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June 10, 2003

Student Outreach Program Crosses Country Breaking New Ground

Christopher Eid (center, blue shirt) and a group of students from NYU

In October, 2000, while attending a meeting of the International Federation of Actors (FIA), President Patrick Quinn and Executive Director Alan Eisenberg heard a report about British Equity's student outreach program. Excited with the concept, they brought the information to Council and, in late 2001, Council set a new priority: reaching out to theatre students and other potential future members. Over one year into Equity's ground-breaking Student Outreach program, about 1,250 individuals at 33 schools have participated.

The new program was developed by Christopher Eid, an Equity member who took a break from his acting career to join the National staff as Outreach & Education Coordinator. Since early 2002, he has been visiting training programs all around the country. While there are well over 400 college level theatre training programs in the U.S., Equity has chosen to focus on approximately 60 of them, including 27 LORT-affiliated educational institutions, to get the project started.

Building on the Past

While Mr. Eid was hired to develop this program and create a new syllabus, he is quick to point out that he is not the first to speak to students about Equity. "Our regional directors and other staff members have been doing this at a few schools for years," he says. "I'm building on what has come before me. Since a large portion of my job is dedicated to this task, we're able to connect with greater numbers of students, in all parts of the country."

Extraordinary Response

After each seminar, students are asked to fill out a feedback survey, which helps track the success of the program. "The response so far as been extraordinary," says Mr. Eisenberg. "Young actors and stage managers are keenly interested in hearing the facts about Equity. Many of them have misperceptions based on partial truths and rumor, which leads to a great deal of anxiety."

The students visited greatly appreciate Equity's efforts to provide them with accurate information, both about Equity and about the business in general. The response from teachers and college administrators has been similarly positive. Many training programs are now realizing the importance of providing information about "the business of the business," even though they do not always have the resources to develop a specialized curriculum in that area. "One program I visited told me that our timing was right on the money," says Mr. Eid. "Apparently, a seminar about Equity had just been added to the top of their 'wish list' for the year."

To Join or Not to Join

One of the challenges of the program is to let young performers and stage managers know that they need not be in a rush to join Equity, even while educating them about what a valuable asset union membership can be. While the decision to join is a very personal one, Equity's position continues to be that it is usually best for individuals to develop their resumes before getting a union card. This puts them in a much better position to compete effectively in the Equity market.

Multi-media, Personal Stories

A popular aspect of the interactive program is an animated multi-media slideshow, which brings a measure of humor to the presentation. While there is a great deal of information to cover, Mr. Eid strives to tailor the program to each individual group. "The basics are the same each time," he says, "but graduating MFA students have different needs and concerns than undergrads in a BA program." In addition to information about how to join Equity, the seminars also cover topics including Equity's history, union benefits and services, other performing arts unions, and general career tips. "The personal approach is very important," Mr. Eid continues. "I begin each session asking the students to share their prior impressions about Equity. Once they get over their initial reticence, they seem to be relieved that I'm not going to be talkng at them. When I was working as an actor before joining the staff, I was involved in several committees and one contract negotiating team, so the students get to hear first-hand how individual members can impact policy at Equity. It's important to realize that one voice can make a difference."

Other Outreach

In addition to the student presentations, Equity is continuing to develop other forms of outreach for trade shows and unified auditions, as well as holding general open houses for non-members. Mr. Eid also has attended panel discussions and career fairs, and spoken to performing arts high schools and visiting actors from France. He recently returned from Los Angeles, where AEA shared a booth with SAG and AFTRA at ActorFest West. Another recent visit was to the Unified Professional Theatre Auditions (UPTA) in Memphis, where he and George Hamrah, the Southeast Traveling Business Rep, made four presentations.

Looking to the Future

"We're now looking ahead at various ways we can expand this initiative," says Mr. Eid. "Our Executive Director never lets us sit still for long. Alan's strong support for the program has been invaluable, and he's always forging ahead to develop new ideas." Mr. Eid hopes eventually to work with Area Liaison chairs to create Open House programs appropriate for their individual cities.

Students Speak

The students themselves sum up the program best: "Really nice job with making Equity user friendly. It's often so intimidating as a young actor."

"So many questions answered. I feel informed, and beyond that, know where to go for the answers to other questions that may arise.

"My knowledge of Equity was very limited before, but now I feel confident that the AEA is there for me to protect my rights as a working actor. All for One and One for All!"

"It was great to have a former working actor present the information because I felt you could relate to our situation."

"Joining now feels more accessible to me; I am so much more informed and now feel that joining ASAP isn't necessary."

"The relaxed, personal atmosphere is great to relate to young actors."

"Before, as I basically knew nothing, I was intimidated, etc. Now I understand the union as a 'for the actors organization.'"

"I have a higher respect for it, more knowledgeable, understanding...this is a union that I would join."

"It is truly a huge resource professionally and practically."

"This session really answered a lot of questions that I did not even know I had--I feel more prepared to enter the business. Thank you."

Schools visited to date include: Juilliard, Yale, NYU, Carnegie-Mellon, Temple, Ithaca College, Marymount Manhattan, Syracuse University, University of Minnesota, Mankato State University, University of San Diego/Globe, UCLA, ACT-Summer Training Congress, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Actors' Studio @ New School, Asolo Conservatory/FSU, NYC Professional Performing Arts High School, Florida Atlantic University, Penn State, Michigan State University, Trinity @ La Mama, Boston University, Brandeis University, Emerson, Cal Arts, Pepperdine, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Emory University, SUNY Purchase, Cornell, and American Academy of Dramatic Arts West.

For more information on Equity's Student Outreach program, contact Christopher Eid in Equity's New York office, 165 West 46th Street, (212) 869-8530, or via e-mail at Ceid@actorsequity.org.

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