*not necessarily the first chance you get. But maybe the second. Definitely the third.
Actors Equity is a not particularly strong union that comes with high membership fees, few benefits and, with the onslaught of non-union "Broadway" tours, fewer and fewer jobs.
But you should still join, for one simple reason.
Once you join AEA, you are a grown up. You are a professional. Maybe you went into musical theatre because you love it so much, because it's the one place where you feel like you belong. Maybe you "don't want to be rich and famous, you just want to work!"
That's lovely. I feel the same way. The difference is I have a 401(k).
Maybe you don't care about having a 401(k). You'll save for retirement later. Besides, you don't want to retire! You want to work in theatre forever because you love it so much.
You think that way because you are not yet a grown up. When you are ready to become serious, when you want to have a career, not just "be happy to work," when you are ready to work at the top of your field, and (most importantly) when you are offered a contract, it's time to join the Actors Equity Association.**
You must think you're good enough to rise to the top, right? "To hell with the statistics!" you thought before moving here. "I'm exceptional!"
I genuinely hope you do think that way. In fact, you had better. You must believe that you are the exception to the 88% unemployment rule. You must continue to believe in yourself against the insane odds. Believe it when you are young and fresh and just starting out. Because this industry will do nothing but chip away at your confidence five days out of seven.
Whoopi Goldberg admitted on Inside Actors Studio that she'd had a great career. "But do you know how many things I didn't get?" she was quick to add. And that's Whoopi Goldberg, who's all sorts of fierce. What is she doing now? Hosting The View. Why? Because fierce or not, there are very, very, very, very, very, very, very few parts available for aging black women. Or aging women. Or black women. Or women.
But I digress. You should join the union because they will negotiate minimums on your contracts and ensure that you are paid a fair wage. Also, under union contracts your safety is a top priority, and you will be compensated for any "high-risk" work you do, i.e., stilts, flying, being cast in Spiderman, etc. You will get a bump in compensation for understudying, an additional bump when you perform as an understudy, and you will be given adequate rehearsal. Water is required backstage and, in higher altitudes, oxygen. You will not re-wear someone's old dance shoes. Your costumes will be laundered. If you wear your own shoes or even your own underwear, you will be compensated for it. On tour, you will be granted a certain number of hours of rest between shows and on travel days, and if those hours are violated, you will once again be compensated for it. You will earn sick days and accumulate paid vacation time. If you work enough, you will be eligible for kick-ass health benefits. And on production contracts, you and your employer can contribute to that precious 401(k).
In short, you will be treated like a valued member of a professional company, and not like someone who can be replaced at the drop of a hat.
Most importantly, you need to join the union so that all actors can stand together. Do you love the theatre community? Have you always felt at home here? Safe? Welcome? Then, as a grown-up, as a functioning member of the community, you need to do all you can to strengthen and preserve it, to protect it and each other. Likewise, you need everyone else in the community watching your back. You think the producer cares if the hotel on your tour has bedbugs? No, he doesn't. He cares how much it costs per night. You think he cares if you perform a seven-minute tap number 1,200 feet above sea level? Nope! He cares how many tickets were sold. He cares about the bottom line, which means making money off of your labors.
The producer is not the enemy. He is a grown-up who is operating a business. And as actors, so are we. Act like it. Grow up. Join the union.
** This advice in no way applies to those who want to join the union, but haven't gotten the chance yet. Hang in there. Your chance will come.