The union meeting at the Wilma Theater in Center City wasn’t your typical one – but then, Actors’ Equity isn’t your typical union. Just the age range proves that.
At one end of the Wilma lobby was 13-year-old Brigid Harrington of Long Beach Island, a member for two years. At another end were Center City residents Sylvia Kauders, who became an Equity member with her 1982 Broadway debut and Deen Kogan, founder and leader of Society Hill Playhouse, and an Equity member for more than 50 years.
They were celebrating because Equity – the union that represents stage actors and stage managers across the country and is the standard-bearer for professionalism in the theater – is in its 100th year. The union already has partied in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the sites of its three main offices. Monday’s reception and ceremony at the Wilma was the first of 27 in cities where Equity has a number of contracts with resident theaters.
It was the second time within weeks that Philadelphia theater artists were celebrating. First came an announcement last week that the Barrymore Awards, the region’s citations for excellence, were being revived next season; the awards were suspended this year because the Philadelphia Theater Alliance, which had administered the program, no longer operates.
Live theater in Philadelphia has become a minor industry over the past two decades, and Equity now counts just under or just over 1,000 members in the region, depending on where you draw the borders. Tom Helmer, a stage manager at InterAct Theatre and chairman of the Equity local here, spoke Monday night of the early ’80s, when five regional stages had Equity contracts, then pointed to a screen showing the names of 63 theater companies within a 50-mile radius of Center City, all currently producing with some form of Equity contract. About half of those hold major contracts, meaning that most of the actors and all of their stage managers they hire for any production are Equity members.
About 150 theater artists attended Monday night, and they included not just union members, but people earning their Equity cards – an involved process that allows actors to become members by accumulating points per production on Equity-contracted stages.
The ceremony was warm and sometimes even jubilant. Local committee members who helped to organize the fete took turns reading from a document that proclaimed Monday as Equity Day in Philadelphia and was signed by Mayor Nutter. The mayor recognized “a long and storied history of presenting live theater” in the city and said Equity “represents a standard of excellence.”
Equity’s National Executive Director, Mary McColl, read a proclamation, from President Obama, who cited the union’s “tradition of fighting inequality in society,” and national president Nick Wyman congratulated the audience for the role theater plays in the region. “Live theater is alive here,” he said.
The history of Actors’ Equity, which currently has 49,000 members, mirrors most of the milestones in the evolution of the American theater over the past hundred years. Equity’s big breakthrough came six years after its founding, when actors walked out of shows – first in New York and then in other cities. Producers had refused to negotiate for what people consider basic services today – paying actors for weeks of rehearsals, for their costumes and even for getting home when a show closed on the road. The producers settled after a month, and Actors’ Equity Association became a fixture.
Its members took up causes. They entertained troops, fought Congressional witch hunts, stood against segregation, helped get New York back to business immediately after 9/11 and began one of the country’s most successful grass-roots charity campaigns — Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
To mark its centennial, Equity has issued a coffee-table book called “Performance of the Century,” from Applause Press by Robert Simonson, with a text that captures the union and its spirit. The book includes historic pictures and many sidebar pieces on the craft of theater.
You can listen to an NPR report about Equity’s centennial and history here.