[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.”]