Special Excerpt! "Performance of the Century," The Book About 100 Years of Actors' Equity

By Robert Simonson
27 Nov 2012

Picketers in front of the Majestic Theatre during the 1968 AEA strike.
Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundations

Today, the idea of an actors' union remains a quixotic one. In the unpredictable and rarified world of the theatre, unemployment is the norm. The vast majority of Equity members has always been, and probably always will be, out of work. People need theatre (whether they admit it or not), but they don't need it like they need a working sink or the milk that a Teamster trucks to the local supermarket. And so the life of an actor is not the life of a plumber. It is not a day-to-day, punch-the-clock existence. It's often full of very high highs and very low lows, feast and famine, fame and obscurity. Yet when members do win a job, they are assured of working under a contract that prevents them from being abused in countless possible ways. There will be transportation, a clean dressing room and acceptable housing, prompt pay, acceptable hours, and a predetermined system of redress should anything go awry with management.

It's an unbalanced world we live in today. The unions that represent the teachers that school our children and the workers that help run the government are being attacked and weakened by politicians bent on demonizing labor in general. Yet the theatre, the most impractical and dreamy-eyed of all areas of endeavor, remains strong. Walk into a theatre on Broadway and everyone you see — the actors, ushers, stagehands, musicians, directors, choreographers, playwrights and, yes, actors — belongs to a union or guild. Few of us look up at the man or woman in the spotlight, selling that number or delivering that soliloquy, and think, "union member." Why do they need a union? They're doing what they love. They're enjoying themselves.

Well, maybe they need a union so they can continue doing what they love, what we love.

"We're celebrating the history while we're diving into our future," said Mary McColl, executive director of Equity of the centennial. "It's exciting trying to figure out where the union stands in 2012. How you can take this thing that's been around forever, this tradition-laden thing, and take it into the modern age? How do we go from this hundred-year-old entity to a progressive forward thinking member of the industry to ensure that there are jobs for actors on the live stage 10, 20 and 30 years from now?"

Without Equity, there would still be actors and stage managers. There's no dissuading those who seek the footlights or those who position them. But there would probably be fewer of them, fewer good ones, and certainly fewer happy ones. Which would likely result in many fewer exultant theatergoers, and an impoverished culture. Actors, like their brothers and sisters in labor, are teachers of a sort. They teach us about life through characterization, lending flesh and blood to the playwright's words and ideas. There's an old show business saw that goes, "Those who can't act, teach." Well, those who can, teach too. That someone supports them isn't a bad thing. For a century, Equity has been that someone. The union protects artists while they practice their craft, their art, their profession.


From "Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors' Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater" by Robert Simonson. © 2012 by Actors' Equity Association, published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation. Reprinted with permission.

To purchase "Performance of the Century," visit the Playbill Store.