(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Actors’ Equity announced sweeping changes to its membership program that will allow any professional actor or stage manager to join the union.

The change, announced Wednesday, will allow actors or stage managers who can demonstrate having been paid for those roles in the U.S. to join the union for an eligibility term of two years. In the past, actors and stage managers have not been able to join Actors’ Equity without having been employed by an Equity employer, acquiring points through the Equity Membership Candidate program or by becoming a member of a sibling union. 

Actors’ Equity said it was waiving prior restrictions on membership in its quest to become a more equitable organization. 

“The old system had a significant flaw: It made employers the gatekeepers of Equity membership, with almost no other pathways to joining,” Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association, said in a press release. “The entertainment industry is disproportionately white, including and especially theatrical leadership. The union has inadvertently contributed to the systemic exclusion of BIPOC artists and others with marginalized identities by maintaining a system in which being hired to work those contracts was a prerequisite of membership. We hope that artists from all backgrounds will join us in building a union that uplifts the entire theatre community, especially those who have not felt included or welcome in the past.”

Equity will also allow former members to rejoin the union without the need to secure a new contract and has removed restrictions on membership for international stage managers and actors.

This allows Equity Membership Candidate members, who had been working to complete 25 weeks of work at eligible theaters to become a full member, to join the union. 

The changes to membership come after more than a year of calls for change within Actors’ Equity and may bring a rush of new members and funding to the union. During the pandemic, union members have protested for greater racial equity and protections within the union, pledged to withhold dues and spoken out against the union’s early handling of the COVID safety regulations. 

As with other theatrical unions, the health fund covering Actors’ Equity members has suffered from the lack of employer contributions during the pandemic. In response, trustees made changes to the plan, which now requires members to work more weeks to earn coverage in six-month increments.

Those who join under the rules will be eligible for membership for two years, with application and fees due by May 1, 2023. Additionally, all members will now have three years to pay off initiation fees, according to an email sent within the union Tuesday.