Equity at 100: What Battles Will the Future Hold?

By Robert Simonson
14 Jun 2013

Nick Wyman
Nick Wyman
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

During its first 100 years, Actors' Equity Association — which celebrated its centennial on May 26 — battled the forces of segregation, bigotry, blacklisting, economic depression, disease and war. It struggled to defend its members' rights in the expanded professional fields of Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway and regional theatre. What will the union's next 100 years bring?

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"Equity is built on the twin pillars of art and labor," said Mary McColl, Equity's executive director. "We share the same challenges as any other labor union and there is a change in the perspective of what unions in this country mean. Our members work in a highly unionized industry that is built on art. The arts themselves are under attack as well, with funding on the federal, state, and local levels being slashed. Our non-profit producers are stressed and looking for new business models to keep their doors open. Even commercial producers are impacted by the new economy, with a downtick in investment which will continue to challenge and change the productions that happen on Broadway and in other commercial houses."

According to Equity's president Nick Wyman, in order to compete, Equity will have to become not only stronger, but also "more nimble and flexible" to deal with a wide variety of rapidly changing business models and work environments.

"Equity has always been justifiably proud and respectful of its accomplishments and traditions, but sometimes that respect for tradition can make us slow to react and adapt to business changes," said Wyman.



Both Wyman and McColl cited an evolving relationship with producers as one of the keys to Equity's continued health as an organization.

"We view them as our bargaining partners, not our bargaining adversaries," said Wyman. "We approach challenges with the intent of finding solutions and… mutually beneficial changes to the business model. Whether working toward improvements for compensation or easing contractual restrictions, we will consider new ideas and changes — certainly those that might put us slightly outside our comfort zone."

McColl echoed those sentiments. "A producer once told me, 'Theatre only works when everyone shows up,' and there has never been a truer statement," she said. "We all have the same goal — to create theatre, to ensure that live performance remains relevant, and that theatre not only survives but thrives." She added, "What used to be a community business has now gone global. We will be working with producers to face the changes in business models as well as technological advances in the business."

When Equity was born in 1913, it was considered an improbability. A labor body that would represent artists seemed an oxymoronic enterprise, unlikely to survive. Yet, 100 years later, it is still standing. It is, in fact, at the center of one of the last labor hotbeds left in the country.

"The entertainment industry is the most heavily unionized in the country," McColl pointed out. "Our role as a leader in the industry helps promote labor as a whole."

Wyman agreed. "Equity is fortunate to work in a highly unionized segment of the entertainment industry, one whose employers understand and value the professionalism and responsibility of their workers. Now that Equity has a direct charter with the AFL-CIO and a more prominent place at the labor table, perhaps we can help turn around the perception and level of support for unionism in America."