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.”