If you check the prime Internet databases for Broadway and Off-Broadway plays, you won’t find even one reference to Alan Eisenberg. And yet he is one of the most important players in the world of the American theatre. That’s because he is the executive director of Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union that represents more than 46,000 American actors and stage managers. Equity has negotiated wages, administered contracts and enforced its agreements for more than 91 years, and Eisenberg has been the executive director for the last 24 of them.
A lawyer by training, he showed an early love for the arts, and especially for the theatre. "I just knew that if I could find a job in the performing arts, I could integrate my work and my interest in the theatre," Eisenberg says, sitting in a conference room at Equity headquarters in the heart of the Broadway theatre district. "I would be a much happier person." And for the last quarter century, that’s what he’s been.
Eisenberg was born in Manhattan and grew up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School and the University of Michigan, where he majored in English and worked on the school newspaper. "I went to the same high school and university as Arthur Miller," he is quick to point out, "and I worked for the university newspaper, just as Miller did." The first Broadway play Eisenberg saw was Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, courtesy of "Miss Goldstein, my fourth-grade teacher." The first musical was South Pacific, starring Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin, courtesy of his parents.
"It was just thrilling, and I would start coming into Manhattan from Brooklyn. For me, sitting in the second balcony was wonderful." He went to New York University Law School. "After law school I had a day job, but I was nothing more than a glorified clerk, and I ended up spending about five years working nights at Cafe Figaro in Greenwich Village. I became the second-best espresso machine operator in New York City. But the firm I worked for had a small labor practice, and I said to myself that if I’m going to be a lawyer, I’m going to be a labor lawyer, because the inherent conflict between labor and management was really dramatic."
So that’s what he did, and for a while he worked in Washington, D.C., for newspaper labor unions. "But I dabbled in the arts, in an art gallery in Washington, and I was doing pro bono work for the performing arts unions at the Kennedy Center. And when I opened up a newspaper, I always looked at the arts pages first."
It was 1981. Eisenberg knew Martin Segal, at the time the chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, "a little bit," because Segal’s actuarial firm did work for the unions. "I managed to get an appointment with him, and he said he knew about a job that was available at Actors’ Equity, as executive director. He asked if I would like him to set up an interview, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And I wowed the search committee. The Equity Council had to interview the finalists. I had done research, and I knew that the day of the interview with the council was the anniversary of the day that Equity had been founded. And I told them so."
And he got the job. "So I took a 70 to 80 percent cut in salary. I was single, so I figured it was okay. I signed a one-year contract, with one week of vacation and one week of severance pay. But in a way the theatre was in my blood." Over the last 24 years, Eisenberg says, "I have tried to emphasize on a continuing basis, with the staff and with our council and with our officers, that we are a service organization, and we must be responsive to the members in terms of being that kind of organization, in terms of returning telephone calls, having a friendly membership department, having a cordial contracts department, having an auditions department that recognizes it’s all about getting a job."
But the union’s "primary mission is collective bargaining," Eisenberg says, "and the administration of those contracts, and I think we’ve been quite successful." Earnings of actors have more than doubled, according to Equity, from over $118 million to over $250 million, which is more than 40 percent over the rate of inflation.
"I think we have raised the stature of the union to our members," he says. "There is more respect between the members and the association."
Eisenberg spends many of his evenings in the theatre. "I say it’s part of my job—at least that’s what I say to my wife when I’m not home. But it’s a great privilege. It’s exciting, kind of like looking at a menu—what am I going to see tonight? I’ve been seeing more than 125 productions a year for 24 years. I see everything on Broadway. I see most of the Off-Broadway productions. And then I poke around all over the city or out of town, and I see many of the smaller productions, which in a lot of ways are the most interesting. And I usually go backstage."
In his spare time, he is vice-president of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; on the boards of the Actors’ Fund, Career Transition for Dancers, the Actors’ Equity Foundation and the Non-Traditional Casting Project; and a member of the Tony Awards Administration Committee. He is a vice-president of the Department for Professional Employees, a division of the A.F.L.-C.I.O, and the co-chairman of the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds. And he has been a visiting professor at the Yale School of Drama since 1981.
Eisenberg has announced that he will retire from Equity in October 2006, after completing a quarter century on the job. But he will not be leaving the theatre. "I have a couple of ideas of what I want to do, but I’d rather not say yet. But I hope to be able to stay within the industry."
And he still plans to continue going to the theatre often. "I’m looking forward to some things already," he says with his typical enthusiasm. "I see that Signature Theatre is going to do a series of August Wilson plays." He can’t wait.