On Tuesday, May 18th, 2021, council approved the Open Access resolution to enact a series of recommendations to eliminate barriers to Equity membership, making our union stronger and more inclusive. Central Principal Councilor and Open Access Action Team Leader Bear Bellinger, who helped develop those recommendations, shares his experience with the process of creating this ground-breaking change.

Joining Equity

The first thing I noticed when I decided to join Actors’ Equity Association was how difficult it was to join Actors’ Equity Association.

I had been steadily working in Chicago for years, mixing in union theatres with a few non-union houses – serving my time, as some folks like to put it.

I was committed; I was driven; I was focused; but I was not protected. I found myself in a cycle of non-union abuse: long days extended without notice, skin parts washed only once a week if we were lucky, artistic directors leading by demanding and demeaning rather than collaborating. This is just to name a few.

Non-union artists are barely protected in this profession, and I had done more than enough to “prove” my dedication to the craft and thereby “earn” protection. It was time to seek protections of my own.

I added up my EMC weeks and realized that there was no path to union membership that did not go directly through our employers. I could prove time and again, with dedication and artistry, that I was a professional actor, but until an employer decided to grant me a contract, I was basically left to fend for myself, even in union houses.

Why wasn’t I protected?

Isn’t the point of union membership to stand strong with other professionals to ensure fair pay and safe working conditions? Doesn’t a larger professional membership mean more leverage? Why should people who benefit from keeping me non-union be the judge of whether I deserve a minimum standard of working conditions?

I got my contract.

I joined the union.

I became a councilor.

That’s when I realized: We can change this.

So we did.

Last August, Bliss Griffin, Equity’s diversity and inclusion strategist, began the process of researching, developing and implementing a Diversity and Inclusion Retrofit for our union. With the blessing of our national council, she compiled feedback from hundreds of members to define the eight areas this organization must restructure to become a more diverse, inclusive and equitable Actors’ Equity Association.

One of the pillars of that retrofit is “Opening Access.”

Opening Access

How do we diversify our union if marginalized people do not have access to join? Looking at our employers’ hiring statistics, how do we create a more diverse union when our employers disproportionately offer contracts to white men? What are the barriers we are imposing upon ourselves? Over the course of nine meetings, a diverse working group of members combed through these questions. We began by asking: why should we offer more access?

  • Organizing: The more members we have, the better positioned we are as a union to advocate for stage managers and actors across the nation while reducing the ease with which producers can undercut our contracts by going non-union.
  • Financial: The more members in a union, the more dues coming in, and the better positioned we are to hire the staff necessary to protect and support our membership.
  • Education: We live in a nation that has purposefully weakened union influence and ingrained anti-union bias in much of our population to the detriment of workers everywhere. The larger our membership, the bigger the opportunity to ensure our colleagues have a strong respect for unions and a clear understanding of the importance of unions in our labor history.
  • Social Justice: With the nation in the throes of reckoning with its racist foundations and the effects of that past on our present, we recognized that we cannot continue to uphold barriers that have disproportionately negative effects on communities who have been systemically discriminated against.
  • Fairness: We, as a union, should not be in the business of preventing professionals from receiving protections.

With these ideas in mind, over more than 20 hours of meetings, we came to a series of recommendations which were then approved by our national council on May 18, including:

Open Access Immediately:

  1. Council temporarily opens eligibility to join Actors’ Equity Association to any actor or stage manager who can demonstrate they have worked professionally (i.e., received compensation) for work as an actor or stage manager at a theatre within Equity’s geographical jurisdiction.
  2. This eligibility will extend for two years, with application and down payment of initiation fee and any applicable reinstatement fee required by May 1, 2023.

Open Access Fairly:

  1. Upon a Convention vote to revise Article 2 of the Equity Constitution restricting membership of international actors and stage managers, corresponding Bylaws (Art. 9 Sec. 9) and policies shall be immediately voided. Council refers to the International Actors Committee a charge to recommend changes in collective bargaining agreement language regarding international actors/stage managers.
  2. Former members and former applicants to Equity membership (with “Out of Benefits,” “Terminated Applicant Member” or “Terminated Active Member” membership status) who apply to join Equity shall have previous initiation fee payments credited towards the amount owed for renewing membership.
  3. Effective immediately, Equity will allow up to three years for full payment of initiation fees.

Our Working Group also proposed changes to Open Access Permanently, including establishment of a new gateway to Equity membership. Further details and implementation plans for those permanent changes will roll out in the months to come.

What does all this mean?

Actors’ Equity Association is committing to allow any professional stage manager or actor to join our union. We are removing the ability for employers to pick and choose who deserves fair protections under a union contract. Most importantly, we are doing so in a way that will allow us to move forward together with a more informed and activated membership.

Equity members have historically seen membership as a privilege to be earned. We see better salaries, health insurance, pension and expanded audition access as just a few of the rights that we have achieved over time: The result of hard work, determination and ability.

While these things may be true, we have all experienced how much luck and nepotism can play a large role in our ability to land jobs in our field. Knowing that there are plenty of hard-working, determined, professional stage managers and actors out there who have never hit that lucky combination, we are now deciding to stop hoarding workplace protections for ourselves. We are extending them to any who can claim a professional status.

We, in solidarity,

We, as a work force,

We, as human beings, are collectively admitting that minimum workplace protections should be extended to all of our peers and that we will no longer be the barrier that prevents them from receiving them.

We all have friends and loved ones who haven’t yet been able to secure that final contract to join Equity; I don’t believe any of us feel comfortable leaving those people less protected even as we may work side-by-side. Now they won’t have to.

If you, a professional stage manager or actor, want to join the union, come on in.

We’re stronger when we stand together.

We’re proud to stand with you.

What’s Next?

This will require more organizing. This will require our producing counterparts to commit to placing people first. More than anything, it requires all of us to stop accepting the devaluation of our fellow stage managers and actors.

Our union has a lot of work to do moving forward to ensure we are creating safe workspaces, and a safe union, for each of our members. If we want to live up to the ideals of solidarity, if we want to walk together towards a safer, fairer and stronger theatrical landscape, this is a strong first step. There are many steps yet to come. For the moment, however, I am excited to extend the rights and privileges current members enjoy to all our fellow stage managers and actors as we work to better this industry together.


Yours in solidarity,

Bear Bellinger

Central Principal Councilor


PS. Members can join us for a Diversity Department Member Update event to learn about the progress of the entire Retrofit, including the Open Access pillar. I hope to see you there!