Actors' Equity at 90

Actors' Equity at 90 Ellen Burstyn, a former Actors' Equity Association president, looks at the past and present of the venerable actors' union
Ellen Burstyn
Ellen Burstyn

I'm from Detroit, MI, and started as a model in the mid-fifties, then worked as a dancer on "The Jackie Gleason Show." I landed my first Broadway show and earned my Equity card in the 1957 comedy Fair Game, co-starring Sam Levene. I was very proud to get that card — it made me feel blessed and respected as an actress and union member.

Now led by President Patrick Quinn, Equity represents more than 45,000 actors, singers, dancers and stage managers working in theatres across the United States. Equity's mission — to advance, promote, foster and benefit all those connected with the art of the theatre, as stated in its original constitution — continues as its guiding principle.

Actors' Equity was formed in New York City on May 26, 1913. For many years, exploitation had been a permanent condition of actors' employment. Theatrical producers set their own rules. Working conditions were unregulated, there was no required minimum salary, closing shows left actors stranded miles from home, and dismissals took place without any notice.

In 1919, the American Federation of Labor granted Equity its charter. On August 7, because the producers had rejected all of its proposals, Equity called the first strike in the history of the American theatre. The strike lasted 30 days, spreading to eight cities and closing 37 plays. The employers then signed a five-year agreement including most of Equity's demands.

In the ensuing years, Equity has secured provisions that protect the actor, including minimum salaries, rehearsal pay, mandatory auditions, regulation of agents, and pension and health trust funds. Consistent with being a leader in civil rights, Equity ruled that its members would not perform on the stage of the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., when, in 1947, it barred black audience members. The theatre closed, later reopening with a non-discrimination policy.

Equity was key to the original 1964 legislation establishing what is now the National Endowment for the Arts.

Equity supports the work of other not-for-profit theatrical organizations that benefit both its membership and the entire theatre community. Millions of dollars have been raised for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the nation's leading AIDS fundraising and grants organization, and Equity generously supports the work of The Actors' Fund, Career Transition for Dancers and the Actors' Work Program. We are proud of Equity's 90 years of achievements, and we look forward to many more years of service to the theatre and the theatrical community.