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Can a Non-Union Actor Submit for Union Film, TV, or Theatre Projects?

By The Up-To-Date Actor, January 21, 2024

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In the world of acting, whether you're a seasoned professional or just starting out, one question that often arises is whether a non-union actor can submit for union film, TV, or theatre projects. It's a topic that has sparked debates and discussions in the entertainment industry for years. In this comprehensive blog post, we'll explore the intricacies of this issue, examining the pros and cons, and provide guidance for non-union actors aspiring to break into the world of union productions.

Understanding the Basics: Unions in the Entertainment Industry

Before diving into the question of whether non-union actors can submit for union projects, it's essential to have a clear understanding of the unions that govern the entertainment industry. The primary unions for actors in the United States are the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) for film and television and the Actors' Equity Association (AEA) for theatre.

The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA):

SAG-AFTRA is one of the largest and most influential unions in the entertainment industry. It represents actors, broadcasters, and other media professionals working in film, television, radio, and digital media. Becoming a SAG-AFTRA member provides actors with several benefits, including minimum wage guarantees, health and pension plans, and access to union projects.

The Actors' Equity Association (AEA):

Actors' Equity Association, often simply referred to as "Equity," is the labor union representing professional stage actors and stage managers in the United States. Equity ensures that actors working in live theatre are provided with fair compensation, safe working conditions, and other essential benefits.

Can Non-Union Actors Submit for Union Projects?

The short answer is yes, non-union actors can submit for union film, TV, or theatre projects. However, there are essential factors and considerations to keep in mind:

Casting Calls and Open Auditions:

Many union projects hold casting calls and open auditions that are open to both union and non-union actors. Casting directors may choose to see a wide range of talent, including non-union actors, to find the best fit for their project. Attending these auditions can be an excellent opportunity for non-union actors to showcase their skills and potentially secure a role in a union production.

Self-Tapes

With the Covid-19 pandemic, almost every aspect of how the entertainment industry normally operated was changed forever. Zoom became the norm and self-tapes dominated the way actors auditioned. There is no going back and self-tapes now drive the audition process. For the non-union, unrepresented actor this exposure to self-tape submissions opens doors to submitting for union projects that were once restricted to agent-represented union actors. You can live anywhere in the country and submit for projects that are being shot in or outside of your market. You can easily create self-tapes from your home studio. If you have a 9-5 job you can take your lunch break to create a self-tape with just your phone and ring light, making pursuing a performance career and holding down a 9-5 survival job a much more realistic possibility.

Specific General Submission

While the “general submission” as we once knew it is now antiquated, the Up-To-Date Actor has a reimagined concept known as the “Specific General Submission.” Rather than casting a wide net (like putting money in a slot machine hoping to win) and sending your information to a large pool of casting directors like many other actors, get specific. Do your research and target casting directors that are working on projects that are a match for your unique skills and talent. Craft a submission note that specifically tells the casting director why you are a perfect fit for the storyline of the show. You are submitting for the total world of the project, not necessarily one particular role. Your skills, including language, sports, dancing abilities, and more, as well as your demographics and life experience may correlate to the specifics of the project as a whole. Be open to whatever audition or role that comes from it. The main thing you are responsible for is introducing yourself to the right people. If you are right for the project, it is your job to introduce your talent. From there, the casting director will make their decision. Read more on directly submitting to casting directors:

Union and Non-Union Productions:

It's important to note that not all productions are union productions. Many independent films, web series, and lower-budget theatre productions may not be affiliated with unions. Non-union actors have a more straightforward path to participating in these projects, as they often don't require union membership.

Booking a Union Job as a Non-Union Performer

SAG-AFTRA

As a non-union actor, once you book a principal or speaking role on a SAG-AFTRA job,  you are allowed to work on this SAG-AFTRA project, even though you are not a member of the union. Booking this job has made you SAG-AFTRA eligible, meaning that you can become a SAG-AFTRA member once you pay the initiation fee. You also have the option to simply remain SAG-AFTRA-Eligible and continue working on non-union jobs. NOTE: If you are SAG-AFTRA-Eligible, put this at the top of your resume.

However, once you land another SAG-AFTRA principal or speaking role, you become a must-join. You now must pay the initiation fee and join the union to continue to work on SAG-AFTRA projects. Read more on when to join SAG-AFTRA.

AEA

Many professional regional theatre companies work on an AEA contract but are still allowed to hire a certain number of non-union actors. This is a great opportunity to get experience at a reputable company or in a recognizable role prior to joining AEA. Once you book your first AEA job you will have to join AEA in order to accept the work and you will no longer be able to accept non-union theatre work. Read more about when to join AEA.

RESUME BUILDING

An obvious advantage to booking work is to build your performance resume credits. In addition to training, casting directors want to see that you have been cast in actual produced productions, not just class work. This also gives a quick roadmap of your castable unique type and how the industry sees your talent. Booking work where you are the lead also gives confidence that you can handle that level of a role.

Advantages of Submitting for Union Projects as a Non-Union Actor

Submitting for union projects as a non-union actor can offer several advantages:

Exposure to Higher-Quality Productions:

Union projects often have larger budgets, more experienced crews, and well-established production teams. Working on a union project can provide non-union actors with valuable experience and exposure to a higher level of professionalism. Submitting for union projects is also a great way to introduce your talent to casting directors who work on a wide range of projects including Film, TV, Web Series, and Commercials.

Networking Opportunities:

Union projects attract established industry professionals, including directors, producers, and fellow actors. Participating in these projects can open doors for non-union actors to connect with influential people in the industry and build essential relationships.

Considerations for Union Projects as a Non-Union Actor

While there are advantages to submitting for union projects as a non-union actor, there are also challenges and potential drawbacks to consider:

Limited Access to Certain Roles:

Some roles in union projects may be exclusively reserved for union members. Non-union actors may find themselves limited in the types of roles they can audition for on these projects.

Union Dues and Membership Costs:

If a non-union actor works on a union project and receives a Taft-Hartley waiver, they may eventually be required to join the union. This can involve paying initiation fees, dues, and other associated costs, which can be substantial.

Competitive Auditions:

Union projects often attract a higher caliber of talent who already have established careers, which can result in more competitive auditions. Non-union actors must be prepared to bring their A-game and showcase their skills to stand out in these auditions.

Tips for Non-Union Actors Submitting for Union Projects

If you're a non-union actor interested in submitting for union projects, here are some valuable tips to help you navigate the process effectively:

Build a Strong Portfolio:

Ensure that you have a well-crafted acting resume and an impressive demo reel showcasing your best work. Your portfolio is your calling card in the industry, and it's essential to make a strong first impression.

Attend Casting Calls and Open Auditions:

Keep an eye out for casting calls and open auditions for union projects. Casting directors often specify whether non-union actors are welcome to audition. Be sure to prepare thoroughly and arrive with confidence.

Network and Make Connections:

Networking is crucial in the entertainment industry. Attend industry events, workshops, and seminars to connect with professionals who can help you advance your career. Building relationships with casting directors, agents, and fellow actors can lead to more opportunities. Get in the habit of following up with thank you and career update notes after auditioning and meeting with an industry professional. From the very start create a database of industry contacts who know your work along with your family, friends, and actor fan base. PR is crucial to building recognition and you are your best first press agent.

Consider Joining the Union:

If you find that you're consistently booking roles on union projects and are required to join the union, consider the benefits and costs involved. Joining the union can provide you with additional protections, benefits, and access to exclusive opportunities.

Be Persistent:

Breaking into the world of union projects can be challenging, but persistence is key. Rejection is a part of the industry, so don't be discouraged by auditions that don't go your way. Keep honing your craft and seeking new opportunities.

Stay Informed:

Stay updated on industry news and trends, especially regarding changes in union regulations and policies. Being informed about the latest developments can help you make informed decisions about your career.

Conclusion

In the entertainment industry, the question of whether non-union actors can submit for union film, TV, or theatre projects is not a simple yes or no answer. Non-union actors have opportunities to audition for union projects, but they must navigate the challenges and complexities of the industry. It's essential for non-union actors to build strong portfolios, attend auditions, network, consider the benefits and costs of union membership, and decide at what point in their career development is the best time to join the professional performance unions.

Ultimately, the path to success in the entertainment industry is unique for each individual. Non-union actors should remain dedicated to their craft, stay informed, and take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way.

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