Last year, I wrote about our discussions on the topic of the joining process. That discussion has advanced considerably, and I'd like to bring you up to date. If you want to read the original post, you can find it here.
As mentioned, we'd like to achieve a few things with a new joining plan. First, we'd like to ensure that the process works well for prospective members. Right now, through longstanding practice, if you accept an Equity contract, you join. That's pretty much it. We do have provisional and probationary memberships, but they are voluntary options and not often used. While we think it's great to welcome new members at any time, many join at a point in their career when they really need to be maintaining flexibility in their options, and when they are not at a stage that they can make the kind of commitment to the collective benefit of the membership that joining entails.
The second is that we would like to put the process of joining much more firmly in the hands of Equity; right now, most decisions to join are made in discussion with an engager. We typically find out we have a new member when we suddenly receive a contract with a name that we don't recognise. We haven't had the chance to say "Is this the right choice for you?" or "Have you considered this other option?" or even "Hi! Welcome aboard!" Depending on when we receive the first contract, new joins may get a welcome package before they begin work, while they are working, or even well after the contract has ended. That's far too late for the Association you have just agreed to join to be getting in touch for the first time and telling you what joining Equity involves.
So, what have we come up with?
We are exploring a dual stream approach, involving both apprenticeship and a form of permit membership very similar to our current probationary/provisional options. I'll use these terms in what follows, although they may yet change, as may some of the other details, by the time the new programme is implemented. Also, please note that this material relates only to performers in theatre at this point. Council will examine how it might apply throughout the membership, but as our largest member contingent, this was the best place to start the review.
Although apprenticeship is not well-used among performers, most of our scale agreements allow a percentage of non-professionals to be engaged on shows, and many of them will eventually go on to join. So, having some kind of entry programme geared toward gaining experience in the business is important. Apprenticeship will continue to fill that need on much the same terms as it does today.
For those offered their first Equity contracts, the plan under discussion would no longer make full membership immediately available, and only probationary membership will be offered. This will permit engagers to fulfil their professional quota requirements, and allow the artist to receive the full engagement benefits and protections, including representation by Equity, for the duration of the contract. Following the contract, performers would revert to the equivalent of apprenticeship status, and retain all the engagement flexibility that category offers.
There will be some, however, who do wish to join right away, and the new plan will accommodate that. Any actor engaged as a probationary member will have the option to take out full membership within two months of the start of their contract. The cost for joining will be the same as if they had joined as a regular member immediately.
One benefit of this deferred joining approach is that we will no longer expect engagers to serve as de facto front line staff in our membership office; we anticipate this will be a welcome change! Joining will instead be something arranged directly between the new member and Equity staff. Questions such as those noted earlier can be asked and carefully considered by the prospective member before a choice is made. Full membership will no longer be compulsory for engagement (although not indefinitely so) and the moment of joining will therefore be much more in control of the artist.
We've put the plan together in a summary document that staff is now examining. They will consider any anticipated administrative issues, review the fee structure, and propose suggestions they feel will make the change smoother to implement, and stronger in the long run. We will hear back from staff in June, and should have a final version to share with you not too long after that.