Arts and Entertainment | Theater

SoA to provide MFA students with Actors Equity

The School of the Arts has taken a step to help students in the master’s theater program avoid a future as stereotypical starving artists after graduation.

In an agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association, announced last week, the SoA theater program and the Classic Stage Company will provide third-year MFA acting students and two stage management students with the opportunity to gain equity membership.
Columbia will be the first professional training program in New York City to offer students the opportunity to join the union.

“It’s sort of elevating the bar for our students, in terms of what we can offer them as part of professional development and equipping them to go out into the world and succeed,” theater program chair Christian Parker said.

With AEA benefits, actors and stage managers will be guaranteed certain salaries at different contract levels, as well as health and pension benefits.

“The school will really support them [the students] on a salary level, which is fantastic,” Parker said. “It also confers for you the opportunity to work at a higher level, professionally, earlier in your career.”

Actors are eligible to become AEA members by having or understudying a part in one of the Classic Stage Company’s Young Company productions. The Young Company brings Shakespeare to underserved communities throughout the five boroughs and has reached 12,000 young people in its eight seasons.

SoA and the Classic Stage Company joined forces when CSC started to develop its education and outreach program eight years ago.

“SoA’s graduate acting program felt like the perfect fit in that the program has a strong foundation in performing classics and their energy and diversity rhymed with the schools we wanted to approach,” Brian Kulick, CSC’s artistic director and associate professor of theater at Columbia, said in an email.

Although equity membership doesn’t guarantee students will find work, it will open the door to being able to audition for a wider range of professional opportunities that confer actual benefits, according to Parker.

The process of getting an equity card is difficult, according to Aislinn Curry, SoA ’12, who graduated with an MFA in stage management in October.

The new agreement with AEA is “much more of an asset” to the acting students than it is for the stage management students, Curry said. “In terms of alumni that I know and that I’ve worked with, a pretty high percentage of stage management students are able to get their cards within a few years of graduating, whereas it’s not as much the case with acting—that’s also inherently the difference in the competitive nature of the acting profession, compared to stage management.”

SoA hopes the opportunity for union membership will attract more applicants.

“Certainly our belief and our hope is that this will help ... make our program even more competitive,” Parker said. “It certainly positions us as unique among our peers in New York City.”

Several of SoA’s peers in other parts of the country that are also associated with professional theater companies on their campuses, including the Yale School of Drama and the La Jolla Playhouse at the University of California, San Diego. Both institutions provide students with the chance to join the union through these programs.

“I would think this makes Columbia all the more desirable for the next generation of serious young actors who are looking for a program that can help launch their careers,” Kulick said.

The agreement has been in the works for a number of years.

“It’s just been a process of negotiating how that would look with the union,” Parker said. “The union has an interest in making sure their members are of high quality and professional responsibility and ready to be part of a professional association like that.”

Curry pushed for this opportunity when she was a student.

“I know that the [acting] students have been pushing it for years,” Curry said. “I have a friend in the class of 2009, and she told me how much they were pushing for that. So I’m really proud that this thing that’s been an ongoing attempt for years now has come to fruition.”


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rick131 posted on

This is great news for Columbia's theater program.

Christopher Aaron posted on

Lesley Thulin,

Providing Actor’s Equity to third year MFA students is an interesting and progressive move on the part of Columbia University School of Arts. Your article really takes a look at how this can increase the opportunities professionally in the lives of the students that receive it. As a student that is approaching graduation in a Bachelor of Arts acting program the opportunity to be part of a program that offers a chance at being part of a union by the third year of graduate school is a special opportunity. The importance of a union to an actor is uncanny. The steps that the university is taking to oblige students with potential membership to the Actor’s Equity will make their program more competitive and will affect the application acceptance. The two questions that I am posing are these: What will the university accomplish in making their program more competitive? What is the value of membership in Actor’s Equity without proper representation from an agent or manger once a student is in the professional world? You mentioned the stereotype of the starving artist in the beginning of your post, but what will the privileges a union membership offers do for an actor if they first can’t find the jobs?

According to many sources including the NY Theatre Intensives blog endorsed by The Ensemble Studio Theatre, “the idea that a union would counsel newbies to avoid the commitment of membership illustrates how the realities have changed.” As shown by this quote, we are able to see that times have changed. Unions themselves are discouraging starting actors to pursue membership which makes me question how effective providing union membership will be to third year MFA students. I am by no means saying that unions are obsolete or should not be considered in the professional world, all I am trying to discuss is the effect of our modern world on this institution. Is the internet and representation of an actor shifting and affecting union membership? Many professionals are sidetracked by the glitz of the rewards one reaps from a union membership, but unions themselves are discouraging starting actors from joining. What is their prerogative? As much time as it has taken students at Columbia University to advocate for union membership it might be more suitable for these students to acquire representation that will represent and market them well and build their career rather than acquire treasures that they cannot unlock.

Lesley Thulin posted on

Hi Christopher,

I just wanted to address your questions—I followed up with Christian Parker, the chair of SoA's theater program, and these were his responses.

1. What will SoA accomplish in making their program more competitive?

Christian Parker: Anything that can make a program more competitive increases the quality and motivation of the students, engages the faculty, and elevates the artistic bar for all of us. Actors express and embody the work of all of the other disciplines in theater. The better and more versatile our actors are, the better all of our work will be.

2. What is the value of membership in Actor´s Equity without proper
representation from an agent or manger once a student is in the
professional world?

CP: While having an agent or manager is useful and important for actors in gaining access to opportunity, young actors often get the most traction in the field by hustling work for themselves and generating their own work with young companies. Membership in AEA, with or without additional representation allows our students access to auditions and jobs which they would otherwise be excluded from, and the protections the union confers in terms of work conditions, salaries, benefits, access to a credit union, etc. The ancillary and less obvious benefits of union membership are not to be underestimated in helping struggling young artists build a life and protect their health, etc.

3. What will the privileges a union membership offers do for an actor if
they first can´t find the jobs?

CP: There are always far more actors in the field than there are opportunities for work. Columbia's actors are resourceful, though, and while of course they will still have to compete and be strong of will and heart as they put themselves out there, I believe that leaving school with full AEA membership will confer additional legitimacy on them as young professionals and give them a leg up in a very competitive field. Anything that helps actors get noticed and earn the respect of gatekeepers in the professional world is a good thing, and this addition to our program is a major step forward.