as it should be. And I think folks look to, Actors Equity saying, you’re our union you’re supposed to protect us and miss at times, that the power to create more inclusive, safer policies, is 24/7/365 in the hands of our producers. Actors Equity is continuing to work to do better. But when we have to do it at the negotiating table, we’re in the middle of a given give and take, rather than a let’s do this together to the best of our abilities.
Yeah. It’s a really good point. And it’s something that I’ve, conversations I’ve had with many of my friends as well, uh, is that I think there’s a misconception sometimes amongst some of our members, uh, even that equity makes all the rules. And part of this is I think like a decades long attack on labor unions in general, in the, in the country. Uh, and, and you know, some of it is, uh, from, you know, previous equity, I don’t want to throw shade on people from, you know, decades ago, it’s not really productive, but I think there’s like this sort of all stemming from this like country club mentality of like what, what equity was, um, right, that like, it’s, it’s like sort of, you do this so that you can be on Broadway and, and whatever, uh, and less of it as like a labor union. Anyway, all that to say, there’s there. I, I feel like we need to constantly be reminding ourselves that like equity is not unilaterally determining what the rules of American theater are.
Beltline to Broadway: (33:04)
My concern for theater, is that the way seasons are looking now, there’s definitely a shift in who’s telling the stories, what works are being produced. My concern is two seasons from now, three seasons from now, how, how do we keep our theaters accountable?
There’s been a groundswell of energy around changing the stage for years. That groundswell of energy has been mainly relegated to marginalized communities, uh, speaking up and putting their own careers at jeopardy, uh, as they speak out on the treatment or their mistreatment, uh, and their lack of access. What we saw in the last year is we saw folks with a higher level of privilege, get into that conversation often for the first time. So much of what we need to move forward and to continue this energy is for folks to remember to constantly check their privilege, constantly look at what they’re saying versus what they’re doing, and listening to voices that maybe scare them. Progress never, never feels safe. It always feels scary. And if you feel safe, you’re probably not actually pushing us forward.
Beltline to Broadway: (34:48)
I want to thank Bear Bellinger and Matt DaSilva for their candor. I also wanna thank Actors Equity, which sent me additional resources following this conversation, including its 2020 Diversity and Inclusion Study and information about its Diversity and Inclusion Retrofit strategy. I’ll put links to those resources in the episode notes. I’ll also be curious to hear your thoughts about Actors Equity’s open access policy. Feel free to reach out to me through our website at http://www.beltlinetobroadway.org or message me on social media on Facebook or Instagram @BeltLinetoBroadway or Twitter at @BeltLinetobway. Until next time, I’ll see you at the theater.