A few moons ago, I was an overzealous pre-med student at the University of Michigan with very little (read: zero) experience in theatre. I had decided to take an acting class 'because it would be fun' - and was soon asked to join the cast of a professional on-campus production of Oedipus, as the nonspeaking boy who brought Tiresias (the blind prophet), on and off stage. I remember saying to the Director, "Well okay, but only if I don't miss Marching Band". Somehow they still cast me.
The play was my first glimpse of Professional Theatre; and as I focused intensely on keeping Tiresias from bumping into the furniture, I was told offhandedly, "Oh, because this show is Equity, you can join the Membership Candidate program," (Actors' Equity is the Union which represents Actors and Stage Managers, and EMC is a program by which you can accumulate weeks towards becoming a full-fledged Equity Member). So I signed up for EMC, truly without considering it further - mostly because I was told to.
Flash forward to a small theatre in Seattle some 5+ years later, where I was in my last year of conservatory training at the University of Washington's Professional Actor Training Program. We were doing a play called Mephisto, an adaptation of the political thriller by Klaus Mann, set in Nazi Germany. I had just started considering where my career might take me, and was thinking about a move away from Seattle to either LA or New York. We were on a break, and the director was standing near me, speaking to the Stage Manager, and in my conversation a few steps away I mentioned that I had joined the Equity EMC program. Her head snapped around and she stared directly at me.
"You're going Equity?" she said.
"Um...yeah, I, I guess," I stammered.
Her eyes narrowed. "Do you have any idea what that means?"
All of a sudden I got very uncomfortable - I had no idea what that meant.
"Well... I guess, that, um, I'll be a professional?" My only thought about had been that perhaps I'd get to audition for the Big Stuff, and maybe I'd meet some really hot girls.
The director took a step toward me, her eyes boring into mine.
"The very act of joining a Labor Union is a political act," she said. "You don't join a Labor Union because you want benefits. You join because you believe in what a group can do to defend the individual."
Her stare never wavered. "If you do this - if you become a Union Member," she continued, "I challenge you. I challenge you to become politicized. Don't ever take what has been achieved for you for granted."
I never forgot that moment. And once I got to New York, just after I 'went pro', in 1993, I started volunteering. First as a deputy, then on committees at Equity, and finally running for Council, which is the governing body of Actors' Equity. And looking back on that kid who joined EMC then... here's what I know now: