Actors' Equity Association
The Actors' Equity Association (AEA), commonly referred to as Actors' Equity or simply Equity, is an American labor union representing those who work in live theatrical performance. Performers appearing on live stage productions without a book or through-storyline (vaudeville, cabarets, circuses) may be represented by the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA). The AEA works to negotiate and provide performers and stage managers quality living conditions, livable wages, and benefits. A theater or production that is not produced and performed by personnel who are members of the AEA may be known as "non-Equity".
Leading up to the Actors and Producers strike of 1929, Hollywood, and California in general, had a series of workers equality battles that directly influenced the film industry. Hollywood was producing what was considered the three most important IWA/WIR films in the post-Kruse era. The films The Passaic Textile Strike (IWA 1926), The Miners’ Strike (1928) and The Gastonia Textile Strike (1929), gave audience and producers insight into the effect and accomplishments of labor unions and striking. These films were set apart by being current documentaries and not melodramas produced for glamour.
In 1896 the first Actors Union Charter was recognized by the American Federation of Labor as an attempt to create a minimum wage for actors being exploited. It wasn't until January 13, 1913, that the Union Charter failed. It later re-emerged as the Actors Equity Association with more than 111 actors with Francis Wilson as its founding board president.
At a meeting held at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel in New York City, on May 26, 1913, Actors' Equity was founded by 112 professional theater actors, who established the association's constitution and elected Francis Wilson as president.
Leading up to the establishment of the association, a handful of influential actors—known as The Players—held secret organizational meetings at Edwin Booth's The Players at its mansion in Gramercy Park. A bronze plaque commemorates the room in which The Players met to establish Actors Equity. Members included Frank Gillmore, who from 1918 to 1929 was the Executive Secretary of Actors' Equity and its eventual President, a position he held from 1929 to 1937.
Actors' Equity joined the American Federation of Labor in 1919, and called a strike seeking recognition of the association as a labor union. The strike ended the dominance of the Producing Managers' Association, including theater owners and producers like Abe Erlanger and his partner, Mark Klaw. The strike increased membership from under 3,000 to approximately 14,000. The Chorus Equity Association, which merged with Actors' Equity in 1955, was founded during the strike.
Equity represented directors and choreographers until 1959, when they broke away and formed their own union.
The Actors Equality Strike was a series of walkouts that started in 1927, which started out in smaller local theaters in Los Angeles but quickly grew to the Motion Picture stage. During the series of nationwide walkouts, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started issuing contracts for freelance film actors, which led Hollywood's actors and actresses to fear the loss of their jobs. The theater strikes combined with freelance contracts fueled the need for actors and stagehands to strike for better working conditions and pay. Frank Gillmore, the head and treasurer of the Actor's Equity Association, understood that he would need multiple unions across the country in order to make a change in not only proper representation and pay, but in the ability for actors to be able to negotiate any contract that any studio would put out worldwide. On July 20, 1929, the Actors Equity would gain its first victory, which would give producers and actors a leg to stand on in their battle for equality. Over the course of thirty days (up to August 20, 1929) Mr. Gillmore fought to give the Actors Equity the ability to be the main representation of all actors, producers, radio personality, vaudeville performers, and agents in the country. This would also give all power and representation to one organization in order to create a more organized equality strike.
Starting June 5, 1929, Frank Gillmore flew and attended several meetings in New York with the Heads of Broadway. After the meeting Mr. Gillmore notified the Actors Equality that appearances in sound and talking motion pictures has been suspended until the outcome of the meetings between Frank Gillmore, Equity's president, and the international Studio Crafts Union. Anyone else who is involved in the production of motion pictures was also encouraged to attend.
Due to the negotiations taking place and the suspension of contracts through the Actors Equity, studios were desperate for actors to speed up production, which had dropped significantly. The New York Times stated, "It was pointed out that while the Equality regulations were in effect, about 2000 motion picture contracts, involving salaries said to amount to $500,000 were offered to actors in New York." Any actor that was to partake in any contract not approved by the Actors Equity would be banished from the Union and would have to reapply for admission after negotiations were finished.
By December 1929 the Actors Equity Association was well under the curtain negotiating terms to reset the movie stage under better conditions, but this was the least of their problems. In late December groups of theater owners as well as non-represented producers filed lawsuits to claim damages done by the Actors Equity Association's contract hold out. "The plaintiffs not only seek a temporary injunction against the defendants, pending trial on an order to show cause why a permanent injunction should not be granted, but also ask damages of $100,000."
The Actors Equity Association allowed small numbers of contracts to be negotiated over the next few years. In 1933 the Screen Actors Guild was created and took the place of AEA as the main representative for movie actors and producers. This allowed the Actors Equity Association to focus its efforts on live productions such as theatrical performances, while the Screen Actors Guild focused on movie production and non-scripted live performances such as minstrel, vaudeville, and live radio shows.
In the 1940s, Actors' Equity stood against segregation. When actors were losing jobs through 1950s McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist, Actors' Equity Association refused to participate. Although its constitution guaranteed its members the right to refuse to work alongside Communists, or a member of a Communist front organization, Actors' Equity never banned any members. At a 1997 ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the blacklist, Richard Masur, then President of the Screen Actors Guild, apologized for the union's participation in the ban, noting: "Only our sister union, Actors' Equity Association, had the courage to stand behind its members and help them continue their creative lives in the theater. For that, we honor Actors' Equity tonight."
In the 1960s, Actors' Equity played a role in gaining public funding for the arts, including the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
There are three ways to become a member of Equity: through an AEA contract, EMC points or via a sister union. If you are offered a position under an AEA contract you may join during the term of your contract. Alternatively, you can become a member by generating a number of Equity Membership Candidacy Points (EMC). They do this by securing a position at an EMC-participating theatre and then registering as a candidate for Equity. For every week they work at a participating theatre, they accrue a point. Performers are required to earn a minimum of 25 weeks of EMC work along with a $400 initial payment in order to become an official Equity member. You can also become a member by virtue of prior membership in a performing arts sister union: SAG-AFTRA, AGMA, AGVA or GIAA. To qualify through this means, you must be a member of the sister union for at least a year, be a member in good standing at that union, and have worked as a performer under the union's jurisdiction on a principal or "under-five" contract or at least three days of extra ("background") work.
Actors' Equity has a number of different contracts with a number of different rules associated with them. Each contract type deals with a specific type of theatre venue or production type. These include, but are not limited to: Council of Resident Stock Theatres (CORST), Guest Artist, Letters of Agreement (LoA), League of Resident Theatres (LoRT) Small Professional Theatres (SPT), & Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA).
Actors and stage managers within Actors' Equity are not allowed to work in any non-equity houses, or on any productions in which an equity agreement has not been signed anywhere within Equity's jurisdiction.