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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Membership Companies: Yes or No?

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I have had a couple of questions recently about membership companies and the pros and cons of joining them. Generally, membership companies are theater groups that charge members a fee and/or require “volunteering” in exchange for stage time. It has been a hot topic on TAE’s internal message board (a service for those who coach with me.) What has struck me is the almost rabid support for membership companies, so much so that folks have been nervous about speaking out against certain organizations for fear of retribution. But this fear promotes only the positive comments about these organizations, which I think skews the advice and keeps actors from making fully educated decisions.

This blog is no exception. I make an effort to avoid posting negative press about specific organizations, because there is a fine line between opinion and libel (especially when you have an influential voice.) Bloggers can be sued by companies who feel their name has been defamed, so we have to be careful about what we publish. Specifically, we avoid listing the names of people and companies who may later complain that we are speaking unfairly about them.

So, what I thought I would do is post the series of comments then went back and forth on our message board about one particular company, so that you can fully see the pros and cons of working with these types of companies. I have redacted the name of the company to keep it private- but if you want to know more information you can shoot me an email and I’ll help you as best I can.

Here is the first email that was posted:

I've been considering auditioning for [name redacted] for a while now. What is your opinion of them? How professional are they? Thanks!

One member responds:

I have found, for the majority of the time, [name redacted] to be professional.  There are, of course, people that you'll have to deal with that are not.  But they are very few.

I think its a great company if you want to be on stage.  They guarantee you 3 shows a year.  Usually, if you're good, you'll get more.  Directors can request you.  Once you've auditioned for [name redacted], you'll not have to audition again.  You'll just be cast.  It's also a good company to network, since the membership is around 250 people.  I've been there for 9 years and I keep meeting new people. The hours are not that hard to do.  They always need box office people. And you only pay $100 per year to join.

And here was a message that was sent me to outside of the group, by an actor who did not want to make this comment publicly:

Erin - I did not think it was proper to put this out publicly - but I actually had an agent tell me to take [name redacted] off my resume...

Here is my response to her private message:

Actually, your comment is a good thing to put out there. I think that just hearing only positive things can skew the reality of what membership companies bring to the table, so your contribution would be valuable. 

I think that for beginning actors, membership companies can be a good way to get basic experience and develop a sense of community. But if the actor already has a decent amount of credits and is, instead, looking for industry exposure, the actor needs to seek out a company that has an excellent reputation. Companies like The Bats (from The Flea Theater), The LABrynth Theater Company, The Actor’s Studio, have great reputations for putting out fantastic work and giving their members solid training and exposure. These companies are usually part of larger Equity theaters, though some professional theaters have non-Equity internship/membershp companies.

There are several aspects of the aforementioned membership company that lead me to believe it is more suited for beginners (this comes from the posted response above):

• They charge for membership. That, in and of itself, is not a concern, but many professional companies pay its actors rather than charging them to perform. But add to that:

• They take on less experienced actors, and

• They regularly cast actors without auditioning them specifically for each role.

When membership companies do the above, there is a tendency for the industry to overlook these credits or, worse, to think of them as being undesirable on a resume. If the company will take anyone, regardless of experience, and they do not carefully cast their projects, this will often send up red flags to the industry. Now, not all industry members have the same opinion. So, of course, you have to take this agent’s comments with a grain of salt. But, if you value the opinion of the agent who said to take it off your resume, I think this speaks volumes about the reputation of the company. As I said, these companies may be fantastic for actors who are just starting out, or those who are content with performing in a non-professional environment. But for more experienced actors, the company may be more trouble than it’s worth.


MY FINAL POINT:

I think it is important for actors to really examine their reasons for joining membership companies. Before you invest your time and money, use your common sense. Are you looking for experience that this company can provide? Or are you looking for a quick path toward getting an agent? Remember, it is very difficult to find representation in New York. There are thousands of talented actors competing for the minute amount of slots available at any given time. There are always exceptions, but in general you must have a good amount of experience, great training, and top notch marketing materials to make an impact.

There is a particular membership company that does showcases for its members, with the intention of getting their members agent representation. But they accept nearly every actor who auditions for the company. To find new members, this company attends industry nights and combined audition events collecting headshots from every actor (including the newbies), and then invites them to “callbacks” for their company. I have never met an actor who was turned away after these auditions. For many of their members, this is the first time they have stepped on a stage.

This company is very useful for new actors who crave experience and who are looking to join a community of performers. But, instead of focusing in this area, this company promises industry exposure to professional agents and casting directors. Think about this- how seriously is an agent going to take these actors when the company does not have rigorous standards of excellence?

Again, there is no quick path to representation. If you are a professional actor looking for exposure, make sure that the company you choose accurately reflects your level of expertise and professionalism. Listen to the little voice inside your head- your instincts will almost always be right.


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.

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