Hard Labor

For actors, union membership has its perks. In St. Louis, it has its downside as well.

Dec 3, 2003 at 4:00 am
Travis Estes is one of the few actors in St. Louis who actually makes a living from his craft. Estes has appeared in four stage productions this year -- Off Center Theatre's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Historyonics' All a Woman Needs, (Mostly) Harmless Theatre's Bash, and the St. Louis Shakespeare production of Henry IV, Part 2. During the day he writes, produces and performs for Historyonics, the Missouri Historical Society's in-house theatrical company.

"That type of year is a pretty good year for an actor in St. Louis," the 32-year-old Estes says. Unlike Estes, most actors here work day jobs outside the theater to supplement their often-meager stage income. Despite the existence of dozens of companies -- from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis on down to community theaters -- the options for local actors are often limited by hard, practical realities. Small companies don't pay well -- sometimes barely enough to cover an actor's transportation costs -- and few local actors have the chance to perform for big companies like the Rep, which casts actors from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in most of its leading roles.

A complicating factor in all of this is the local chapter of the Actors' Equity Association, the national union for actors and stage managers. Equity membership (requirements: a role in an Equity production, a $1,000 initiation fee plus $98 annual dues) means better pay and health benefits; it also allows entrance into the world of big-time theater, which in the United States is almost exclusively affiliated with the union.

In a city like St. Louis, though, Equity membership can be an albatross. Once an actor joins the union, he can no longer accept roles in non-Equity productions, and there are few Equity roles available with St. Louis companies each year. Of 180 Equity-affiliated actors in St. Louis, the consensus estimate is that a dozen or fewer earn their living strictly by acting. Most of those travel to other cities for stage work or to film television commercials. The net effect is that St. Louis is seen by many as a minor-league franchise for bigger cities like New York and Chicago.

"St. Louis is not a hotbed of Equity theater," says Kathryn Lamkey, director of Equity's regional office in Chicago. "There's not a lot of companies that work contract theater -- the Rep being the single largest employer year-round, and the Muny in the summer. For an Equity actor in St. Louis, as almost anywhere else, the opportunity to work can be difficult, at best, if you're looking to work in only one location."

St. Louis' largest theater company, the Rep, is an Equity-only company, as are the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, Historyonics and the Municipal Theatre Association. The Rep had a resident acting company until 1980; since then, the company has relied primarily on out-of-town actors -- to the point where last year only 24 of the Rep's 93 contracts were offered to St. Louis actors. "Our objective in casting a show is to cast the best actors we can find and afford," says managing director Mark Bernstein. "It's not part of our mission to give preference to local actors."

That attitude, Estes counters, shortchanges local actors and plays to the perception that actors from somewhere else are better. "There are some great, great actors here who end up going on the road to other cities," argues the actor, who worked onstage in both New York and Chicago before settling here two years ago.

Several of the smaller commercial companies -- including HotHouse Theatre, City Theatre, Stages St. Louis, (Mostly) Harmless, New Jewish Theatre, and St. Louis Shakespeare -- offer, between them, about twenty Equity roles every year. Donna Parrone, artistic director for HotHouse, says her company wants to offer more union jobs to local actors but simply can't afford the Equity rates, which range from $150 per week for part-time work to $1,300 a week for full-time, depending on the project.

"Our goal for HotHouse is to become a small professional theater company that pays an actor $300 to $350 a week, and have 60 percent of our actors have to be Equity," she says. "We'd have to triple our budget from what it is right now. So it's going to be a little while."

For some directors, the higher salaries for Equity actors mean that some of the best talent in town is simply out of reach. "A lot of companies are starting to use one or two Equity actors, but there's no way we can do it without busting our budget completely," says Scott Miller, artistic director for New Line Theatre, a nonprofit group specializing in new and outside-the-mainstream musical productions. "We've looked into it. The way we work now, we pay actors a share of the box office. To hire Equity actors, we'd have to pay them six to ten times what we're paying actors now. It's tough, because there are a lot of terrific Equity actors in town, some that I'd love to work with. There's just no way we can make the money work."

Estes joined Equity a year and a half ago. His day job with Historyonics is also under a union contract; Equity also allows some exceptions for stage work, such as Estes' role in the local sketch comedy troupe the NonProphets. While he's satisfied, he'd like to be able to have more choices.

"I'm Equity, my wife's not. And she's actually working more than I am right now," Estes says. "She doesn't get paid near as much as I do. Sometimes they just get gas money. But she does it for love. She can choose the roles she wants to do. I have to take whatever work I can get."