I am not in an actor's union. Most of the performing I do is for non-profit theatres. Once in a while one will pay a tiny stipend. Most of the time, they do not. In both cases, however, they are community organizations committed to bringing live theatre to people who otherwise might not have access to it.
There are all kinds of community theatres, just as there are all kinds of professional theatres. And with community and/or non-profit theatre comes certain limitations. I am not fond of all of those givens. (One reason I am trying to start my own community acting company.) I'd love for community playhouses to be bolder sometimes. (At least around here.) But there are aspects of "professional" theatre, Union or not, of which I don't approve. Things about it which, quite frankly, I can't stand. That's one reason I never pursued the Equity, move to New York route.
So, both types of theatre have their disadvantages. I have in essence no control over that. I do however have control over what I do while a part of any given production. I can decide how seriously I take a play. How hard I work at producing a character. How much of myself I put into a role. How much extra effort I put into a show outside of my own immediate responsibilities. I can't make anybody else do it, but nobody else can prevent me from doing so, either.
It is my name on the playbill, whenever I perform. I'm not at all willing to write that off if I happen to not be getting paid. I may not show up and do as many things in this life as others, but when I do show up, you can be sure I am going to give it what I have. For all of the time I spend in a theatre, rehearsing, performing, or directing, I'd have to have little pride in myself to do otherwise. I make damn sure that when a program says, "Ty Unglebower", there is nothing to be ashamed of.
There are actors I've worked with who blow off this responsibility. They don't get paid, and they don't care about how stupid they look. They just screw around. And you know what? There are plenty of people who do the same thing in professional theatres, because they can't get fired very easily. Or they are in it for the money, and don't have to do so much as one thing beyond what their contract stipulates. Again, it's the actor, not the venue.
Truth be told, I've been in more than one community production that rivaled anything I've seen performed on a "professional" stage. That's because again, it's what any one actor chooses to give to what he is doing. When you care, and when you work hard, quality follows. Magic can happen. And those that dismiss this possibility simply because those on stage are volunteering their time as opposed to getting paid for it are about as shallow a bunch of dullards as you are likely to encounter.
The same sort of people who have been tricked into paying 5,000 dollars for a painting because "Famous Artist" painted it, only to find out later that "Famous Artist" was a hoax, and nobody by that name paints. Yet they could just "feel" the mastery of the work. (Because they were told a master painted it.) A work at which they would not have given a second glance had they known entering the gallery than an amateur painted it. Such people are in love with pedigree, not product. And they are quite the boneheads.
I value what I value. If I like a painting, I like like it, regardless of who painted it. I listen to songs that move me, and I applaud plays that are well done. And I certainly value my name. More so than those who dismiss non-profit theatre, without ever attending it value their own names, that is for sure.
I'm proud to be an actor who cares, in every venue, every time. I hope you are one as well.