There’s a side to the Actors’ Equity Association some performers might be overlooking. Beyond its commitment to safe and fair work environments, access to Equity-only auditions, and a list of Equity-approved agents, the union offers programs that help make the already challenging life of a thespian a little bit easier.
“VITA [Volunteer Income Tax Assistance] is the one I hear the most about,” says Mary McColl. “Members of Equity can get their taxes done for free. That is one of the programs that I personally, as the executive director, get the most communication about relative to members being delighted to have access to that. People line up 25 to 30 deep at six in the morning to get in to see a volunteer who has been trained on how to do people’s taxes.”
VITA is one of Equity’s most valuable perks, says McColl, as many members—especially those who are on national tours—work across multiple states and deal with various tax requirements, which can quickly become complicated for someone inexperienced with filing taxes.
In addition to VITA, the union also partners with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and ensures members are in peak health by offering flu shots during the winter season, which are administered at Equity’s offices in both Los Angeles and New York. According to Equity’s website, 5,474 free seasonal flu vaccinations, which were funded by a $65,000 grant from BC/EFA, were provided to Broadway and Off-Broadway community members in 2014.
Partnerships fostered over the union’s 102-year history sit at the crux of support systems members can benefit from. McColl calls the Actors Fund one of their “best partners.” The community service organization’s backing offers the possibility for admittance to the Lillian Booth Actors Home, which provides aging industry vets with assisted living; the opportunity for unemployed actors to be reimbursed for shoe purchases through the Conrad Cantzen Shoe Fund, established in 1945 so actors didn’t appear “down at the heels” for auditions; support from nonprofit organization Career Transition For Dancers, which helps dancers develop skills in disciplines that move beyond or incorporate their experiences as professional performers; access to the Health Insurance Resource Center, a comprehensive database of health care information for performers and artists; and other programs.
Equity has also partnered with the Commercial Theater Institute to offer members admission to full-day seminars centered on the business side of show business with a focus on production and budgets, involving actor salaries.
Despite these benefits, above all, McColl wants to highlight the union’s ability to provide information about contracts or work, whether it be answering questions or examining paperwork.
“One of the biggest services we offer is to negotiate contracts and administer them,” she says. “There are something like 80 contracts available that are used across the country, and oftentimes members are working on contracts they don’t fully understand and they don’t call if they have a problem or a question. Part of what I’d like this article to let members know is that we stand ready to be of assistance. We have emergency call-in numbers and are available 24/7.”
This assistance also applies to circumstances such as natural disasters, stresses Maria Somma, Equity’s national communications director. “The staff is here, especially when there are emergencies like tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods,” she says. “They’re on their phones at home and in touch with members in the theater who may be affected. I’ve seen them come in at 11 o’clock at night to meet with members who might be concerned with a situation. They go above and beyond.”
That drive is applied across the board with Equity, which is part of what makes the union so valuable.
For more information on what Equity provides, as well as to learn more about how to join, visit actorsequity.org.