Actors' Equity Association is that most improbable of institutions: an artists' union. It represents and looks out for the welfare of more than 48,000 actors and stage managers in the United States. In 100 years, it has not imploded, been exploded, or been declared illegal. It should be in Ripley's Believe It or Not!
As a journalist, I have covered the American stage for 30 years. During that time, I have tended to take Equity for granted as one of the immutable realities of the theatre. Yet, as I researched this book, it quickly dawned on me that Equity's very existence was basically unimaginable. We tend to associate unions with blue-collar jobs — work that is often hard and unglamorous to begin with and would be so much worse if a union didn't look out for its practitioners. A labor organization representing an inevitably elective profession like acting? Absurd, really. Surreal. Artists have never managed it. Nor novelists, nor poets. That a labor union governed by performers, and speaking for performers, has survived for a century is nothing less than a miracle.
Certainly the people who controlled the theatre back in 1913 didn't think Equity would last a year. Actors were too self-interested ever to act in concert; too proud ever to call what they did a craft; too refined and impractical ever to worry themselves with the base matters of business; and too insecure ever to turn down work, no matter how financially punishing and personally humiliating the conditions. So went the conventional wisdom. And for much of the 19th century, the evidence did not seem to contradict it. Every attempt to organize actors had failed.
But by the 1910s, working conditions had become unendurable. Actors were not paid for rehearsal. They were made to buy their own costumes. They were abandoned when shows failed on the road. Contracts were regularly broken by unscrupulous producers. There was no security. Action had to be taken. And in 1919, it was. The fledgling union found its feet and its teeth six years after it was formed.
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