"Don't put your daughter on the stage," Noel Coward famously cautioned his imaginary Mrs. Worthington, and no wonder: Stage acting is one of the toughest professions imaginable. For all the potential triumph, there's hardly any job security — and more than a little potential for heartbreak and disappointment.
Yet thousands upon thousands of men, women, children — and even animals — remain undaunted by the odds, and for most of the two-legged members of that profession, the symbol of really making it is an Actors' Equity card, the sign of membership in a union of professional stage actors and stage managers that's about to turn 100 years old.
Nicholas Wyman got his Equity card in 1974, when he landed a role in the national tour of Grease. Now a Broadway veteran, he's also the president of the Actors' Equity Association. And though he says an "actor's union" might seem like an oxymoron, the organization has flourished for a century.
"You think of these preening, narcissistic, self-involved, self-centered — you know, artistes — [they] have all banded together, the successful ones with the less successful ones, to work for the common good, to help one another get the best possible deal they can with various producers and employers. That they have done this and risked their own livelihoods and careers through the years is really moving."
Equity was born out of the truly dismal working conditions that prevailed in 1903, says author and veteran theater journalist Robert Simonson, who's written a coffee-table book, Performance of the Century, about the history of the union.
"Back then, if you were a regular rank-and-file actor, first of all, you rehearsed without pay," Simonson says. "And rehearsals could take as long as the producers said they could — like, for a play, maybe six weeks; for a musical, up to 14 weeks. Imagine working for 14 weeks and getting no money."
That was hardly the end of the indignities.
"As for costumes," Simonson says, "you had to buy your own — they were not provided for you. Train fare, hotels, all on you, all coming out of your pocketbook."
But for the first several years, producers of Broadway shows and national tours wouldn't play ball; they simply didn't honor Equity's contract. So in 1919, the union went on strike. Theaters across the country shut down.
'George M. Cohan Need Not Apply'
Most big stars of the time, like the legendary Ethel Barrymore, supported Equity. But others, like George M. Cohan, who wrote "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and was also a producer, didn't.
"He said he would be an elevator operator before he'd join the union," Simonson explains. "And you know, the day after he said that, there were signs in windows saying, 'Wanted: Elevator Operator. George M. Cohan need not apply.' "
After a month, the producers relented, and Equity established itself as the union for actors and stage managers. In the intervening years, Equity has grown into a truly national organization, especially as the resident theater movement exploded across the country and the professional off-Broadway market grew. Simonson says contracts with those venues were hard-fought.
"It was always a balancing act, and there were always fights," he says. "And little by little they figured out how to handle all these new regional theaters, how to handle these off-Broadway theaters, without killing the movement."
Still, it's a national union where, at any given time, most of its members are out of work, says Equity chief Nicholas Wyman.
"There are about 49,000 members, and in any one year, I think about 17,000 work," Wyman says. "Over the course of a three-year period, about half of the members have work. But that means half of the members don't. And, of the members who do work, the median income [from work in the theater] is about $7,500."
Wyman says that very financial insecurity, and their empathy as actors, have helped push Equity's members to take on social issues over the course of the past hundred years.
"They have been at the forefront of social movements," he says, "fighting against the blacklist during the McCarthy era, fighting against segregation — they helped to integrate the National Theatre in Washington — fighting on behalf of workers' rights, on behalf of people struggling with AIDS and HIV, on behalf of marriage equality."
And as Equity enters its second century, it finds that theater, like many other American industries, is struggling in the aftermath of the economic downturn. Gary Blackman, the co-director of the national touring children's-theater company ArtsPower, says financial pressure forced his troupe to go non-Equity a few years ago.
"The primary issue was the rising cost of health care," Blackman says. "And we decided that, in order to adapt to what was going on and to keep the company up and running, going non-Equity would save the tremendous cost of health care."
Wyman has heard plenty about those concerns, among others. He says the union has made concessions on a number of fronts to help struggling companies, to keep actors employed and to keep theater alive.
"I'm a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all boats," says Wyman, "in that it can only help our members if our bargaining partners — if the theaters and the employers that we bargain with — are successful. That's a great thing."