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Look at the cast list in any theater program across the country and you will see a small * beside a performer’s name leading to a footnote indicating the performer belongs to the Actors’ Equity Association. Peruse the program bios for these same starred performers and you will often encounter the phrase “proud member of Actors’ Equity.” The union representing live theatrical performance turns 100 years old on Sunday. Rather than attempting 100 years of coverage in a single blog entry, this week’s posting will focus on just a few points of pride.
Actors’ Equity was founded on May 26, 1913 when 112 theatrical actors met at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel in New York City.Six months before this meeting the Actors’ Society of America, a previous attempt at organizing a labor union for theatrical actors, dissolved, due in large part to the fact that the Actors’ Society did not have the clout necessary for serious negotiations with theatrical managers. The plans for a new organization emerged from its ashes, and the May 26th meeting established a constitution for the new theatrical labor union. Comedic actor Francis Wilson was elected the Equity’s first president.
Equity’s first significant trial as a union came in 1919 when it joined with the American Federation of Labor (now the AFL-CIO). Demanding better pay and performance schedules from theater owners, the Union also fought for recognition. Tensions came to a head on August 7, 1919 when the casts of 12 New York productions refused to go on stage. By the end of the month, nine more New York theatres went dark and Equity members in Chicago, Boston, and Washington D.C. joined the strike.Producers gave in to demands in early September after suffering an estimated loss of 3 million dollars in revenue. Equity had won its first major battle, and the result was a major blow to the power oftheater owners and managers who controlled the venues and booking across the United States. Membership also quadrupled, bringing Equity performers to almost 14,000.
Beginning in 1922, the organization sponsored a theatrical company run entirely by actors. Taking a lease on the 48th Street Theatre, the company’s inaugural production was Malvaloca. The Equity Players, Inc. went on to produce 13 more plays under that name and 22 as the Actors’ Theatre. Productions were a mix of original work and revivals of major plays by Henrik Ibsen, Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neil, Oscar Wilde, and William Shakespeare. Though the company did not survive the depression, Equity Players focused on the quality of the actor and their shows were an important part of a move toward ensemble production.
Actors’ Equity Association played a part in the major social changes that swept across the country during the middle of the 20th century. The union was outspoken in its opposition to audience segregation and to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist. Equity’s officials participated in congressional hearings advocating for governmental support of the arts that resulted in the 1965 establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Equity celebrated its Golden Anniversary in 1963 with a month long extravaganza including a reception at Gracie Mansion and a special performance highlighting the best scenes and songs from the last 50 years of theatrical productions. Festivities continued with exhibitions at the New York Public Library and the Museum of the City of New York.
The Museum’s exhibition was dedicated to Equity’s Golden Anniversary and included a benefit performance commemorating Equity’s accomplishments. In the midst of the month of celebration, Equity took time to recognize the Museum’s Theater Curator, May Davenport Seymour, at a special exhibition preview arranged specifically for Equity members. Frederick O’Neal, Equity’s president-elect (the first African-American Equity president), presented Ms. Seymour with 50 roses and a scroll honoring her achievements as the founder of what was then called the Theater and Music Collection at the Museum. Ms. Seymour retired one month later after nearly 36 years spent establishing and curating the Museum’s collection.
The celebratory approbations were well deserved considering that just three years prior the organization was in another round of heated negotiations with theater owners. One of the major issues on the table was the establishment of a a pension plan. On June 1, 1960, the performers in The Tenth Man exercised a one-night shut down as protest in accordance with Equity’s harassment policy. The next day, performers at 22 New York theatres showed up to work only to be informed that the show would not go on. The result was the largest work stoppage since 1919 in what theater producers dubbed a strike but Equity called a lockout. The Mayor’s office intervened with a plan to support pensions and the dispute was settled in less than two weeks at the expense of about one million dollars in ticket sales.
Since its inception, Equity has hosted events celebrating its members and often fundraising to support wider efforts of theatrical promotion. In recent decades, those events have become more focused on the fight against one of the greatest threats to the theatrical community, the spread of HIV and AIDS. The committee for Equity Fights AIDS was established in 1987 to raise money for performers affected by HIV and AIDS. A year later, Broadway Cares was founded with the similar goal by The Producers’ Group. The two groups merged in 1992 to become Broadway Cares/Equity fights AIDS.
In addition to fundraising at shows, Broadway Cares/Equity fights AIDS sponsors auctions and themed events. The Broadway Bears auction sells teddy bears constructed to resemble current season characters. The more salaciously named Broadway Bares features strip-teases by Broadway performers. The program at right is for the 2009 Easter Bonnet Competition which raised $3,402,147 .
One can join an Equity by being a member in good standing of a sister union such as Screen Actor’s Guild or American Guild of Variety Artists or by performing with an Equity contract production. At its centennial, Equity boasts nearly 50,000 members, and every one of them has a story about how they earned the * next to their names. For a more complete history of the Actors’ Equity Association, visit the timeline available on the organization’s website.