A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to be invited to a meeting of the Boston members of the Stage Directors and Choreographer’s Society (SDC). The meeting was led by Barbara Wolkoff, the Director of Member Services, and was hosted by Melia Bensussen at Emerson College.
The meeting was focused around a general update on the union for its members in the Boston area, but was open to those, like myself, who were interested in learning more about why the union is important and how they can become members. Before that day, it had never occurred to me that I could become an associate member of the union whenever I felt it was right for me (a membership application was included in everyone’s folder of brochures and handouts). I had always assumed it was more like Equity, a union I had to prove I was ready for by gaining experience and “points.” Rather, an associated membership with SDC is open to anyone able to spend $300 initiation fee and pay their $60 annual dues. So this poses the question, should anyone with an interest in directing or choreography join the union?
For those of you who don’t know me, I should say that I am a senior at Emerson, studying directing and arts management. Do I have enough experience to necessarily warrant joining a union right out of college? Not really. Have I wanted to be a director since I was 6? Probably. It really just becomes a matter of finding work, and deciding for yourself whether the union will be a help or a hindrance in this endeavor.
Courtney O’Connor, my first directing teacher at Emerson, posed exactly this question. How can a young director find work when they have to start requiring union compensation? The opinion of the union is that, even as an associate member, joining is a great “foot in the door” for any aspiring theatre professional. I know we have all heard that expression before, but it still holds true for a lot of us. It is also worth noting that, as long as you are just an associate member, you are not required to file a contract for a directing or choreographer position.
The biggest draw for anyone seven months out from graduating college would have to be the programs run by the SDC Foundation. The Foundation runs Observerships that pays emerging directors and choreographers to observe mentors working in theatres all over the country. I cannot deny that this sounded like a great opportunity. I dressed as Susan Stroman for Halloween a few years ago, how could I turn down a chance to work with her?
So what is the downside? Dues can be a part of it, especially when you’re not so much earning money, but living, as a lot of my recently graduated friends put it. Yet, more than that, it is the responsibility and commitment that comes from being in a union. Career services at Emerson will usually run a union panel for theatre students at some point in the year, but more of the participants will advocate against joining a union in the early stages of a career. It becomes that asterisk in a program that may inevitably redirect the course of your career. There may be nothing wrong with jumping up a few pegs in the work you can get, but there will always be those shows you are no longer suited for, and it seems that could be the case when you are asked to move from associate to fill membership with the SDC.
It also worthwhile to point out that Boston is not exactly a city full of opportunities for union directors. Many mid-size companies struggle to hire union directors, and there are not as many opportunities at larger theatres for emerging artists. The question that really needs to be asked is whether we need to have the union jobs before people can/want to start applying for them, or are the companies just waiting for the artists to start joining the union before they begin creating the opportunities?
I don’t know if, at least right now, I have the emotional maturity for such a “grown up” step in my life, but joining a union has always been at the back of my mind, and I am sure it will be for as long as I am pursuing this field. I suppose it is just a decision that we may all face at some point, but it is really going to be based on our own life paths and personal discretion.
Anna Trachtman is an intern at StageSource and a senior at Emerson College.