Michael Glenn, Jennifer Crooks and Joe Brack in the play “On The Razzle” at Constellation Theatre Company. (Daniel Schwartz)

Washington’s Nanna Ingvarsson won a leading actress Helen Hayes Award playing Janet in “The Rocky Horror Show” with Woolly Mammoth in 1991. A few years later, performing with a Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences show, she joined Actors’ Equity Association.

But getting Equity work was tough. The city was increasingly awash with young leading ladies, and though the theatrical scene was blooming, the top troupes hired (and still hire) out of New York so often that D.C. actors sometimes adopted New York phone numbers, hoping to be taken seriously.

“Nobody was going to hire me,” Ingvarsson says. She dropped her membership so she could keep taking plum roles with shoestring troupes.

Kerri Rambow had a similar experience. About a decade ago, Rambow quit her Equity membership. Joining the union meant she couldn’t take nonunion roles, which were all that came her way.

“I had two Helen Hayes Award nominations, but I couldn’t get hired to save my life,” says Rambow, director of the current “Rabbit Hole” at the non-Equity Keegan Theatre. “I was furious with Equity that they would prefer to have us sitting around on our rears collecting unemployment rather than honing our craft working with smaller companies.”

Nanna Ingvarsson in “Boeing Boeing” at Rep Stage. (Stan Barouh)

Emerging actor Joe Brack had been a busy performer with some of the same troupes Ingvarsson has worked with, especially Forum Theatre and Constellation Theatre Company. It had been a long time since he went more than two weeks between roles — but the jobs tended to pay only a couple hundred bucks. A flat $500 fee for all his time in rehearsals and performances was about as good as it got.

Last fall, Brack joined Equity.

For stage actors, this is the eternal question: To join or not to join? Whether ’tis nobler to play the lead in “Hamlet” with a cash-strapped troupe that might not be able to pay anything remotely close to minimum wage for two months’ work, or, as the thespians say, to “turn” Equity? To dream, to audition, perchance to be cast by a notable theater as the messenger, a part with one or two lines — or not to be hired at all.

Aye, there’s the rub.

The issue of which actors, and even which theaters, have Equity contracts is a matter that audiences typically don’t notice. (Neither do D.C. theater’s Hayes Awards, which is a bone of contention around town.) Union status is hardly advertised; the new management at the National Theatre, for example, does not alert ticket buyers that its upcoming Broadway season largely features non-Equity touring shows.

Yet the scene that has taken root here since the 1980s is a blend of fully professional Equity troupes and semi-pro, non- or semi-Equity organizations that are starting out, struggling or simply not very interested in the business end of show biz.

“Washington has always been this odd hybrid,” says Laura Giannarelli, a local actress who recently served as Equity’s liaison for the D.C. area. “There are strong Equity companies and strong non-Equity companies that sort of coexist.”

Equity has pounded out contracts for theaters at almost every level of professionalization. The top end are the Broadway and the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) agreements, with most of Washington’s major companies — Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature, etc. — falling into one of the five LORT categories. They’re classified by box-office income; minimum salaries for actors range from roughly $600 to $900 per week. (Broadway rates are higher, of course.)

The LORT contracts have been around for decades, but they were never designed for emerging troupes. That’s why Equity developed the Small Professional Theatre (SPT) contract, which has no less than 10 levels; the minimum salaries for actors start at $215 a week for four performances on an SPT 1 contract and top out at $625 a week for eight performances on an SPT 10. You can read the fine print of all these contracts on Equity’s Web site.

Smaller SPT theaters — the Washington Stage Guild is an example — negotiate with the union about how many Equity contracts are required and how many non-Equity performers they are allowed per season. Even largely non-union troupes such as Forum, Constellation, Keegan and Theatre Alliance hire Equity performers on what are called Guest Artist or Special Agreement contracts, or may eventually move up the rungs of the SPT arrangements.

Making ends meet

Cash-wise, turning Equity can make a difference for actors, because the non-Equity troupes often can’t pay much. At the non-Equity Keegan Theatre, each actor in the recent “Spring Awakening” earned about $600 total, according to artistic director Mark Rhea. There was more money to go around for the play “A Behanding in Spokane”; cast members made a grand.

That seems to be slightly better than average. Brack says the general rule in Washington is to be paid a stipend, not a cut of the box-office receipts. A straight $200 to $300 has been common, although lately some theaters have jumped to $500 per show.

In 2009, Brian Sutow and Joshua Morgan held auditions for their new, then-unknown No Rules Theatre Company. They were surprised by how many performers showed up; it was because they were offering $150 a week for rehearsals and performances, a solid cut above the going rate.

“In D.C., theater work is still extracurricular,” says Morgan, an Equity performer (as is Sutow). “Even the top actors are not making a full living just acting.”

Indeed, established Equity actors commonly make ends meet with related work, such as teaching and coaching. Recording books has been a cottage industry here for years, with actors building studios in their basements so they can narrate books by day.

That might explain why Equity actors talk less about the money they get from union jobs than they do about trying to earn health care. Equity actors are often driven by a need to “get my weeks” — that is, enough work weeks to qualify for Equity’s health-care plan. Twelve working weeks qualifies members for six months of the health plan; 20 working weeks qualifies members for a year of coverage. Special appearance contracts don’t require health care contributions.

“I didn’t have health insurance until I turned Equity,” Morgan says.

Who pays for this? The producer, who ponies up an extra $150 or more each week, per union actor, into the Equity health fund.

“The insurance that I had to pay for ‘Pygmalion’ alone [last fall] was $9,950,” says Ann Norton, executive director of the Washington Stage Guild. The Stage Guild put itself on an Equity footing almost as soon as it was founded in 1986; Norton is a member as a stage manager. (Of Equity’s 49,000 members, 15 percent are stage managers.) “It’s a significant cost. But it’s one that gets me my actors and keeps them happy.”

Norton could teach a master class on the obligations any troupe is under once it starts signing union contracts, from pension payments and workers’ compensation requirements to taxes and posting the bond — the minimum cash a theater has to deposit so Equity knows the producers won’t skip town without paying the cast. That has happened, of course, and with some frequency. Equity was formed during the union movement in the early-20th century; it marked its 100th anniversary in May, and the local celebration will be held July 29 at Arena Stage.

“I don’t know how much the average actor is aware of what is required for a theater to have an Equity contract,” Norton says.

A right time to ‘turn’?

The legal minefields and financial requirements help explain why new troupes approach full professionalization step by step. But if Equity offers a range of contract options for producers, for actors the bargain is simple. Once they turn Equity, they can only accept roles covered by Equity contracts.

That’s why Sutow of No Rules is slightly frustrated. As artistic director, he draws a full-time salary. Does he have to pay himself Equity rates if he acts with his company?

That’s also why Brack is holding his breath: His freedom to say yes to stimulating projects from Forum, Constellation and other troupes has boundaries.

He might have been wise, at least, in waiting to “turn.” Giannarelli, an Equity performer since 1987, says that by working cheap for a while, “You’ve racked up that number of shows on your resume, and you’ve worked with a number of directors that [Arena Stage artistic director] Molly Smith can call to say, ‘Was this actor easy to work with?’ There is some judicious maneuvering that each person has to do.”

That’s what Brack thought. “I didn’t want to turn Equity and audition for bigger companies if they didn’t know who I was,” says Brack, who is 33 and married to local Equity actress Tonya Beckman (a milestone that sparked his desire for health care). “I wanted to be better established here, have some recognition.”

Perhaps that will work for Ingvarsson, too. “I’m more of a character actor now,” says Ingvarsson, who recently played the riotously skeptical French maid in the farce “Boeing Boeing” at Columbia’s Rep Stage. Now Ingvarsson is an Equity candidate again. “It may be a little easier for me to get these parts at bigger theaters,” she says. “We’ll see.”

She adds that there has been a “sea change” lately, as more small theaters step up at least to Special Appearance or Guest Artist contracts. Still, neither Ingvarsson nor Brack are locked in yet with full slates of work for the coming season.

Was turning Equity the right call?

“I don’t know,” Brack says. “You’re in the major leagues now. The talent is all over the place when you’re non-Equity. That’s still true at the Equity level, but at the very least, you know these people have worked. It’s much more competitive.”