27 June 2013

'3 Kinds of Exile'

I’d been out of town now for several weeks, starting at the end of May, but I had one theater booking in early June that I didn’t want to cancel if I didn’t have to.  So on Thursday, 6 June, I rode back to New York City to catch the last play in the Atlantic Theater Company’s 2012-13 season, John Guare’s newest work, 3 Kinds of Exile, at the Linda Gross Theater on Friday evening.  Now, I hadn’t really enjoyed this season at ATC, which included Harper Regan by Simon Stephens, Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America, and The Lying Lesson by Craig Lucas.  (The reports on these productions are all on ROT; see the posts on 20 October 2012, 3 January 2013, and 6 April 2013, respectively.)  I had hopes for Exile because I figured that even when Guare’s not at his best, he’s at least interesting and I could use the up-lift.  (The season I followed at the Signature Theatre Company was more enjoyable, but I suffered a disappointment there as well when the final production of the David Henry Hwang series, which I’d been finding fascinating, was postponed until 2014.)

Well, I was to suffer a final dissatisfaction in Chelsea that Friday evening.  At the risk of spoiling the prospect for someone else (the show closed its short run on Sunday, 23 June, so that’s not likely now), I have to report that Exile failed for me and Diana, my frequent theater companion, even on the limited score I anticipated.  It not only wasn’t interesting, I can’t figure out what Guare, winner of a Tony (Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1972) and an Olivier Award (Six Degrees of Separation, 1993), is on about or why he even wrote the piece (it’s not really a play in my opinion, as I’ll explain shortly).  Just to make the whole experience, which included a 4-hour bus ride from Maryland (and a 4½-hour one to go back coming the day after the performance), it was pouring down rain Friday evening and the theater’s too close to my apartment to get there any other way than by foot.  (I really dislike contending with rain gear at the theater, but this time I had to wear a rain jacket and hat and carry an umbrella—which, to add insult to injury, didn’t survive the squall.)  The entire event was a complete bust for me and Diana (who’s even less tolerant of bad theater than I am).

3 Kinds of Exile, which began previews on 15 May and opened on 11 June, was a world première, so I’d read nothing about it before seeing the production.  I hadn’t even paid any attention to the promotional squib in ATC’s brochure or any of the listings published or posted.  It was a pig in a poke, but I was encouraged, as I said, by the fact that it was a new play by John Guare, whose work (including House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees) I’ve always found at least surprising.  Well, I suppose this was a surprise, too—just not a pleasant one.  First of all, Exile is made up of three separate pieces, connected by two aspects of their subject matter: they’re all about people from Poland and Czechoslovakia and the central figures are “artists, all of whom forged complicated lives in the West.”  The production ran 100 minutes without an intermission and the first piece, “Karel,” is a long monologue in which the Actor (that’s what he’s called in the program, played by Martin Moran) recounts the story of a friend sent to England as a child on the eve of World War II, never to return to his native country (which, in this case, isn’t actually identified, but is clearly an East European nation).  The second segment, called “Elzbieta Erased,” is about an émigrée actress who’d been a big star in Poland in the ’50s (and whom the playwright knew), but it, too, is narrated—this time by two men, A (played by the playwright himself) and B (Omar Sangare), standing behind a pair of lecterns.  The final piece is a sort of playlet, entitled “Funiage,” which depicts (partially enacted this time, though also largely recited) the story of Witold Gombrowicz, 1904-69 (David Pittu), the “greatest unknown Argentine writer in Poland in the ’30s,” as the character says of himself, who’s sent by some “very official Officials” of the Polish government to be a kind of literary ambassador to Polish émigrés in Buenos Aires, to keep them apprised of the wonders of Polish culture and arts while they are in exile.  Gombrowicz was caught in Argentina when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and remained there, an expatriate until he returned to Europe in 1963 and died in France five years later at the age of 64. 

Let me approach the acting and other production aspects first, then tackle the script—the reverse of the way I usually discuss performances which I write up for ROT.  (The rationale here is that I can dispatch the production elements rather quickly, I think, and move on to the heavier examination.)  First, I’ll report that I can’t say much about the acting because there was so little of it in evidence.  The second part of Exile is hardly acted at all—and Guare’s no actor, that’s certain—with the most staging on display the crisscross the two narrators make periodically when they switch lecterns.  Standing side by side, A at stage right center at the start and B on stage left, both men gesticulated with their hands a great deal, but Sangare was excessive.  Now, some of this may have come from the fact that there’s no actual action in the piece (accounting, I’m sure, for director Neil Pepe’s use of that frequent crisscrosses), so the actors, perhaps encouraged by Pepe, used their hands and arms to fill the void.  Guare’s gesticulative performance may have been the consequence of his lack of acting experience—this is billed as his “acting début”—but his movements were far less smooth and assured than Sangare’s (who reminded me at times of Geoffrey Holder who has a supremely relaxed and graceful physicality on stage).  Sangare, however, also appeared in “Funiage” and displayed the same technique so I presume it’s a stage mannerism of his.  With nothing else to off-set it, all that hand-waving and pointing was distracting to the point of annoyance. 

(I hate to raise this additional criticism because I know it sounds a little xenophobic, but Sangare, who is Afro-Polish—his father is Malian—has an accent so thick it’s often impenetrable.  There were times it sounded as if he’d learned his lines phonetically, though as a tenured professor at Williams College, I presume he speaks English well enough to teach in it.  He also studied at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England.  Ironically, one of the factoids in the biography of Elzbieta—her last name, which aside from being difficult for Americans to spell, is nearly unpronounceable to an English-speaker (“In America my name sounds like a bad hand in Scrabble,” the text quotes the actress as saying), is seldom used in the script—is that her heavy accent made it impossible for her to get acting work once she emigrated to New York in 1966.  I don’t know if Guare saw this irony when he wrote the lines—which, as I recall, he delivered, not Sangare—or if it was an accident of the casting.)

As for physical production, in addition to the two lecterns at center stage, there were numerous projections on the cloth draped over the stage’s rear wall.  (Exile’s sets were by Takeshi Kata, lights by Donald Holder, costumes by Susan Hilferty, and projections by Dustin O’Neill.)  These began with the reproduction of a full-length portrait of Elzbieta (by scenic designer, producer, and director John Wulp), reportedly hanging in the office of Andre Bishop at the Lincoln Center Theater Company (where the actress never actually performed but where Guare is co-editor of the Lincoln Center Theater Review).  When the slide was first shown, with a woman in a long, wine-red, apparently velvet gown, I whispered, “Is that Helen Mirren?”—because, well, that’s who it looked like.  Shortly afterwards, Guare asked the same question from the stage: “Is that Helen Mirren?”  (The painting is apparently entitled, appropriately, The Red Dress.)  Other projections, pictures of Elzbieta as a child, a teen, a young actress, other images pertinent to the tale being told (though hardly vital), followed now and then—they weren’t a constant presence—ending again with The Red Dress, which was then shown in increasingly closer and closer detail until the actress’s head filled the slide at the end of the performance (showing that she resembled Mirren less than it at first seemed—more like her older cousin).  It all seemed to me like more substitutes for action and dramatic content.  Poor (and ineffective) substitutes as far as I’m concerned.

In “Karel,” Moran, who’s presented a few of his own solo performances (All the Rage, The Tricky Part), hopped all over the stage—there was no set at all, not even the lecterns or projections of “Elzbieta Erased”—once again, I gather, to add activity to compensate for the lack of action.  I can’t say Moran did this poorly or well because it was so unconnected to what the Actor was saying, so arbitrary and inorganic, that any assessment would be based on insufficient evidence.  The performance was, if you will, a kind of “oral interp” on the fly—a radio speech, perhaps, onto which movement was grafted to appease a live audience.  To no avail, in my estimation. 

(“Oral interp,” or oral interpretation, for those who are not of the theater or are too young to know about this archaic training and performing technique, is also sometimes known as “readers’ theater.”  It’s acting with the voice alone, usually in readings either from plays or, often, from non-dramatic material like novels, short stories, and poems.  Radio drama was a practical application of the technique, but there isn’t much of that around anymore.  It was taught in acting schools and elocution classes as a method of training the actors’ voices for projection, enunciation, variety and expressiveness, flexibility, accents, and other kinds of vocal techniques.  It was occasionally actually performed, often by amateur groups—Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood is a favorite script for readers’ theater performance—but one famous West End and Broadway production in which it was used was 1951’s Don Juan in Hell, an adaptation of the third act of Shaw’s Man and Superman in which all the actors—Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Laughton, and Agnes Moorehead—wore evening clothes.  Of course, with a cast like that, listening to talking heads comes close to being a delight!  Exile, not so much.) 

The third part of the production, “Funiage,” is the only piece that comes close to being play-like.  First of all, there are multiple actors (and, hence, characters); second, the actors are playing parts and they’re doing something more than standing and talking.  There’s precious little real interaction, however, and the ensemble was only slightly differentiated—except one, they were most often dressed in black suits and bowler hats that had no character identification—and the actors played several characters in the story each.  (They donned character-identifying clothing pieces as needed, such as when Peter Maloney changed from the suit he wore as Gombrowicz’s disapproving father to the uniform coat of the ship captain.)  Only Pittu, as Gombrowicz, and Sangare, as Gonzalo (“a symbolic mystery man” in the words of Adam Feldman in Time Out New York), stuck with one role.  (Sangare wore a while suit, really making him reminiscent of Geoffrey Holder.)  The performance style, with pseudo-Brechtian touches, was non-realistic and very mannered, almost mechanical at times, as was some of the speech.  Furthermore, the playlet has still another inherently anti-theatrical element because Gombrowicz speaks in the third person, narrating his own story even as Pittu acted it out on a rudimentary level.

“Funiage” is a sort of musical—or a “play with music,” as this kind of performance might have been called in the late 20th century when it was a new idea.  Among the ensemble of nine is a pianist (Timothy Splain) who plays original music composed by Josh Schmidt (Adding Machine, Fifty Words, A Minister's Wife) as the cast sings lyrics written by Guare (who also wrote songs for Landscape of the Body in 1977).  I’ll say that the music in “Funiage” added to its theatricality, badly needed at the end of the longest 100 minutes I’d spent in the theater in quite some time, but didn’t increase the playlet’s effectiveness as drama or its interest in terms of the subject—and it certainly didn’t help the two flat pieces that went before.

The set of “Funiage” was a sort of organized clutter: lots of bits and pieces strewn or piled about the stage, some of which were used as props or costume bits as needed.  They didn’t evoke a specific environment, such as, say, the ship on which Gombrowicz sailed to Argentina or the streets of Buenos Aires, but it was more visually intriguing that the two setless first parts of the production.  Like the music, however, the presence of set design didn’t end up having all that much overall effect. 

Now let’s look at the material Pepe and ATC were working with.  I’ll start with the company’s own blurb: 

With great psychological insight and arresting theatricality [the italics are my insertion], John Guare presents us with three artists, all of whom forged complicated lives in the West, having struggled and suffered amid the cultural and political turmoil of Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century.”  Not in my opinion.  What I sat through is neither “insightful” nor “theatrical.”  (I won’t comment on “arresting.”  The obvious is too tempting.)  In fact, the bulk of Exile is anti-theatrical and “Funiage” displayed an excess of false theatricality imposed on the basically narrated story.

“Drawing from the experiences of three real exiles from Czechoslovakia and Poland, Guare weaves the stories of these lives into a riveting dramatic tapestry and probes the meaning of home, identity and how we carry the past with us.  No again.  The stories aren’t “woven” in any meaning of the word; Exile is no “tapestry,” just a tangle of loose threads.  The whole of Exile is a pastiche and each segment appears to be thrown together nearly haphazardly as if Guare had all these factoids on hand and was determined to use them all one way or another.  Never mind “riveting” or “dramatic”: I think I’ve already covered those.  And if Guare’s “probing” anything, I never figured it out.  I mean, sure, the three artists are far from home, some voluntarily, others under duress, but I didn’t see any exploration of what that means—just a lot of anecdotes, some bizarre, some poignant, and some mundane, that seemed to touch on every possible subject and illuminated none.  The story the Actor tells in “Karel,” for instance, asks, “How much of your life have you made up?  How much of your life are you a stranger to?”  But asking a question, however thought-provoking, isn’t an exploration, and though it was a provocative idea, illustrated by the Actor’s tale, it was ultimately superficial, overloaded, as it was, with verbal gimmickry and unnecessary and frenetic movement.

ATC’s promotional statement (which appeared not only in its seasonal brochure but in all its publicity and press releases and was widely quoted in listings and on Internet sites) may have been what the company hoped Guare had done, and it may even have been what Guare intended to have done—but it’s not what I experienced sitting in the house and watching the final result.  Diana, in fact, insisted that the final piece was about what she expected from a high school company (though I suggested a college-level troupe because of the sophisticated styles attempted).  “It’s Guare in his dotage,” she affirmed.  (The playwright’s 75, by the way.)

Now I’ll be a bit more comprehensive about the plots.  “Karel,” the first piece, is an extended tale of a man (one blogger identified the title character as Karel Reisz, 1926-2002, a Czech-born British filmmaker, but his name isn’t used and no bio details are provided in the monologue) with a mysterious, apparently psychosomatic rash which he can’t cure and which spreads all over his body.  The Actor goes back to fill in the backstory, recounting that at the age of 12, just before the start of World War II, his friend had been sent by his mother to England in a Kindertransport and had remained there.  On the train to England, the boy traveled with another child who teased him about his attachment to his mother—his father had already been imprisoned—and now, years later, the man surmises that the unforgotten bully is the source of the itchy rash.  The monologue ends with a slight twist which I won’t reveal, but Guare also employs a moderately confusing tactic in his storytelling.  At the outset, the Actor speaks of his friend in the third person but shifts to first person, as if he’d morphed into “Karel.”  I don’t know why Guare did this, and it didn’t make the monologue any more theatrical or interesting.  (Reisz, a well-known filmmaker in Britain—Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Morgan!, Isadora, The French Lieutenant's Woman—also staged the occasional play.  One of these was Guare’s Gardenia for the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1982.)

“Elzbieta Erased” is a revision of Elzbieta, a one-act play Guare wrote for ATC’s 25 x 10 series in May 2011.  It’s a bio of famous Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska (1938-2010) who married David Halberstam, the New York Times correspondent in Warsaw at the time, and then accompanied him back to New York.  The presentation—it’s not only not a play it’s not a dialogue, either, but a tag-team lecture (the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood said it was “a kind of running dialectic” but though the “running” part is accurate, that characterization makes it sound more enlightening than I found it)—provides the highlights of the actress’s life: a successful career in Poland, her marriage to the journalist, her exile from her homeland because of the marriage to a foreigner and a Jew, her fruitless years in America, and her death in obscurity.  There are plenty of dropped names in the script, including Meryl Streep, Elaine Stritch, and William Styron.  (Guare acknowledges that Elzbieta, whom he’d met on Nantucket, was the inspiration for Lydie Breeze.  He wrote a part in the play, a Polish woman, for her but when Lydie Breeze transferred from its workshop to production at the American Place Theatre in 1982, the part became Irish.  In 1994, she also starred in the Polish premiere of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw, a production in which Omar Sangare also appeared.)

There’s irony in the fact that Halberstam first met Elzbieta when he saw her perform in Warsaw in 1965 as Maggie, the Marilyn Monroe surrogate in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, a play I’ve always felt was an indulgence by Miller who needed to exorcise the ghosts left from the failure of that marriage.  Here Guare engages in the same sort of self-indulgence, thumb-sucking over his pinball association with Elzbieta whom he tried to help get work in America but was never able assist to regain her status as an important theater artist.  Like Miller’s failed marriage to Monroe, I suspect Guare regrets his inability to help Elzbieta.  Hence, “Elzbieta Erased.”  But also like Miller’s private struggle—why do the rest of us have to suffer through it?

"Funiage" is a condensed biography of the critically-respected absurdist novelist and playwright who spent most of his life as an expatriate in Argentina.  (While Gombrowicz is in Buenos Aires, he’s essentially forced into a marriage by his father/the ship’s captain—but the ceremony becomes a combination wedding and burial, thus “funiage”: funeral + marriage.  It’s supposed to be portentous.)  The playlet is based on Gombrowicz’s 1948 drama The Marriage and his 1953 novel Trans-Atlantyk, from a literal translation by Omar Sangare.  Guare has chosen to emulate his subject’s style with a Brecht-inspired absurdism.  (I imagine this accounts for the self-narration, emulating Brecht’s occasional technique of having characters say things like “he said” or “she asked,” referring to themselves.)  In the end, though, Gombrowicz never comes into focus as a character and the playlet, for all Guare’s gimmickry, never seemed to gel into a cohesive statement of anything.

The press seems to have been more generous with Guare and Exile than I’ve been.  (At the time I wrote this report, many review outlets, including the theater press, hadn’t published notices of 3 Kinds of Exile.  Much of the press that published, in addition, was rather brief in its coverage.)  They appear to have found more value in the endeavor than I did, especially the middle piece.  I don’t understand that, to tell you the truth, but perhaps they’re inclined to be charitable because it’s a John Guare script.  (There was near unanimity in the estimation that “Funiage” was the production’s least successful effort and that “Elzbieta” was the most stimulating.  I saw no distinction, as you’ve probably noticed.)  In the Times, Isherwood didn’t articulate an overall judgment, but he characterized “Elzbieta” as the “most engaging of the evening’s offerings,” finding the other two “less rewarding” with “Karel” coming in as “little more than an amplified anecdote.”  “Funiage,” reported Isherwood, “is the most ambitious of the three plays, but also the most unsatisfying”; the reviewer found it “mighty unwieldy.”  “Elzbieta Erased,” concluded the Timesman, is “the haunting, more cogently related story.”  While Isherwood noted a few of the performances, including both Guare and Sangare (“a smoothly handsome actor with penetrating eyes and a silky voice”) as well as Martin Moran and David Pittu, he makes no critical assessment of Neil Pepe’s directing.  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer described Exile as “one third revelatory, one third beguiling and the last third, well, perplexing.”  She also found “Elzbieta” to be “the treasure” of the evening, and declared, “What sounds like an academic structure is, instead, a vibrant, multileveled portrait of a woman who needs to be known.”  Winer reported that “Karel” “turns out to be a chilling little ghost story” and “Funiage” “is an exaggerated expressionist cabaret” whose “absurdist-fable style is tiresome.”  Like Isherwood, Winer mentioned some of the cast (the same ones as the Times writer), but says nothing about the directing, set, costumes, and so on.  The best sits right next to the worst” wrote Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post of 3 Kinds of Exile, the three parts of which “vary wildly in quality.”  (“Unfortunately there’s no intermission that would allow a discreet exit after the second playlet,” she added, echoing a remark Diana made to me after the performance.)  The Post reviewer called “Elzbieta” “the evening’s crown jewel” but described “Funiage,” the “mediocre epilogue,” as “painful attempts at comic absurdity and [an] erratic mix of styles.”  Vincentelli dubbed “Elzbieta” “a beautiful duet,” but her description of the closing playlet, as far as I’m concerned, applies to the whole production: “Surrounded by a mediocre ensemble clunkily directed by Neil Pepe.” 

In the Daily News, asserting, “Pop music teaches that two out of three ain’t bad,” Joe Dziemianowicz summed up the production by observing that Exile is “a dramatic triptych with a final chapter tedious enough to sour the sweet riches preceding it.”  (I can’t agree with the Newsman’s calculus.  But maybe that’s just me.)  Of that last segment, Dziemianowicz wrote that it was a “noisy and trying exercise.”  His final word, in the form of a lesson in dramaturgy, was: “When a writer loses his audience and has them thinking of escape that’s a fourth kind of exile.”  Though the writing in “Karel” is “the best of the evening” in the opinion of the Village Voice’s Alexis Soloski, “Elzbieta Erased” is “less anguished and more arch.”  Soloski suggested, “Only ‘Funiage’ . . . seems a misjudgment” because, she asserted, “the antics of this neo-vaudeville feel far more labored than playful and Pepe's directorial hand too evident and self-conscious.”  Her other comment about this piece sums up my impression of the entire production: “There is much dashing about, to little effect.”  TONY’s reviewer Feldman echoed Dziemianowicz’s reference to Meat Loaf and went on to describe “Funiage,” “the bad one,” as “a precious, collegiate ‘Brechtian’ cabaret” in which the bowler hat-wearing actors “divvy up stiff, translated-sounding lines.” Pronounced Feldman, “it’s all rather painful to watch.”  The man from TONY affirmed that the first two pieces were “more rewarding.” With “Karel” presenting a “simple” story whose “language is vivid” while “the engrossing cautionary tale” of “Elzbieta Erased” is a “picture hidden in a game of historical connect-the-dots.” 

In the cybersphere (which was offering slim pickings at this writing), Jennifer Farrar of the Associated Press called the three stories of Exile “affecting” and the collection a “dynamic new play” on the Huffington Post.  The AP reviewer also dubbed Guare’s acting stint as “very effective.”  Overall, Farrar said, director Pepe “provides crisp direction and diverse staging for each of the three tales, which provide stirring examples of overcoming fear and living with courage and humanity.”  “Elzbieta” “is eloquently narrated by Guare (as himself) and co-narrated and archly enacted by Omar Sangare,” the AP writer asserted, and “Funiage” is “a well-choreographed, feverish bad dream.”  On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray was by far the most positive reviewer.  He saw in Exile “an involving look at how the lines between political and personal alienation may frequently blur” and “an intensely theatrical outing,” which I think greatly overstates the truth.  Of “Karel,” Murray only said that “Moran effectively declares (and Pepe stages) [the monologue] with a minimum of emotional filigree,” but he called “Funiage” “a series of barely linked skits” which Schmidt’s music helps transform “into those of an on-again-off-again musical-comedy picaresque.”  “It can be exhausting to watch,” asserted Murray, “but it's a riveting evocation.”  And though it had to “survive the evening's worst presentation” (and “Pepe's static staging”), “Elzbieta” is a “potentially enveloping saga” that became “more off-putting than it has any right to be.”  (One reason, lamented Murray, was Guare’s “faint, toneless bark of a delivery [which] is utterly divorced from the words’ content.”)  TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart described Exile as a “surprising and insightful new play” in which “Karel” “serves as an appetizer” for the rest of the production, “Elzbieta” becomes “a really good cocktail-party story,” and “Funiage” is “by far the most theatrical.”  The last piece, Stewart asserted, is “a giant, extended, well-produced Polish joke” (though I’m not sure how that’s a good thing), but he observed that “Elzbieta” “could have easily become tedious and self-involved”—which is precisely what I found it to be.  The reviewer summed up his comments by asserting, “Guare captures the essence of the immigrant experience with an uncommon sensitivity.”  That may be true, but, in my opinion (humble or otherwise), only if you can sift through the verbiage and phony theatricality which seems to me to have been added just as eyewash (a term we used in the army to mean flashy aspects of a presentation or report that looked good but didn’t really mean anything).


22 June 2013

Actors’ Equity at 100: Part Two

[Welcome to the final part of the history of Actors’ Equity, the stage actors’ and stage managers’ union in the United States.  Part Two picks up after the successful 1919 strike against the theatrical producers and managers that established Equity as a force in both American theater and American organized labor.  Once recognized as the true representative of the professional stage actor and a voice for American culture and art, Equity engaged in struggles for both the dignity and welfare of actors and stage managers and for many social causes that affect us all, performers and audiences—and even those who never set foot inside a theater.  (If you haven’t read Part One, I urge you to go back and do so.  I promise you’ll find the saga most illuminating.)]

As well-established as the Actors’ Equity Association is now, it wasn’t always.  Like the emerging labor movement as a whole, there were many struggles and controversies as the actors’ union fought for recognition and respect.  I love the way the New York Times described this period in its report on the 50th-anniversary celebration in 1963:

Although Equity is now a prosperous union, its early years have enough drama, color and dash to make a half-million dollar musical with five turntables, a dozen sets and costumes to clothe the cast of a Hippodrome revue.  There were skirmishes on-stage and off-stage: first for a standard contract, then for clean dressing rooms, for good working conditions, no extra performances without pay and transportation to and from New York for road companies. 

By the 1950s and beyond, though, Actors’ Equity was a recognized force in American theater, most prominently (but hardly exclusively) in New York City.  When Off-Broadway became a significant arena for serious theater, Equity organized there, as it did in regional repertory theaters across the country, dinner theaters, industrial shows, theme parks, and outdoor historical pageants—venues that didn’t exist or hardly did in 1913 and 1919.  (SAG took over the representation of actors in films and some television and AFRA became the bargaining body for radio artists until it transformed into AFTRA and then merged with SAG to form a single union for all the electronic performance media.)  The next major battle for Equity came in 1960 when the union fought to obtain a pension plan for its members.  The producers balked at funding the plan through the standard contract, saying it would cause a rise in ticket prices (around $20-25 at the time).  On 24 May, a large assemblage of Equity members supported a strike vote, promising that if no agreement were reached by the 31st, the day before the contract deadline, one show a night would be closed down.  The League of New York Theatres (a successor to the PMA later renamed the League of New York Theatres and Producers, becoming the League of American Theatres and Producers in the ‘80s and now known as the Broadway League) countered that if one show was closed by the actors, the producers would close all the rest—a lock-out, in essence.  No agreement was reached and on 1 June, Equity closed The Tenth Man at the Booth.  The League retaliated by closing the rest of the Broadway houses.  The press dubbed it the Broadway Blackout and a worried Mayor Robert Wagner (1910-91) offered a compromise on 13 June to break the stalemate.  The mayor would get the City Council to repeal the 5% per-ticket Amusement Tax and in exchange the producers would pay a percentage of the box-office take into a pension fund for Broadway unions.  Twenty-two shows had closed and three never reopened, but both sides got something they wanted. 

For a while, at least.  In four years, another, shorter crisis arose when a new contract was under negotiation and the mayor again interceded, this time to get the parties to extend the deadline.  Nonetheless, on 7 June 1964, pickets halted the Sunday matinee performances of The Deputy at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and Oliver! at the Imperial and Mayor Wagner met with negotiators of Equity and the League until 3 a.m. at Gracie Mansion to hammer out a tentative agreement on increased minimum salaries, equalized rehearsal and performance pay, and the establishment of a “Principal Interview” clause.  The 1964 Broadway strike lasted 27 hours.

Then came 1968 . . . and yet another negotiation with the League.  The previous October, actor Angus Duncan (1936–2002), executive secretary of AEA from 1952 to 1972, asserted, “Let this be fair warning to all with whom we may negotiate.  We intend to be fair; but we also intend to negotiate from a position of strength.  These may well be trying times.  Let them try us.  We won’t be found wanting.”  Perhaps he knew what was coming, because on 7 June 1968, the union shut Broadway down again, this time for three days.  Wages and working conditions were once again the sticking points when the actors rejected the contract proposal offered by the League on the 2nd.  Mayor John Lindsay (1921-2000) stepped in and brokered an agreement that included the highest minimum-salary increase up to that point in history.  At the same time, the Oriental Actors of America picketed a New York City production of The King and I (Off-Broadway at the City Center with Constance Towers as Anna and Michael Kermoyan as the King), which cast Caucasian actors to play Asian roles.  The group’s co-chairman, actor Alvin Lum said, “Obviously, the Management believes the Oriental is incapable of portraying himself.”   This controversy would return as an issue for Equity in 1991, with playwright David Henry Hwang in the forefront.

A number of issues that Equity had been dealing with for decades collided in the second half of 1990, namely the importation of actors from Britain (an aspect of the on-going negotiations among INS, British Equity, and AEA on the equitable exchange of talent and reciprocity), non-traditional casting, and ethnic sensibility in casting.  When Cameron Mackintosh, the British producer of Miss Saigon, and the Shubert Organization applied for authorization to cast Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce in the Broadway production in the role of a Eurasian character in the musical (a Franco-British adaptation of Madame Butterfly), fierce criticism and press scrutiny followed Equity’s initial decision to reject the producer’s request.  The Caucasian actor wore eye prostheses and yellow-face makeup to play the part which incensed many Asians, especially actors.  “We cannot even begin to fight for non-traditional casting if audiences are not given permission to accept us enacting characters of our own colors,” insisted actor B. D. Wong as these questions suddenly played out on the world stage.  The union council reversed itself after a storm of criticism in the media and from AEA members, and Pryce performed the role which he originated in London (and for which he won both a 1991 Tony and Drama Desk Award here).  Obie-, Drama Desk-, and Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (FOB, M. Butterfly, Golden Child) became a prominent voice for Asian actors and the Asian-American community on this issue and ultimately wrote Yellow Face (2008 Obie) to recount his experience of and feelings about this controversy.

In November 1970, Equity’s talks with the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, founded in 1959 to represent Off-Broadway producers and theater owners, broke down over issues of minimum pay, pension contributions, and the union’s jurisdiction over the arena.  With 17 Off-Broadway shows at issue, a state mediator stepped in after a week of fruitless negotiations and recommended submitting to binding arbitration, the first time Equity had done that over a contract dispute.  The union’s first Off-Broadway strike lasted 31 days, but Equity won a raise in the minimum wage and assured its jurisdiction for Off-Broadway theaters.  A one-day strike in 1974 resulted in Equity allowing Off-Broadway theaters to increase their seating from 299 to 499, making Off-Broadway a more potentially profitable arena.

With Off-Broadway having become an important theater venue and significant employer for union actors and other theater artists, Equity became more and more engaged there, of course.  But with the rise of Off-Broadway into a viable commercial and established production arena, new non-commercial and experimental production outlets began to appear to take the place of the graying Broadway and Off-Broadway.  Along came Off-Off-Broadway, centered in Greenwich Village and the East Village (but really burgeoning all over the city and, in spirit, beyond).  The Off-Off-Broadway Alliance, known as OOBA (and later renamed the Alliance of Regional Theatres/New York, or ART/NY), formed in 1972 to serve as a professional organization for the scores of small theaters and productions attracting talent to storefronts, basements, and church halls.  Actors’ Equity was caught in a conundrum: these tiny theaters didn’t pay salaries or issue contracts, but they did offer actors a place to work, be seen, and stretch artistic muscles into new postures.  So, in order to keep its members from being exploited but still permit them, especially new members who needed the exposure, to work in an exciting arena that was also feeding the more established theater, Equity issued a code that dictated how union actors could be employed in Off-Off-Broadway productions.  (This, by the way, is when I arrived on the scene—so to speak.  I came to New York in 1974 and hit the streets to make the rounds in this very arena.)  In August 1975, Equity Council released a Code for Equity Showcases that garnered strong criticism from both the Off-Off-Broadway producers and Equity actors alike.  Code requirements and restrictions were seen as onerous to both the theaters and the actors who wanted to work in them. On 18 August, Off-Off Broadway producers held a huge rally at the Public Theater, threatening to ban union actors from their productions unless Equity revised the Code.  On 25 August, angry Equity members assembled at the Majestic Theatre for over four hours and the Equity membership voted overwhelmingly to suspend the Code “until a new agreement is discussed by authorized representatives of Off-Off Broadway and AEA.”  Talks resumed in 1978 and, after four years of debate and disagreement, the new Codes for New York City Showcases were issued in 1979.  (The Code was eventually replaced in the ’80s by the Funded Non-Profit Theatre Code and the Approved Showcase Code.)

During the mid-1970s, the stretch of Manhattan’s West 42nd Street between 9th and 11th Avenue began to be known colloquially as “Theatre Row.”  The two blocks, far west of the Times Square theater strip of song and movie titles, had descended into disrepute as a center of strip shows and grind houses, but it was also a real-estate goldmine for small theaters looking for spaces.  Leases were cheap (because no one wanted to go over there much) and many of the buildings were actual theaters, though tatty and seedy.  So, small companies and productions moved in, eventually elbowing the strippers and stag flicks out.  (I actually did a show over there, at the Nat Horne Theater, a former strip joint at 440 W. 42nd Street, before the renovation.)  In 1975, Playwrights Horizons, an established purveyor of new plays, moved in—and the designation became (nearly) official.  Theatre Row was the future center of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway.  After extensive lobbying, Equity persuaded New York City and State agencies to establish Manhattan Plaza, a federally-subsidized, 1,600-apartment highrise, as housing primarily for performing artists.  Opening in 1977, this development, occupying an entire city block between 42nd and 43rd Streets and 9th and 10th Avenues, helped anchor the revitalization of Theatre Row, which became the strip’s official name.  Extensive rebuilding concluded in 2000, including several new theaters, a luxury highrise for residences and offices, and a hotel, has turned Theatre Row into one of New York City’s most vital theater locales—employing, not coincidentally, hundreds of Equity members a year, along with their brothers and sisters in other theatrical unions.

In May 1977, a group of talent agents filed a federal anti-trust suit against Actors’ Equity over its policy of franchising agents who are permitted to represent union members, a policy in place since 1928.  (All the performer’s union follow a similar policy, ostensibly to protect their members from unscrupulous agents who charged outrageous fees for their services, sent actors to phony casting calls, or behaved toward their clients in ways that ranged from unethical to dangerous to illegal.)  In October 1979, the agents lost the case but vowed to appeal it to the Supreme Court.  In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in May 1981 that “Equity has the right to regulate conditions and determine provisions under which agents may represent Equity members.”

In May 1979, a group of concerned New Yorkers formed the Committee to Save the Theatres to prevent the proposed demolition of the Morosco (opened in 1917), Bijou (1917), and Helen Hayes (1911) Theatres for the construction of the Marriott Marquis Hotel.  The following February, hundreds of Equity members gathered at a great protest rally in front of the Helen Hayes Theatre.  Equity’s executive director summed up the struggle: “To demolish these theatres, which are the essential heritage and vitality of New York, in order to build a hotel whose guests come for that very vitality is a desperately wasteful and short-sighted plan.”  In a last effort to stop the Morosco Theatre’s destruction, protestors observed its 65th anniversary in February 1982 by presenting round-the-clock readings in front of the theater of Pulitzer Prize-winning plays produced there.  The attempt failed, and on 22 March, the Supreme Court lifted the stay of the demolition and the Morosco  was razed as 500 protestors watched, crying and shouting.  Two hundred people, known as “The Morosco 200”—including many Equity members—refused to leave the site and were taken away by the police.  (The only concession won in all the protests and negotiations with the builders was to include a new theater, the Marquis, which opened in 1986, in the design of the hotel.  In 1983, the theater formerly known as the Little Theatre was renamed for Helen Hayes.)

In 1980, after many actors were fired from the Broadway production of Annie, the League of New York Theatres and Producers agreed to include a “Just Cause” provision in the standard contract that required that an actor be given a specific warning and clear reasons before being terminated with severe penalties established for firings without just cause.  This essentially put an end to the old practice of the “satisfaction clause” that had felled so many actors decades earlier.

In a show of actorly solidarity at the dawn of the 21st century, Actors’ Equity supported the AFTRA-SAG strike against producers of radio and TV commercials in September 2000.  (Because of peculiarities in the contracts between the two unions and producers of TV commercials and programs, some ads and shows came under SAG’s jurisdiction and some under AFTRA’s.)  AEA admonished its members not to cross picket lines to accept work in commercials while the strike continued.  At the same time, the union began a strenuous campaign to deal with the growing numbers of non-Equity tours.  In 1997, AEA’s Council had voted to create a department for organizing in the touring arena and after protesting the non-union tour of The Sound of Music in February 2001 and calling for a national boycott, Actors’ Equity mounted an organizing campaign of the non-Equity Music Man tour in October.  By 2004, Equity saw its workweeks on the road drop 44% because of non-union tours.  During the fall of 2003, Council authorized $1.6 million for a road campaign to answer the crisis.  Targeting such non-Equity tours as Miss Saigon, Oliver!, and Oklahoma!, AEA’s “Save the Road” Campaign’s motto was If It’s Not Equity, It’s Not Broadway 

Toward the effort to unionize tours, the arena that was the impetus for the formation of Equity in the first place 91 years earlier, AEA and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers agreed to cooperate on issues affecting both unions, especially the non-Equity road tours and theaters in New York City and on the road that didn’t sign SSDC contracts.  In January 2004, SSDC issued a resolution stating that it “would stand behind Actors’ Equity that there should be no non-union tours” and refused to sign contracts for productions that didn’t also sign Equity contracts.  Failing to reach an agreement with one tour presenter, the production of Aida was cancelled and Equity prohibited its members from working in any capacity—director, choreographer, production supervisors—with three tour producers.  Because so many union members defied the prohibition, choosing, the Equity executive director asserted, “to place their own interests above those of their fellow Actors and the Association,” the union unhappily took the action in April 2004 of establishing a hearing committee to assess charges against actors who violated the ban on working for non-union touring producers, whom the executive director characterized as wanting “to turn back the clock.”  In the 2004 contract negotiations with the League, the agreement established an Experimental Touring Program that included provisions for road companies that protected the actors while increasing work opportunities on the touring arena.  In 2005, Big League Theatricals’ Aida became the first national tour using the ETP under the new Production Contract. 

In April 2000, representatives went on a fact-finding trip to Las Vegas to consider the feasibility of beginning to organize revues and cabaret productions along the Strip.  In June, the Casino Committee was formed to recommend specifics for a contract that suits the needs of performers and producers in that kind of venue.  By April 2001, the union had signed the first major contract developed especially for Las Vegas.  Contracts were later negotiated with theme parks like Disney World and venues like the American Girl Place.

In 2003, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents the artists who play in Broadway orchestra pits, went on strike against the League of American Theatres and Producers over the issue of minimum orchestra size requirements.  On 7 March, the musicians walked out of 18 Broadway shows at 12:01 a.m., but the producers expected to continue performances using recorded “virtual orchestras.”  Both Actors’ Equity and IATSE voted to support the AFM and refused to cross the musicians’ picket lines.  “Our members have made it clear that they do not wish to perform to virtual orchestras,” declared Equity President Patrick Quinn.  “Our members also believe that live music is essential on Broadway and that minimums are appropriate and necessary.”  (I’ve published my feelings about the use of virtual orchestras in musical theater on ROT; see “The Sound of Muzak,” 16 June 2011.)  Equity members joined Local 802 members on the picket lines as all the musicals on Broadway except Cabaret (which was on a different contract because of its location) were closed for the weekend of 7-9 March.  (The closure cost theaters an estimated $4½ million over the weekend, and another $7 million was lost by hotels, restaurants, and taxis.)  As in past actions, this strike didn’t lack for theatricality: on 8 March, actors and industry workers staged a mock funeral for live music in Times Square, carrying a coffin with the message Don’t let producers kill Broadway as musicians played W. C. Handy’s “Broadway Funeral Dirge.”  With the intercession of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his appointed mediator on 10 March, the two parties came to an agreement in the early hours of 11 March.  (Orchestra minimums were reduced but not eliminated.) 

The AFM strike had lasted four days and no productions closed prematurely (though even the strongest lost hundreds of thousands of box-office dollars), but a Local 802 officer felt that the union solidarity demonstrated during the action was a “historic achievement.”  In 2007, IATSE struck the League’s Broadway shows, generally over work rules, shuttering 27 productions between 10 and 28 November, the stagehands’ first such action in its 121-year history, and AEA stood with them, contributing songs and impromptu concerts on the street to mollify disappointed ticket-holders. 
The 1919 actors’ strike was the largest action Equity has ever undertaken, but it’s not the only important struggle in which it’s engaged.  Though the union is most concerned with actors’ and stage managers’ pay and working conditions, AEA has often been at the forefront of significant social issues.  In an interview about his history of Equity’s 100 years, theater writer Robert Simonson said, “On a lot of cultural issues [and] a lot of social issues, Equity was ahead of the curve.  They were always fighting for the rights of the underserved and the underprivileged.”  In the ’30s, he pointed out as an example, the union was fighting for the rights of racial and cultural minorities long before the civil-rights era dawned and the various liberation movements arose.  Among the other issues on which Equity has taken stands are support of actors with disabilities (an aspect often of the non-traditional casting effort), a “commitment to human rights for all people” (which translated in 2009 into opposition to California’s anti-gay Proposition 8), strong opposition to union-busting and so-called “right-to-work”—which Equity magazine called “right-to-starve”—laws (translating in 2011 into AEA support for Wisconsin protestors fighting the governor’s “budget repair bill” which stripped public sector workers of collective bargaining rights), and, underlying it all, a fierce support of the First Amendment and the freedom of expression.  After three plays were raided on obscenity charges in February 1927, Equity protested the arrest of cast members declaring, “The actor is not responsible for the content of the play . . . [.]”  In January 1930, Equity successfully appealed part of the Wales Theatrical Padlock Bill that authorized local New York officials to close theatrical productions and actors were no longer subject to arrest at raided shows.   On 23 April 1931, then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York signed the Buckley-Post Bill exempting actors, musicians, stagehands, and spectators from arrest during raids on theaters. 

In August 1933, Actors’ Equity protested the ban in Nazi Germany on Jewish actors’ appearing on the Third Reich’s stages.  The union’s public statement proclaimed: “On principle, the actors of all civilized countries must voice their objection to a point of view which sets political opinion and race above talent.”  (In November 1935, Germany passed the infamous Nuremberg Laws, stripping Jews of German citizenship.)  After “Kristallnacht” in Germany (9-10 November 1938), Equity’s executive secretary issued a statement: “I desire to register my emphatic protest of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime in Germany extending over the past five years and culminating in the unrestrained savagery and brutality of the last two weeks.”

On 4 July 1940, Equity became directly embroiled in the communist witch-hunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, known as HUAC.  Congressman William P. Lambertson (1880-1967), Republican of Kansas, accused seven union council members of being communists.  The union’s nominating committee rejected their candidacy even though it felt the charge was false.  Later, the union issued a statement condemning communism.  One of the accused candidates ran as an independent and was reelected in June 1941; two council officers and eight members resigned.  (In December 1947, HUAC started its infamous investigation of communism in Hollywood leading to hundreds of actors’ being blacklisted, many of whom were also Equity stage performers.) 

The union redeemed itself some later, however.  In September 1950, the red-baiting magazine Red Channels accused actor Philip Loeb, an Equity officer, of being a communist.  Loeb, a regular on the television series The Goldbergs starring Gertrude Berg (1898-1966), denied the charge.  The next year, General Foods, sponsor of The Goldbergs on CBS, announced that it would drop the program, one of TV’s earliest sitcoms.  Several months later, NBC picked up the series, but without Loeb.  In September 1951, Equity member John Randolph (1915-2004) found his name was on several lists of alleged communists and communist sympathizers and he couldn’t work in television anymore.  On 28 September 1951, the Equity Council resolved that blacklisting “is hostile to the fundamental purposes of this Association, and that Actors’ Equity will act to the fullest of its capacities in defense of its members.”  Despite Equity’s intercession, Philip Loeb (b. 1891) could only find occasional work over the next several years and on 1 September 1955, he committed suicide.  Although anti-communist demonstrations appeared in front of the Booth Theatre where John Randolph was playing in Wooden Dish thanks to the support of Equity—the play only ran 12 performances in 1955—he was able to keep his stage job though he couldn’t work in films or on television for many years.  In 1984, AEA established the Philip Loeb Award to recognize members who have contributed significantly to the union.

In a controversial and heated issue closely related to the communist witch hunts and the blacklist, in 1984, the Equity Council authorized a contribution to Vanessa Redgrave’s lawsuit against the Boston Symphony Orchestra for allegedly terminating her contract because of her political views in support of Palestinians.  The union’s executive director declared, in defense of the First Amendment and freedom of expression: “A political statement in and of itself, no matter how inflammatory to some people, should be protected in the context that an actor cannot be blacklisted.”  (Redgrave won the breach of contract argument, but lost the claim that the orchestra had violated her civil rights by firing her, principally on the assertion that the BSO is a private organization engaged in an artistic endeavor and therefore has First Amendment rights itself.)

In 1944, the union formed a committee to find hotel accommodations for members, especially minority actors who faced discrimination at segregated hotels.  In 1947, Equity helped force the integration of Washington’s National Theatre when it declared that no union actor would appear there or at any theater that barred integrated audiences.  (In 1943, Paul Robeson, 1898-1976, starring at the Shubert Theatre in Othello—becoming the first African-American actor to play the role on Broadway—with Jose Ferrer, 1912-92, and Uta Hagen, 1919-2004, had refused to play in Washington and Baltimore because the theaters’ audiences were segregated.  Later, Ferrer wrote in a letter to Variety that he would no longer appear in segregated theaters.)  The National closed for five years rather than comply, but in 1952, the theater, until the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971 the Capital’s only legitimate theater, reopened under different management and instituted a non-discrimination policy. 

Also in 1952, Equity formed its Committee on the Integration of Negro Performers and in 1961, Equity got the League of New York Theatres to agree that no actor could be required to perform in any venue that practices discrimination against either artists or patrons on the basis of race, creed, or color.  (This was later expanded to prohibit discrimination based on gender, sexual preference, or political belief as well.)  In 1959, the union sponsored the first Integration Showcase on the stage of Broadway’s Majestic Theatre.  The event was a presentation for casting directors and producers of a selection of famous scenes using what is now known as non-traditional casting.  Equity conceived the concept of “non-traditional casting” in 1982.  Defined as “the casting of ethnic minorities, females, seniors and disabled actors in roles where race, ethnicity, gender, age, and the presence of a disability is not absolutely essential to the development of the play or character,” the practice shortly became accepted throughout the industry.  The First National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting was held at New York City’s Shubert Theatre in November 1986.  The program featured 53 actors in 18 scenes performing non-traditional roles, including James Earl Jones as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (a role he played in 2008 in an all-black Broadway revival). 

To examine problems of racial discrimination in theater, film, and television, Actors’ Equity helped co-found the Non-Traditional Casting Project in 1986.  The Project’s Artist Files, containing nearly 3,700 pictures and resumes, were created to increase producers’, directors’, and casting agents’ access to actors of color and actors with disabilities.  (Use of the files increased 135% between 1991 and 1993.)  In 1989, African-American actress and producer Rosetta LeNoire (1911-2002), founder of the AMAS Repertory Theatre Company, an interracial theater dedicated to multi-ethnic productions, became the first recipient of the Equity award that now bears her name, given to those exemplifying the principles of non-traditional casting.  (In 2004, the award went to actress, dancer, and former Equity Councilor Kitty Lunn, who had become a paraplegic in 1991, in recognition of her establishment of the Infinity Dance Theatre, a company for dancers with disabilities and non-disabled dancers beyond the age traditionally associated with performers.)  The NTCP changed its name to the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts in 2007.

AIA also concerned itself with accessibility of disabled theatergoers to performances as well as casting opportunities for actors with disabilities.  In  2011, AIA allied with G-PASS, a service organization that helps make theater available to people with disabilities, to create the Broadway Accessibility/Audience Expansion Initiative, designed to give greater access in the theater to audience members with disabilities.  This program offered D-Scriptive, allowing blind or low-vision audience members detailed descriptions of the action on stage; I-Caption, an automated system which displays verbatim texts of the entire show; and ShowTrans, providing foreign language patrons an integrated translation of the show for the Broadway musical Catch Me If You Can.  Earlier that year, Disney’s The Lion King and Newsies entered into an agreement with the Broadway Accessibility/Audience Expansion Initiative to expand accessibility for blind and low-vision patrons.

In 1957, Actors’ Equity announced that it would not sanction union members performing in theaters in the Union of South Africa (renamed the Republic of South Africa after 1961) while apartheid remained the national policy.  On 15 October 1976, hundreds of Equity members rallied outside the South African Consulate in New York to protest the arrests in South Africa of John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Tony Award-winners in 1975 for Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island (written with and directed by Athol Fugard).  The two actors, detained in Umtata (now Mthatha), capital of the Bantustan republic of Transkei, for participating in a “vulgar” presentation,  were released after serving 15 days in solitary confinement and all charges against them were dropped.  

In a similar vein, Equity Councilor Christopher Reeve traveled to Chile in November 1987 to represent Equity’s support of 77 actors who received death threats after their political theater had criticized General Augusto Pinochet, the nation’s dictator.  (Reeve, world-famous as Superman in the movies, was left a quadriplegic in a horse-riding accident in 1995, after which he became an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities.  He died at 52 on 10 October 2004.)

In July 1980, The Four A’s condemned President Ronald Reagan’s proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts.  In September, more than 400,000 people, including Equity members, marched on Washington to protest the reductions.  Three years later, Equity member Jane Alexander testified before Congress in opposition of the NEA cutbacks, paraphrasing Shaw’s Saint Joan: “How long, O Government, how long before you are ready to receive your artists?”  (In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Alexander chairman of the Endowment.  The actress served as chair of the NEA until 1997.)  With the NEA assailed by conservative critics, actors Kelly McGillis, Sam Waterston, and Gail Grate represented the union at a congressional hearing on funding for the Endowment in April 1992.  Grate testified, “The artistic impulse is unique and must not be regulated.”

The AIDS epidemic affecting so many members of the acting profession, in November 1985, AEA created and produced The Best of the Best: A Show of Concern, a fundraising benefit at the Metropolitan Opera House, raising over $1 million for AIDS research.  (That same year, two plays about the disease opened in New York City: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and As Is by William Hoffman.)  The Equity Fights AIDS Committee was formed in January 1986 and the first Equity Fights AIDS Week, in November 1987, raised $73,000 and EFA became a permanent committee of the union.  (In 1992, EFA merged with another theatrical AIDS organization, Broadway Cares, founded in 1988 by members of The Producers’ Group, to form Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, or BC/EFA.)

“Words, actions, visual portrayals offensive to one may be intriguing, enlightening or artistic to others,” declared Colleen Dewhurst in January 1986 before United States Attorney General Edwin Meese’s Commission on Pornography.  The Equity actress represented the union at the request of the National Coalition Against Censorship in another stand against the encroachment on the First Amendment. 

When the horror of 11 September 2001 enveloped New York City and the country, Broadway theaters went dark for three days.  Thirteen shows were in danger of closing permanently and Equity, along with the other theatrical unions, approved temporary salary cuts to keep them running.  In response to the terror attacks, Broadway performers toured the country promoting New York City and Broadway theater in the show New York Loves America: The Broadway Tour in February 2002.  As the Equity president wrote shortly after the attacks: “If, through our talents, we can help the nation laugh with, cry over, rejoice in, or reflect upon, we will truly be acting for the common good.” 

Nick Wyman, current President of Actors’ Equity, and Mary McColl, Executive Director, declared in a joint statement on 24 May this year: “The lesson our wonderful history has taught us is that by uniting, we can achieve our common goals: embrace the opportunity to prove our talent; receive reasonable compensation for our work; and be treated with dignity and fairness.”  Equity received a Special Tony Award, presented by the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing at last year’s 66th annual Tony Awards ceremony on 10 June 2012, in recognition of its Centennial Celebration this spring.  (The union had previously been awarded a special Tony in 1974 for “diligent and tireless effort on behalf of American actors.”)  On 8 May, the City Council of Chicago issued a proclamation honoring AEA’s Centennial and on 13 May, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn followed suit.  Also on 13 May, Boston’s Elliot Norton Awards recognized Actors’ Equity “for 100 years of representing and protecting creative artists both onstage and on social platforms nationwide, thus nurturing the growth of professional American Theatre.”  Other cities and regions chose 2012 and 2013 as an appropriate time to recognize and thank the actors’ union for its work in behalf of the nation’s professional theater by presenting Equity with special regional awards like the Helen Hayes in Washington, the “Ivey” Award in the Twin Cities, and the Column Award in Dallas-Fort Worth.  On the anniversary of the founding of the union, 26 May, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proclaimed the day “Actors’ Equity Day” in the city. 

[Actors’ Equity planned no official celebration acknowledging the centennial, though 50 years ago, for its golden anniversary, the city held a month-long assembly of events.  Then-Mayor John Lindsay of New York City held a reception at Gracie Mansion to kick off the commemoration, followed the next day by an exhibit of posters and photographs at the New York Public Library.  (The Theatre Collection was housed at 42nd Street—now named the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building—in 1963, as the current Library for the Performing Arts hadn’t been built yet.  It opened in 1965.)  The Museum of the City of New York opened a special exhibit with Eugene O’Neill manuscripts, Jo Mielziner’s set models, and costumes worn by Ethel Barrymore, to Equity members.  Renowned producer Jean Dalrymple (1902-1998) presented a special show at the Majestic Theatre with performances by Helen Hayes (the final scene of Victoria Regina from 1935), Beatrice Lillie (singing “March With Me” from Charlot’s Revue of 1924), William Warfield (“I Got Plenty of Nuttin’: from 1935’s Porgy and Bess), Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene (“Sue Me” from Guys and Dolls of 1950), David Wayne and John Forsythe (a scene from the 1953 hit The Teahouse of the August Moon), and Robert Preston (“Trouble” from The Music Man of 1957).  The celebration culminated with a ball hosted by Actors’ Equity at the Astor Hotel, a Times Square landmark from 1904 to 1967.  (The building was demolished in 1968.)  Twenty-five years later, New York’s Mayor Ed Koch declared Equity Week in May 1988 in the city to celebrate the union’s 75th anniversary.

[Robert Simonson was asked to compile an account of the Actors’ Equity Association’s 100 years and he produced Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors’ Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2012) which has a foreword by Equity President Nick Wyman.  “When you first think of the idea, a history of a union, it sounds like a pretty dry prospect at the beginning,” said Simonson; but “there was more than enough drama there. It was not hard for me to write an interesting story.”]