Equity at 100: "How I Got My Equity Card"; Stars Remember Their Union Milestones
By Robert Simonson
Actors' Equity Association is celebrating its 100th anniversary. In Playbill's latest look at the union's history, André De Shields, Chita Rivera, Julie Halston and Michael Cerveris reflect on earning union membership.
For many actors with aspirations of one day being on a Broadway stage, the first sign they're well on their way to this goal is getting their Equity Cards — proof positive that they are, in fact, members of Actors' Equity, which represents actors and stage managers in the theatre.
Here is how a few of Broadway's best and brightest got their start in the theatre and how they obtained their Equity cards.
I was studying ballet in Washington, DC, and along with another student, was chosen to audition for a scholarship at the School of American Ballet in New York City. We both auditioned and both got a scholarship! Later in New York, I auditioned for Jerome Robbins, who was sending out the national tour of Call Me Madam. A friend asked me to come along. I did. I just danced my heart out, knowing that I was already on that scholarship. When Robbins offered me the role, I immediately called my mother to ask if I could do it — "I can earn money," I said.
And so I joined Equity in 1952 and felt really proud — now I was going to get paid to do what I love to do.
When I came to New York City, I was able to book commercials and earn an AFTRA card — thanks to an aunt in advertising — but the card I wanted was my Equity Card. I knew I wanted to be on the stage. I built up points toward my goal, but by '83 I was discouraged. I took a Wall Street job, and was considering an MBA — which is hilarious, really — when Charles Busch and Ken Elliott entered my life. We started Theatre-in-Limbo, performing on the Lower East Side. Charles' play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom became a cult hit and we moved all the way uptown to the Village. We opened at Provincetown Playhouse in '85. I continued on Wall Street for two years — research manager by day, vampire lesbian by night. I'm happy to say that because of that show I was able to get my full Equity membership.
I spent my first few years out of university doing the usual showcase and non-Equity work. I had the good fortune, despite my non-union status, to be freelancing with a few provisionally supportive agents. One of them sent me to an audition for the Wilma Theatre of Philadelphia, where Jiri and Blanka Zizka saw in me enough raw material to make them believe they could mold me into something like the actor they needed to play Dorian Gray, in their multimedia adaptation of [Oscar] Wilde's story. That job meant so much to me, not least because it provided me with my Equity Card.
ANDRÉ DE SHIELDS
It was 1969 — the final Summer of Love. While finishing my studies at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), I learned Tom O'Horgan was holding auditions for the Chicago production of Hair. I had to be there or be square, but how? Money was scarce, so in order to raise round-trip bus fare I sold points in my future career to a few believing friends. The little money I had raised didn't include funds for an overnight stay in the Windy City. I slept in Grant Park, used the facilities in the Shubert Theatre to freshen up, sang Wilson Picket's "Midnight Hour," did something "sensitive" when asked to demonstrate movement, and, in September, opened in Ragni and Rado's legendary musical as a member of the Potawatomi Tribe. The rest, as they say, is history.
(This feature appears in the January 2013 issue of Playbill magazine.)
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