The crisp sound of paper tearing sends goosebumps up your arms as you unseal an envelop. You gently remove a thin, rectangular piece of paper unveiling your very first AEA check. After only two shows performing as an equity actor, you receive triple the amount of money you’ve made for the same work you’ve been doing for the last seven weeks as a non-union actor. You find Spotify on your phone, and play “Just Got Paid,” dancing and jumping around the ladies dressing room. The two other ladies that received their first union check join you in the celebration. Before you know it, a full ladies room jam becomes your pre-show warm up.
You slush through the snow towards your hotel after a successful third performance as an equity actor. The icy air fighting through your scarf reminds you of your first city on your very first tour.
At nineteen years-old, you layer up to walk through Anchorage, Alaska towards the Atwood Concert Hall to relaunch the national tour of “Shrek the Musical.” When signing your contract as a female swing, no one informed you that you would be the only female swing in the company. The production already toured a year before you joined, and in that year, two female swings split the work it took to memorize eight female ensemble tracks. You worked a two-woman job for the price of one, not knowing what other benefits you could have negotiated. You read and signed your contract without an agent or manager’s protection. If someone told you to negotiate your own room, your own bus seat, and higher pay, you may have been in a better head space to tackle the tricks of being a first time swing. Nine days in New York to learn a total of 34 roles put your passion to the test. As you stare into your dressing room mirror, ready to swing on for the first time, the words your choreographer spoke to you on the last day of rehearsals replay in your head,
“All I want to say is good luck, and I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”
The clanking and chattering in the hotel bar breaks your internal flashback. You kindly ask the bartender for a glass of cabernet and hand him your card to make your first purchase post-equity pay. A castmate sits at the bar enjoying a post-show reward and as he turns to you, you grab your glass of wine and clink glasses in celebration to your milestone. Your castmate’s brief toast sends you off with a smile as you leave the bar and enter the elevator towards the room you call home for a week. You swipe your key, place your wine on the desk to your left, and place your book bag down on the sofa to your right. As you flip on the light switch, the sound of the door closing behind you sends your mind to your contract with “A Chorus Line” at the Riverside Theater in Florida.
The door creaks until it slams shut behind you. As you and the other non-union actors take a seat in the theater’s lobby, the equity members of the Chorus Line cast decide who to appoint to be your equity deputies* for the next six weeks. If any of the non-union actors have comments or concerns throughout the contract, you have to speak up on your own because you don’t have the protection of the union, or a union representative to defend you. So, even though you signed your contract two months ago as a Cut Dancer/ understudy Maggie, when your stage manager says,
“Hey Megan, so we realized we don’t have any of the ladies covering Val, Kristine, or Judy, so can you learn these three in addition to Maggie?”
You simply say, “Yes, of course,” and start memorizing all of the monologues and lyrics you wish you would’ve know about in the two months you had to prepare. You only have ten days to memorize all of the written material and the extensive choreography that compliments the story. This is an incredible regional theater to work for and if you say no, the chances of them calling you “difficult” and never hiring you again are increasingly high. You have an agent now, but the budget for this production won’t allow the company to give you a raise for the extra work you accepted. So, you cash in your non-union check and use the little bit of spare money to walk to the closest Publix to buy a binder, dividers, highlighters, and the other supplies necessary to create what will be your swing bible. The the register beeps in acceptance of you payment.
Your phone dings and snaps you back to reality. Your alert leads you to an email from the Bodyguard stage manager with your anticipated schedule for the upcoming week in Appleton, Wisconsin, and you review her schedule as you run some hot water into the tub. Your mini-celebration continues with a bubble bath to sooth your muscles and compliment your cabernet. You dim the lights, set your calm playlist to shuffle, and sink into your personal sanctuary. You sip your wine as “If I Had a Heart” from “Straight Outta Oz” begins to play. You shut your eyes and take a trip to your bunk on a bus you lived on during your second tour.
You climb to the top bunk of a 12-bunk sleeper bus after another thrilling performance of “Straight Outta Oz” and a two hour meet-and-greet with fans of Todrick Hall, A.K.A. “Toddlerz.” You close the long thin curtain that gives you a piece of privacy to snuggle into your 30” by 75” mattress. The revving engine gently rumbles below, cruising you to sleep while the bus driver transports you and the cast from one state to another. At 11:30am, you wake up to other cast members searching through different compartments of the bus for clean clothes to start their day in. Your Forever 21 bag of clean clothes rests by your feet, so you maneuver your body to reach for the bag without hitting your head. You retrieve the key to open the under body storage compartment of the bus, and carry your garbage bag full of your costumes into the theater hoping you can find an open washer and dryer to clean them. When the production only has three crew members, your list of responsibilities lengthen. You toss your sweat-filled costumes into the washer while starting your makeup to prep for today’s sound check. You search for a convenient area backstage to pre-set your freshly-washed costumes for the ten quick changes rushing you through each performance. The crowd roars and the lights flash one last time, marking your opening and closing performance in Raleigh, North Carolina. You rush to get a good spot in line for the the one shower provided at the venue since meet-and-greet duty doesn’t effect you tonight. Your rumbling stomach leads you to the only food option in town: McDonalds. You and your cast/bus mates continue laughing and goofing around with the leftover energy from tonight’s thrilling performance. At 1:00am, you climb back to the top bunk and drift to sleep on your journey to the next state.
Sara Bareilles’ “The Light” softly plays and opens your eyes to the bubbles fading into your now lukewarm bath. You begin draining the tub and dress into warm pajamas. You stare at yourself in the steaming mirrors and smile. Though your past contracts have been more grueling than your current situation, you remember that each audience doesn’t really know the difference. Every small city you visited on “Shrek” believes they had a Broadway musical in their hometown. Every retired patron in Vero Beach, Florida believed they had some of the best New York City talent Riverside has ever hired, most unaware of your union status. Every Toddler that waited hours in line to see the magic and power of Straight Outta Oz only saw you living the dream with their hero Todrick Hall. Each performance touches the hearts of many, and even changes the lives of those needing somewhere to escape to. The draining non-union work is the only work you’ve ever known, and that’s what will make you an even harder working union actress. You snuggle into your king-sized hotel bed, thankful for finally receiving the payment that fully rewards your work, but even more thankful that you’ve worked so consistently as a performer, union aside.
* Equity Deputy: Elected by the Actors' Equity company members in a show, the Equity Deputy serves as a liaison between the performers and the union.