Broadway – Rules and Laws
Child performers in theatre are governed by 2 sets of rules: state laws and union rules (if the show is a union signatory).
True Broadway and Off Broadway shows are in New York City, and they fall under a section of New York Department of Labor regulations called Part 186. These regulations were updated in a big way in 2013. They now provide limited work hours (grid here), education in some situations, and a required “responsible person” (aka guardian or wrangler), in addition to the laws that already existed which required permits and trust accounts. The State of New York has an FAQ here.
Even with the increased regulations, the laws on Broadway in New York are not as protective as California law. In California, theatrical productions must abide by the same strict standards as television and film production. This means a studio teacher 24/7, required school time every day and more limited work hours. For this reason, shows based in Los Angeles are few and far between, and parts for kids are almost always double or triple cast.
Touring companies are a free-for-all in terms of laws. Since no state really claims jurisdiction, the only protections come from Equity, the union. If your show is union, there will be union contracts that govern the show for things like safety, minimum wages, etc.
A note about pay-to-play theater:
There are a few non-union tours that hire local children to increase local ticket sales. Wizard of Oz and Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat are common offenders. Here is an example documented in the Chicago Tribune. Please know that this is not professional, and carries huge risks. Local children are often not treated well, get very little stage time, and are asked to purchase tickets or pay “workshop fees” in order to perform which makes for a crowd-like situation. The quality of the production is on par with community theater. While there is nothing wrong with that, don’t be fooled into thinking this is your child’s big Broadway break. It isn’t Broadway, or even Off Broadway (Off Broadway is an actual Equity contract, and all the cast are union members) . It is pay-to-play, something we at Bizparentz strongly discourage.
Union vs. Non-union, to Join or Not to Join
The union covering most live theatre is Actors Equity Association, AEA or just “Equity” for short. There are stage shows on Broadway, in theme parks (Disney and Universal Studios for example) and in circuses that fall under another union, AGVA. AGVA is the American Guild of Variety Artists. These shows have similar safety protections for young actors, but they pay far less than their Equity counterparts.
Before you audition, make sure to check the laws for the state in which you will be performing. Then check the union status of the show. While there are some exceptions, AEA (Actors Equity Association) productions are generally more high quality and pay much better than their non-union counterparts.
For kids, joining the union is another big decision to be made, and timing is crucial. See this Bizparentz page for information about union membership and note links specifically for Actors Equity Association (AEA) about halfway down the page. Equity also publishes this PDF overview about kids working in union theater in NY.
Equity has a very complicated system for membership called the Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) program that revolves around the age of 14, 25 weeks of work, and accrued “Equity points”. Again, check our Bizparentz Union page for details and links. As part of Equity’s 2020 vision, major changes in the EMC program were implemented.
Joining Equity is definitely the mark of a professional theatre performer. Once you join the union, you will need permission to do any non-union shows. So make sure you are ready to make the jump into the professional world before joining. In Equity, age 14 is magical, since they have separate joining requirements and will often grant permission for under-14s to do non-union projects. After that—be prepared for no participation in community theatre. High school productions can be done, as the union will grant waivers for educational productions.
You will be offered the opportunity to join the union as soon as you book an Equity show, but there is no “must-join” clause like there is with tv/film.
Keep in mind that although you might have a local Equity theatre, most of them have a limited budget and thus a quota of Equity contracts. They will almost never use an Equity contract for a child. Having an Equity card in these situations can be a detriment for a child.
Before joining Equity, we suggest reading the following two perspectives on the timing:
4 Reasons to Wait to Join the Union by Denise Simon of OnLocation Education (Backstage)
Joining Actor’s Equity: When is the Right Time by Evan Teich, Actor
On an Equity show, things are run far more democratically than television or film sets. Equity requires one of the adult performers to be elected as a Deputy. That person acts as a liaison between the performers, the production, and the union. Some daily issues (like say, delaying a lunch break) will be voted on by all the union actors. If your child is a union member, you as a parent have a right to be in those meetings with your child (highly recommended).