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Actors' Inequity

Equity in the Arts
Christopher Reyes, his back to the camera, stands on a subway platform as a train pulls in.

“If you’re a non-eq, you really should have left hours ago when I told you to. I think it’s nice that you all stayed, because you really want to be seen and I’m really excited for you, but that list with your names on it, I don’t even have that anymore.”  

I stifle the chuckle threatening to escape my lungs as I started to pack my belongings, the holding room slowly emptying before me. Walking to the door, I figured I should send the monitor a quick thank you, but then thought better of it. I had just attended my very first EPA (Equity Principal Audition) with no success.
“They don’t owe you anything,” I thought to myself when I got on the street, “just be grateful for the opportunity.” Suddenly, I stopped this train of thought when I realized that I was making excuses for someone who couldn’t even be bothered to treat me like a human being. I sat on the subway, my headshot and resume a heavy load inside my otherwise-empty backpack, recounting what had just occurred over and over again in my head.  

The whole experience began with me sitting in the corner of the room trying to figure out how the process was supposed to go when my inquiry about being in the right place was met with a stare that dressed me down, and a long fingernail tapping on the table, followed by a “non-eqs sign here.” Luckily, another actor, seeing the lost look in my eyes, took pity on me and explained everything step by step. I felt like a child whose mother was talking him through building an Ikea bookshelf.

“Hey, you’re also Asian!” she greeted me. We laughed before she started breaking everything down for me. “They go through the equity appointments first, then call people from the EMC - Equity Membership Candidate - list, and then go through the non-eqs.”

Before she could go on any further a name was called and a girl with long blonde hair walked up to the desk.

“It’s been like this all day,” my saviour whispered. Without explanation, I knew what she was talking about. I looked around and noticed a room full of white actors. I was stunned. The EPA was for one of the few Asian American theater companies in the city. I knew prior to coming that it was open for everyone, but I didn’t realize the demographic breakdown of the room would be what it was. Only a handful of Asian/Asian American actors were scattered around the room, and whenever I made eye contact with one of them, I was greeted with a quick smile and a nod. From time to time, an Asian actor would come into the holding room to grab their belongings, having actually been inside the audition room, but this only seemed to occur about one in five times. I was confused. An hour before the end of the day, only the first name off the non-equity list had been called.

I was number 89.

I knew when I left college that pursuing a career as an actor of color was going to be hard, but apparently, being a “non-eq” actor of color is a sure fire way to hit a brick wall.

“I only go to EPAs when they’re looking specifically to fill an Asian role, so I thought being here would be different,” she explained. I wondered what the point of being at an EPA for an Asian American organization was if we were facing the same circumstances that we would face at any other EPA.

If the protocol for an EPA is to give Equity actors and EMC’s an advantage, then how can a non-eq actor of color even hope to get inside an audition room? To become a member of Actors' Equity or to be a candidate, you have to get work. You have to be on stage. But look at the people on stage. Look at the stories that are being produced across the city, look at who agents and managers are signing. In a study conducted by the Asian American Performer’s Action Coalition in 2015, only 9% of all roles in New York were given to Asian American actors, 17% to African American actors, 3% to Latinx actors, and 1% to other minorities, including performers with disabilities.

The whole experience made me question whether the current systems in place truly serve organizations that try to champion the voices of the marginalized. Because if I can’t even connect with an organization that would welcome me with open arms through what is supposed to be the most accessible way for me to do so as someone who is just starting out, then how else can I? This goes for any minority seeking to connect with a company working to increase the representation of their community. I understand that Equity has these rules set up to keep it “open” to everyone, but for instances like this, they are actually standing in the way of progress due to the rigidity of their rules. Instead of leveling the playing field, they are actually closing the doors and taking opportunities away from those who already have limited access to work.

Leaving the holding room that day and seeing the crestfallen faces of other Asian/Asian American actors who had waited all day to be seen, left me devastated. Collectively, we walked out of the door, dragging our feet like extras on
The Walking Dead. Before getting on her train, the girl who saved me, who offered me a smile, gave me a warm hug and a quick “I’m sure I’ll see you around soon!” She ran to the nearest car and it sped off, leaving me alone on the platform, dumbfounded by her optimism.

An excerpt from "Actors' Inequity" appeared in the March 2018 edition of The Lark's monthly newsletter. To get more stories like this straight to your inbox, sign up for The Lark's mailing list!