Actors' Equity Association, the union that represents actors and stage managers working on Broadway and professional stages around the country, is permanently removing barriers to joining the union. They are phasing out their Equity Membership Candidate Program. As part of their Open Access Policy, Equity will offer membership to all stage managers and actors who can demonstrate professional experience in the field. The move makes the 2021 policy permanent, the Open Access policy was previously scheduled to expire in May.
Those wishing to join the union previously had to do so by being offered an Equity contract by a professional producer, by being a member of a sister union (like SAG-AFTRA), or through Equity's Membership Candidate (EMC) program, which allowed candidates to gain full membership after accruing a certain amount of weeks of work at participating Equity theatres. That latter program will no longer be available to new candidates as of May 8, with current candidates maintaining audition access regardless of whether or not they fully join the union for three years. Beginning May 8, 2026, EMCs will no longer receive prioritized audition access and will be on equal playing field with other non-Equity actors.
The union hopes the measure will remove barriers to entry, and thus increase BIPOC membership. Equity has shared that 38 percent of members joining since the implementation of Open Access in July 2021 have self-identified as people of color. For context, just 26 percent of the union's total membership identified as BIPOC in a 2020 demographic survey.
“Open Access is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,” says Equity President and Broadway alum Kate Shindle. “Of course, strength in numbers is a cornerstone principle for any union. But this was never a simple numbers game. Every worker who wants a union deserves a union. Open Access is about providing a pathway to Equity membership that doesn’t depend on our employers, or on our industry’s hiring practices. In the 18 months since we launched, we’ve seen a significant increase in the diversity of our new members. Joining a union is a deeply personal decision, and I’m proud that Open Access has moved that decision into the hands of actors and stage managers themselves.”
Ease of obtaining membership has long been a sticking point for the union. Equity leaders have traditionally connected union membership to professional theatre productions—as a way of incentivizing producers to hire union members, who are barred from participating in non-union productions. This strategy aimed to force producers to hire Equity members to gain access to "the best" performers, as vetted by the industry itself. The efficacy of this line became increasingly questioned in recent years, particularly in the wake of a dramatic increase in the amount of non-union national tours of Broadway properties (which historically pay its performers less than union tours).
This newest shift is the latest in a long history of the union's struggle to balance that original strategy with a desire to make union membership more achievable. The EMC program itself was created in 1978 to create a more open pathway to membership than had existed before, and updates in 2017 eased the requirements yet further. Union membership empowers actors and stage managers to collectively bargain with producers, which generally results in higher pay and stricter safety guidelines (amongst other perks) than with non union contracts.