Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors’ Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater

Let’s start the year off with a book you probably didn’t know you needed. It is one of those books that jump off the shelf at you when you see it, but only if you read the sub-title.

The title, “Performance of the Century”, doesn’t really hint at what the book is about, and after all there are lots of compilations of notable performances or profiles of famous performers.

centennial actors equity

click to buy. Amazon price: $28.

The sub-title, “100 Years of Actors’ Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater”, on the other hand, sets the volume apart from those compilations and gives a glimmer of its coverage and scope.

Most unions that have survived a century would have an interesting and important story to tell. Actors’ Equity, representing as it has some of the most famous and most influential practitioners of the thespian arts, has a history sprinkled with stars. Still, the story is much more than that.

As Robert Simonson relates, the position in society that actors occupy has changed astonishingly over the period of the union’s existence. Rising from the level of a profession looked down on to the extent that hotels refused them lodging, churches refused them services (such as weddings and funerals) and society expected them to arrive by the back door to perform their little entertainments, the people at the top of the profession are now honored at the White House, chronicled by an at times fawning press, pestered by paparazzi and sought out for endorsements by causes from the charitable to the political.

Not all of this miraculous transformation has been the result of unionization, and it is still true that the profession of performing retains one of the highest unemployment rates of any calling. However, Equity can certainly claim credit for many improvements in an actor’s life.

Consider that prior to the establishment of Actors’ Equity it was standard procedure for producers to require actors to rehearse without pay for weeks prior to a show’s opening. In some instances, the “no pay till we open” even applied to “previews” to which producers sold tickets but pocketed the proceeds.

Consider, too, that actresses often had to buy their own costumes before they could appear in a show or that some touring shows did not pay for lodging. Then, often there was no guarantee of so much as a ticket home if the show folded on the road.

The strike of 1919, the story of which is well told in these lavishly illustrated pages, began the process of changing all that. The terms of employment progressed first to more tenable provisions and then, thanks to continued efforts by the union, such features as health insurance and retirement benefits were added.

Equity has had many programs over the years which went beyond traditional union activities. The book tells the story of the Equity Library Theater that gave actors a chance to practice their craft when jobs weren’t available and also gave the theater community a chance to develop new customers which they call an “audience.”

There’s the story of the Agent Access Auditions that Equity established to give members – old and young – a shot at landing not just a role but an agent who might get them shots at lots of roles.

While Equity was established in New York City, it’s coverage eventually expanded nation wide, and not just for New York-based actors. Simonson includes a surprisingly comprehensive, if brief, overview of the Regional Theater Movement with interesting takes on the strengths and unique qualities of different companies from Washington DC’s Arena Stage to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Equity represents stage managers as well as working actors for reasons which are well explained in the nifty chapter on that career track.

It is important to note that Simonson appears to be writing what might be called an “authorized biography” if its subject were a person rather than an organization. Note that the copyright for the book is held by Actors’ Equity Association, not by Simonson. As a result, it is hard to determine just how much editorial freedom Simonson enjoyed.

Performance of the Century:
100 Years of Actors’ Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater

by Robert Simonson

Hard cover – 240 pages with over 200 color and black & white illustrations
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
ISBN 978-1-55783-837-7
List Price $42.50

He certainly puts the most positive spin on the story of Equity’s record during the blacklisting era, making the most of the fact that the Association didn’t cave as far as some other theatrical unions or organizations to the pressures of the likes of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, the Senate Investigations Subcommittee of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn or even the blacklisting magazine “Red Channels.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t sit in judgment, not having lived through that period as an adult, and let them take credit for only having a loyalty oath for their governing council members and not for the entire membership. They certainly deserve kudos for insisting on a “no blacklist” clause in their standard agreement by 1952.

Equity also deserves all the credit the book gives them for not going as far overboard with censorship as Hollywood did with the Hays Office of the 1920s and 30s but they did establish “Citizens Play Juries” in the 20s to respond to complaints of excessive sexuality or depravity in productions featuring Equity members.

Certainly, the organization deserves all the credit the book gives it for its role in the fight against AIDS. Broadway Cares / Equity Fights Aids is a sterling story of success.

As enjoyable a read as the book is it would also serve as an incredibly valuable resource if it only had any indication of the sources of its information. However, there is no bibliography, not a single note (foot or end) and precious few attributions in the text. That text is filled with assertions, quotes, dates and illustrative detail. But where did they come from? Its prose is intentionally entertaining, but that means it is often not as precise or all encompassing in its descriptions as you would like if you were referring to it for other than a light skim.

 

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