Nonunion Actors: Raising It a Notch

For every Equity actor in Austin, there are scores of nonunion actors. Some of the best actors in town, and the best-known, are not Equity and have no intentions of joining the union. To them, the benefits of higher pay do not outweigh their need to act in any project they think worthy of their attentions. For some, such as Joe York or Ken Webster, this allows them to earn some real money working for the big companies such as Zachary Scott Theatre Center or the State Theater while retaining their rights to do projects with smaller companies that could never meet a union payroll. Webster, for example, acts regularly at the State and is also artistic director of Subterranean Theatre Company, directing and acting in all manner of plays -- many that the bigger companies would be unlikely to tackle because of the risk involved. To his company and others like it, where the pay is scant, the opportunities to act in challenging plays is incentive itself for actors hungry for work. York may be the best-known actor in Austin, and when he has performed for Zach, "he has gotten paid at the Equity [minimum] and more," says Zach managing director Ann Ciccolella. But he is also free to act for Webster, as he did a few seasons back in Italian American Reconciliation, or to design and direct for the State, as he did with Cabaret.

Sarah Richardson and Shawn Sides of Rude Mechanicals have been part of many of Austin's smartest, most provocative theatre productions in recent years, such as this season's Rude plays Lipstick Traces and In the House of the Moles. Richardson has also performed with Frontera, in Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling ..., and directed at Zach, including the just-closed Pride's Crossing, and Sides was in Salvage Vanguard Theater's Cry Pitch Carrolls. "I would love to make my living as an actor, but I'd rather be doing work that I feel is important and creative," says Richardson. "Becoming full Equity in Austin at this point would mean that I could no longer work on the projects that really move me as an artist." Echoes Sides, "I fear that, according to union leaders, those of us out there busting ass to do new work and expand the boundaries of the form are 'hobbyists' simply because we don't have gargantuan budgets." For her, as for many, it is these opportunities to try out new material or extend their theatrical skills with smaller companies that are the stuff of actor bliss.

Katherine Catmull speaks blissfully of acting a string of "three extraordinary roles" in plays by Harold Pinter last year (Betrayal, A Kind of Alaska, and Ashes to Ashes): "I am so lucky ... Not being in Equity [means] getting to work with anyone whose talent and ideas excite me, on projects that makes me go, 'Oh, yes!' without having to worry about how much they can pay."

The payment factor, or lack thereof, is a sacrifice many Austin actors, like Catmull, are willing to make. There is little money, but perhaps something more satisfying performing with companies like VORTEX Repertory Company, Refraction Arts Project, Physical Plant Theatre, or Different Stages, each of which brings a unique style and artistic vision to Austin stages. Says nonunion actress and playwright Cyndi Williams, "I love working at the State but ... I have worked with other smaller companies, and I would like to be able to continue to work with these smaller companies. Because their financial investment is lower, they can do riskier work than can a professional theatre company."

Jason Phelps, a longtime Frontera company member, helped to put Frontera on the national map while making something of a career playing cutting-edge roles in new American plays -- not that it was actually a well-paying career. He was most recently seen in the Zachary Scott production of Angels in America and has carefully considered joining the union: "I am not part of Equity because it doesn't really make a lot of sense to join in a town where maybe three theatres can really afford to pay. However, I would like to be part of the union if I thought companies could afford it, because I would like to be able to make my living solely as an actor."

You could probably count on the fingers of one hand those Austin actors whose living is made solely from acting, whether they are union members or not. Most of the actors interviewed for this article responded with some degree of amusement when asked if they make their living acting. While the Equity contingent remains politely optimistic about its financial future, among local nonunion actors the response was less politic. Cyndi Williams laughed long and heartily, Shawn Sides responded with a single "ha," and Katherine Catmull weighed in with a mock-withering "oh, please" when the question of earning a living came up. But then, money is not what drives a nonunion actor. What drives this talented and diverse body of local actors is, as Ken Webster puts it, "the freedom to do any damn project you want."

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