I earned my Equity card in 2004 playing Claire in On the Town at the Gateway Playhouse. That same summer I had been offered the Grizabella cover in the non-union tour of Cats. I often wonder how different my life would have been if I had accepted that tour. It would have saved me from a year of waiting tables and from a tumultuous relationship. I would have made valuable contacts that may have boosted my career a little sooner, since I now know that many, many people did that tour.
However, at the time I knew only one thing: with my Equity card, I could attend EPAs and ECCs. I was done showing up at the studio at 6 AM and waiting in line in the freezing cold until the doors opened. I was done waiting all day for the chance to get an appointment, which may or may not happen, and which cost me precious time away from my day job. Plus, I was sure that once I got in front of the union casting directors and union theatres, my career would take off.
I hope future union members reading this will not likewise be seduced by the siren call of required Equity calls.
Am I glad I joined the union? Of course. As Billy Porter put it when he gave a talk to my class my senior year at CMU, "The best jobs are the union jobs. If you want to work at the top of your field, you have to join the union."
But as it turned out, I joined AEA and didn't work for a year. Was that because I wasn't competitive? No. It was because I didn't know anybody. Other than my contacts from CMU, I had no names on my resume. My teachers, as fabulous as they were, worked in academia. Should I have taken the Cats tour? Probably. Because work begets work. Waiting tables begets a career in the service industry, where I stayed for the next several years, working the odd summer stock job, until I had had enough. (Unexpected bonus: I know just about everything there is to know about wine. Almost too much, actually. I'm kind of a pain in the ass.)
Anyway, I was quick to learn that EPAs and ECCs are not the golden ticket. Did I meet a wider variety of casting directors? Yes. Most importantly, I got-- and continue to get-- a lot of support from Tara Rubin's office. However, one of the wonderful things about them is that they almost always see non-union actors, and they send associates with actual casting power to attend required calls. So I could've met them as a non-union actor, provided I had all day to wait in line.
When you're starting your career, two things will help you: names on a resume, and an agent who believes in you. (And actual talent, of course, but that's a given.) I did get my first signed agent from my gig at the Gateway, so that helped. Your agent should then be able to get you in front of casting directors, especially when you're new to town and might be the Next Big Thing. However, your attendance at an EPA or ECC may assist your agent in in his or her efforts.
What I actually learned once I made it into the union was never to discount a casting director, no matter what he or she is casting. Some of my biggest supporters today met me when I was non-union, fresh out of school. Bob Cline will always see me for projects at Pioneer Theatre Company. Joy Dewing used to work for Dave Clemmons, until she took over the office like a boss. (Literally.) And Rachel Hoffman, who cast me in that Cats tour, still remembers me ten years later, and is now a high-powered associate at Bernie Telsey's office.
The moral of the story? Treat every aspect of your career like you're playing a totally sober game of Jenga. You start at the base, then place each block carefully on top of the next. One thing leads to the next, building higher and higher, and thus, a career is made.