Having just been elected the president of the Actors' Equity Association (AEA, Equity), actor Patrick Quinn believes that his many years working closely with former Equity presidents will serve him well during the challenging days that lie ahead: Equity is negotiating a new production contract and is committed to supporting its sister unions, SAG and AFTRA, in a tough strike action with the producers of commercials. And, as if this wasn't enough to contend with, this 22-year Broadway veteran has just one fall back position -- his day job as an actor.
"It's a little overwhelming," Quinn told Playbill On-Line (May 23), "but I'm excited."
One of the most interesting aspects of the recent Equity election, the fact that Quinn ran unopposed, led to a story that offers insight into the workings of Equity and the direction the union leadership hopes to take in the future.
Quinn laughs when he recalls that when he was elected on May 20, outgoing Equity president Ron Silver told him, "Good luck."
"He was the person who first encouraged me to run," Quinn explained. "Last summer we were talking about the future, and I said that I was looking for someone so that we could begin talking to them about being the new president. The problem was that there didn't seem to be anyone available who had that star capability." The star factor, Quinn explained, is a mix of working actor and star power, a combination that the Equity leadership felt was essential to the makeup of a successful presidential candidate. But that thinking changed prior to the recent election for a number of reasons. "When Ron and I discussed it last year," Quinn recalls, "he said, 'You should be the next president,' and at first I said I didn't think so."
Quinn explained that his first love is being an actor and that he didn't grow up to be labor leader, having decided in his teens that he wanted to work on the stage.
"I spoke with one group about my candidacy last fall and told them I was very supportive of an Equity system where the president was someone of great visibility, i.e., a star," Quinn said. "But they said, 'We have enough stars to call on if we need them.'"
The Equity group explained to Quinn that leading members of the union felt they needed a hands-on president.
At that point, Quinn said, he tested the waters and found he had a great deal of support. "It was strange not being opposed," Quinn said, "but I just figured there were three possible scenarios: 1. I was so popular that no one else ran; 2. No one thought they could beat me; or 3. Nobody cared. I'm not sure how it worked, but it worked."
Remarking on the future for Equity, Quinn said he expected a smooth transition as he assumes his duties, in part because he has already been presiding over Equity's all-powerful governing Council for several years. "Ron [Silver] did not want that," Quinn said. "It's a role that involves a great deal of parliamentary procedure, so I've been taking care of a lot of that for the past 12 years. In many ways, Ron's career was going so strong that a lot of things fell to me anyway. The difference is that now I have the authority to be able to take up some of the things that, before, I first had to get ahold of Ron for."
Does he think the transition between his stewardship and Ron Silver's will be seamless? "I would think it could be," Quinn said. "I certainly hope it will be. I don't foresee any major changes."
Quinn began his career as an Equity chorus member in 1977 in the revival of Fiddler on the Roof starring Zero Mostel at the Winter Garden. He worked as a deputy, liaising between the cast in the production and the union, which was the start of a 23-year connection with the Equity council. "Even on the one occasion when I considered stepping down," Quinn said, "I realized it's a part of my lifeblood."
Of his three-year term as Equity's president, Quinn said, "It's a lovely honor, but a great deal of work. I do have a career and I have both of those balls to juggle."
Like the Screen Actor's Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Equity's sister unions, the top Equity job is an unpaid position and, while there may be apparent perks like travel, the labor responsibilities are demanding.
"I just did five days in Las Vegas as first vice president," Quinn said. "We're trying to work out a new contract with the National Alliance of Music Theatre Producers. We stayed in a nice hotel and you'd think it was a great perk, but I never saw the casino or the pool, and we do fly coach. We didn't get to play at all."
Quinn likens the appearance of the perks of union office to being a Tony voter. "I've been a Tony voter all these years," Quinn explained "and I'll tell you that when April and May come around, the joy of going to the theatre can become a difficult thing to appreciate."
As Equity's president, Quinn and other union leaders have administrative and negotiating duties to attend to in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Orlando, where the large number of Equity members employed there by Disney and MGM require active regional representation. "We have close to 500 members there [Orlando] and that adds up to a lot of work weeks." he said.
Quinn said that he expects that the honeymoon will be over very quickly. "I'll be chairing the negotiating team for the new production contract for Broadway and touring," Quinn said. "The going is very difficult. I'm not quite sure why, because I was doing Encores!'s Wonderful Town and Mark Zimmerman was taking care of the negotiating duties during that period."
Quinn sees an expansion of what the union does for its members in the future saying, "theatre is not as simple as it used to be. It's more difficult to protect the members, and there are new issues, like the advent of the Internet, which is something that SAG and AFTRA are dealing with now with the commercial producers strike.
"The internet issue is something that the producers do not wish to address at all," Quinn added, "and that's wrong. I also do a healthy amount of commercial work, and it's extremely difficult for someone to say that they do not want to pay you for what you are doing."
The exponential growth of the internet and the use of promo spots on the new medium are issues Quinn will be dealing with in his work at Equity. "While we do not write the contract on commercials for Broadway shows," Quinn said, "we have certain control of things under our contract and stipulations that must be met. For now, we've had to cut off commercials, which cannot be made for Broadway shows."
Quinn said that if Broadway producers signed interim agreements with the unions, Broadway commercial work could resume, although he was unaware of any producer signatories to the agreements at this time.
-- By Murdoch McBride