The other weekend it was the hundredth anniversary of Actors Equity and many a member posted on Facebook happy remembrances of how, where and when they card their cards. This was something of an affront to those who don’t have their cards yet. “You’re a member…whoop-ti-effing-do!”
And I think there’s a pack mentality to human nature. Something within us compels us to join a clique or a club simply so we can say “I’m a member…and you’re not.”
Of course that’s not why Equity was formed. In the early part of the last century there was widespread exploitation of actors. Like almost any trade union, it was created to protect workers. Some might argue that AEA has now outlived its initial rationale, as all the protections it initially sought are now a part of the nation’s laws. But on they go, offering health insurance, and, in New York shows, requiring a casting call that only members can attend. “I’m a member…and you’re not — even allowed to try out for this role.”
For those of us who aren’t actors but are attempting to create new work (and, therefore, new shows for performers to act in), Equity too often seems like a ball and chain, the thing that keeps us from speeding forward with our creations. We love actors, appreciate all they do. We don’t love their union.
I have been staring at something called The Production Rulebook. It’s 199 pages long. There are all sorts of arcane regulations that make using Equity actors at various stages of the development process prohibitively difficult. The union places limits on the number of hours a show may be rehearsed, which is particularly galling for songwriters like me who like to write complicated numbers. Imagine the artistic director attending two readings two nights in a row and they’re both rehearsed for 29 hours. (Why 29? It’s a number Actors Equity pulled out of the air.) The show with the less complicated music is bound to look more polished. Is that fair? Nope: it’s Equity.
Many of my shows had ticket prices and number of performances limited by Equity. On Broadway and Off-, there’s a variety of unions in cahoots with Equity. So no union player can appear in a show without a union electrician running the wires, a Teamster loading in the set, and there’s even a requirement that a union curtain-puller be paid, including on those Broadway shows where there is no curtain.
Across the country, you can find a lot of non-union theatre that’s every bit as good as Equity theatre. This must strike fear in the hearts of those who run the union for, over the many years I can remember, they’ve been involved in active disinformation campaigns trying to convince the ticket-buyer this isn’t so. You’d think they’d have the confidence to let the public make up its own mind about who’s a quality actor and who isn’t. But, let’s face it, some actors are under-confident people.
Let me tell you a fantasy of mine, and as I do you can guess why it’s a fantasy. One day I’d like to convene an assemblage of performers with both musical skills, and improvisational ability. We’ll take some public domain work of literature, all read it, and a developmental director would guide improvisations dramatizing scenes from the book. A writing team (including me) would attend and, inspired by the improvs, would write up scenes and songs. These would be tried on for size by the company of actors, leading to more improvs, back-and-forth with rewrites. In short, an organically group-created musical would spring forth over time. Sound fun? It’s in the realm of fantasy because the union won’t allow anything like what I describe. Sometimes I think they should have a slogan: “You can’t do that.”
Loving actors, though, writers are of course glad they’re not exploited. It’s a hard enough arena to land a job in in the first place. Which reminds me of the luckiest gentlemen I’ve ever stared at in the theatre. There was a revival of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. On stage, throughout the play (which is in the form of a trial), sat six men in uniforms. They were stone-faced, and didn’t display any reaction to the dramatic testimony presented to them. They had no lines; they didn’t move. I found out that, due to Equity minimums for silent players, they each earned $600 per week. This was in the 80s.
Now Equity has turned 100, and you can’t buy a ticket to a Broadway musical for less than $100. Hmmm… How to put this? We’ve got a union to thank!