personal theatre & dance

The Shame of Being Non-Equity

May 23, 2016
One of the greatest non-Eq gigs of all time. That's me singing and Nate on keys.

One of the greatest non-Eq gigs of all time.

“I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” —Brené Brown

The cicadas are back here in Athens. Brood V. They are creepy as hell. Cicadas live underground for 17 years, come up in hordes, mate, and then go back underground. They are the living dead. [vomits]

This post is not unlike a cicada. It’s been living deep down for a number of years. It’s come up to shed in the light, and then may or may not go back to whence it came. I’m going to talk about my shame.

Shame is the stuff that we don’t want to talk about. According to Brené Brown (read all her books if you haven’t already), shame is a humiliation we feel we deserve. Humiliation, conversely, is a shaming we feel we don’t deserve. Professionally, I have a very deep shame that I’m going to talk about. (I wish it were humiliation, but it’s not.) I recorded the video below a few weeks ago. I’ve been afraid to share it, and I’m scared to share this post. (If you’re reading this, then you know: I dug up the courage. (I’m really into parentheses, apparently.))

This Twitter conversation was the catalyst in voicing my shame. I thought that maybe if I shared my story, it would help someone else. Clearly, I’m not the only person who feels this way.

Non-Eq shame

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I am a non-Equity actor, and I’m ashamed of it. I’m ashamed of it because it’s regarded as something shameful. (See above.)

“Proud member of Actors’ Equity” is one of my shame triggers. When I read this at the end of a performer’s bio, a big ol’ heat wave rolls up from my stomach to my face, then morphs into a knot in my gut, and finally settles into a swamp of unworthiness in my brain. I’m not jealous—I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed because I am not a proud member of Actors’ Equity, although I very much want to be.

That, in and of itself, is shameful. To want in your 20s is ambitious; somehow, still to want the same thing in your 30s is desperate, even pathetic. We pity those people. Everyone knows if you haven’t achieved anything by 25, it’s too late, right? Most of my friends have already achieved “professional” status in their theatre careers. I’ve tried to talk about this with my friends, even my Equity friends, who all say it doesn’t matter. But it does matter. How many members still pay their dues even though they haven’t worked in 10, 15, or 20 years? All of them. Because the industry makes it shameful not to be a union actor.

I don’t want to join the union because I want health insurance, more pay, or to use the Equity cot. Around 40% of its members work an average of 17.1 weeks (you need 20 to qualify for health insurance), and the weekly work average is 13.3% of members working. That’s an 87% unemployment rate, and no one is qualifying for healthy insurance. Most of these actors probably made less than $15,000 for the year. This sounds awesome, right? (Full report here.) So, how is the union going to get people to join being weak AF? Honestly, you have to give it to them. They’re really smart. The union refers to non-union actors as “non-professionals.” Does that feel good? No, it does not. Basically, they shame you into joining. And it works like gangbusters. I’m walking proof of that.

I keep trying to put this feeling of shame to bed, and for periods of time, I convince myself I’m at peace with it. But then, I think because I’m afraid to talk about it, the shame bubbles back up. This is one of those times. Rather than push it back down, I thought I’d talk about it as a way to move through and past it. If you are dealing with shame in your life, I hope my sharing will encourage you to talk about it with someone who understands. This is for you.

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