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Background Performers Still Rely On Vouchers For Guild Membership

   By: Troy Rutter

In 2003, The Screen Actors Guild officially promised to move forward with a new system that would allow background performers, or extras, to join the union.

For many years, the most common way background performers joined SAG was by getting three union vouchers. When you work on the set as an extra, usually through one of the bigger extra casting agencies, you receive either a non-union, or union voucher. For adult actors, this would be Central Casting for union, and Cenex for non-union, however they are both the same company.

Getting a union voucher on a project instead of a non-union voucher was supposed to be the luck of the draw. Countless books on the subject would say "pay attention to what is happening on the set, and look for opportunities for the 'bump.'" A bump is a specific action or lines given to an extra that will make them deserve a union voucher.

Unfortunately, since the goal for every actor was first to get into the Screen Actors Guild, the voucher system became corrupt. Friends of the assistant directors and the cast got preferential treatment, people were paying off decision makers with bribes, in short - it got ugly, and guild membership swelled.

SAG decided to revamp the system which would still use the union vouchers to an extent, but would assign points to specific things, other than acting, that would have to be totalled before a new member could join. For instance, you would get X many points if you attend a guild meeting, X amount of points if you helped distribute flyers for an upcoming initiative, etc.

As of today though - the system has not changed.

The official line from the guild is as follows:

The new system will provide two separate routes to Guild membership via background work: 1) Union (Covered) or 2) Non-union (Non-covered) work on SAG Signatory projects. A performer may also achieve points towards membership by participating in other designated activities that raise professional standards and support the basic aims of the Guild.

According to the SAG web site, there is a transition committee working to put the new joining requirements into place. The question on everybody's mind is - when?

Until that happens - you are eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild after receiving three union vouchers, and paying the initiation fee. Other ways to join the guild are still in place, including having a line in a motion picture or television show.

Troy A. Rutter has been working with young performers for over ten years. His book, Kids in the Biz, provides step-by-step guidance to prospective young performers and their families. For more information about getting children into acting in television and films, visit his web site at

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