"Performance of the Century": A Look at the Book That Honors Equity's 100th Anniversary

By Robert Simonson
24 Nov 2012

Sign from 1939 appealing for public support.
Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundations

Equity not only proved scoffers wrong by getting organized, but went further. More than many unions, Equity routinely went the extra mile in its fights, waging dangerous but principled fights to defend the rights and improve the lots of performers discriminated against because of their race, sex, political beliefs, or physical abilities. Systematic segregation, artistic censorship, and McCarthyism were forces the union saw fit to repudiate long before they were taken up by the government.

Beyond that, Equity has forever sought to advance, promote, and foster the art of live theatre a country that often seems defiantly predisposed to reject the role of art in daily life.

Of course, Equity accomplishes many more mundane, but no less important, things on a daily basis — such as ensuring that professional workplace standards are upheld and theatre professionals are fairly compensated, adequately insured, provided a secure retirement, and protected from discrimination. It manages this through the National Council, Equity's policy-making and governing body, the members of which live within Equity's three geographic regions (Western, Central, and Eastern). The Council defines the authority and duties of three Regional Boards and many committees, and oversees their actions. As such, the union essentially remains a democratic enterprise, the members' collective voice leading the future direction of Equity.

Press bureau for the 1919 AEA strike.
Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundations

That democracy is made of many constituencies — actors, of course, but not all of the same sort. There are principals, who play the main roles; chorus members, who back them up (and once constituted a separate sister union called Chorus Equity); swings, non-performing members of the cast who must learn all the chorus parts; understudies, who go on when the principals are ill or on holiday; and stage managers, who work in the wings and make certain the show that surrounds all of the above players runs smoothly, night after night.

Stage mangers would seem to be the odd ones out in that list. But they have always been part of Equity. The reason for this is simple. In the old days, there was a little bit of actor in every stage manager, and a little bit of stage manager in every actor. Before stage work became a complex business, and theatre professionals were compelled to specialize, the positions were more fluid. An actor might take a stage managing gig between roles, and a stage manager might be called on to step into a performer's shoes.

If theatre is a collaborative art, as they say, many of its collaborators can claim a connection to Equity. Directors and choreographers, too, can consider the union their original home. Prior to the formation of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society in 1959, directors' contracts with producers were negotiated by Equity. Given the long history of the actor-manager, who wore many hats, including director, this arrangement hardly seems strange.

To purchase "Performance of the Century," visit the Playbill Store.