Key West audiences just can't get enough of Kristen Michelle.
For the past 10 years, the bubbly young actress has been invited down from New York repeatedly to star on area stages.
Local theatergoers might remember the bright-eyed redhead with the wide smile and charming enthusiasm from such hits as "Reefer Madness," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "The Drowsy Chaperone" (Waterfront Playhouse), and "Bat Boy" (Red Barn Theatre).
"It's such a supportive community," Michelle said.
Waterfront has brought Michelle back this month to star in "A Dog Story," the musical that local artists Eric H. Weinberger and Gayla D. Morgan wrote with Michelle specifically in mind.
Take a look at Michelle's resume and it's easy to understand why she's in demand: actress, ventriloquist, puppeteer, impersonator. She even credits herself with playing the ukulele (basic) and doing expert pratfalls.
Her resume also bears the three-letter acronym that can make all the difference in the world as to whether or not she is hired: AEA.
AEA indicates that Michelle is a member of the Actors' Equity Association (aka Equity). The organization was founded more than 100 years ago to protect the labor rights of actors and stage managers across the United States.
Performers seeking Equity membership typically earn it in one of two ways -- either by virtue of employment under an Equity contract, or by virtue of prior membership in the Screen Actors Guild or another performing arts sister union.
Theater producers typically dip into the Equity pool of performers outside of Key West only when they're looking for a special "type" or talent to fill a particular role that they can't fill from the local pool of talent.
Producers enter into Equity contracts, however, knowing that it can be expensive.
Equity insists that its members negotiate and receive base salaries, overtime and per diem. Theaters must also cover the cost of travel, lodging, health insurance, pension and supplemental workers' compensation insurance.
In addition, Equity sets work rules for its members, capping the number of hours an Equity member can work each day and ensuring breaks and days off. There are even rules meant to ensure safe and sanitary working conditions for Equity members.
Michelle, who earned her Equity card in 2009 during the national tour of "Duck for President and Other Stories," also benefits from the visibility that membership can bring. In effect, being on the Equity membership roll helps ensure that she is on the "talent radar" of producers in Key West and across the nation.
"I'm thrilled to work in Key West for many reasons," she said. "For one thing, the talent pool here is amazing. The theaters do such good work. And everyone here really cares, which makes a huge difference."