One of my students, who recently moved to NYC from LA, just posed this question:
As you know, I am already a member of SAG. Do you think it's smart for me to join AEA if I haven't had a lot of NY theatre experience yet? Once in AEA, one can't do non-union theatre right? Is there such a thing as non-union theatre in NY?
Outstanding question (and one that LOTS of actors have asked.) Since you are SAG you aren't supposed to do any kind of non-union work- no non-union theater and no non-union commercial/industrials. The Global One rule states that once you join one union, you no longer are allowed to work for a producer unless they are under a union contract. Most people assume that this rule only applies to the union that they joined, but it applies to all of the unions because they have a "sister union" solidarity agreement.
As your coach, I would advise against doing non-union work and do everything you can to abode by the rules. But, of course, this is your career so you have to determine your best course. Now, they aren’t necessarily policing this heavily. There are times the unions crack down on scabbers, and times they don't. If you get caught, you could be fined or you could lose your SAG membership. So, I recommend you think long and hard before doing anything that can jeopardize your good status with SAG.
That all being said, I do think it makes sense to build up your resume before joining AEA. The way you can do this while avoiding problems with SAG is to submit to AEA Showcase productions and AEA readings, which don't require you to join the union but are under union jurisdiction. There is plenty of that work available, and you will be building relationships with other union members, which will really help you put your name on the map.
UPDATE: Be sure to read the comments below (click the link that says "comments") - there was some great feedback and a further discussion about this topic!
Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has done national tours of plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. To learn more, check out http://www.theactorsenterprise.org.