When theater writer Robert Simonson was tasked with compiling the Actors' Equity Association’s 100 years of history into a single book, he wasn’t sure if it was going to be any good.
“When you first think of the idea, a history of a union, it sounds like a pretty dry prospect at the beginning,” said Simonson.
But Simonson said that as soon as he started his research, the prospect actually became quite exciting. From the actors’ strikes of 1919, to the shortage of jobs during the Depression, to the fight for equality during the Civil Rights Era, Simonson said, “there was more than enough drama there. It was not hard for me to write an interesting story.” The result was his new book, “Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater,” which hits shelves on Thursday.
“I think I probably know more about the unions than 98 percent of the actors who are in it,” the author said.
You talk about that magical moment when an actor receives his or her Equity card. Can you describe how Equity membership transforms at actor’s life?
Robert Simonson: I’m not an actor, and I’ve never been an actor. [But] I’ve asked that question of other actors as a journalist, and it’s always a special moment. Every actor remembers when they get their Equity card because it just means a lot. It means a lot professionally—I mean, a lot of doors are now open to you. But it also indicates a certain kind of arrival, like you’ve made it. Your acting career may not be thriving yet, but you are a professional actor.
You write about Equity promoting racial diversity even before the Civil Rights Era. Can you talk about that?
Simonson: On a lot of cultural issues [and] a lot of social issues, Equity was ahead of the curve. They were always fighting for the rights of the underserved and the underprivileged. And so in the 30s, long before the Civil Rights Movement, long before various other efforts to better the lot of African Americans and other ethnic groups, they were fighting for the rights of those members of their union—trying to get directors and producers to cast integrated casts, and just generally making sure that the members of the union who were black or other ethnicities were treated just the same as the white members of the union…Equity always stood up for what was right. They stood up for their members. So they have a long history of doing that.
And they’ve done things for actors with disabilities.
Simonson: I believe it was in the 1990s or the late 80s [that] they started fighting for the rights of actors with disabilities, to make sure that they were seen for parts—particularly when the part in the play was for a person with a disability, that actual actors with disabilities could be considered for these roles.
You say that now, the Internet is transforming the audition process and the theater world in general.
Simonson: The way that auditions are done these days is just mind-boggling. It’s because like every industry, the theater industry has gone global. There may be a production that’s on its way to Broadway, but the producers, they live in Australia, or they might live in England, and they’re not necessarily going to come over for every audition, so they’ll view auditions digitally. They’ll view a tape or a DVD or something like that. Things have changed quite a lot, and that’s been a tricky topic for Equity. When they can, they try to insist that an actor is seen you know, in flesh and blood by the actual casting director or the actual director.
So do you think actors need to have a social media presence?
Simonson: I would say if you’re an up-and-coming actor trying to get a foothold, it probably is a good idea. Although as you’re probably aware, you have to be careful. You don’t want to say the wrong thing on Facebook or Twitter. You don’t want to step outside your bounds and then start getting into hot water. So, like anything, you should use these things, but you have to use them wisely. And always think before you Tweet.
What do you think aspiring actors could maybe take from this book?
Simonson: Unfortunately, in every field of endeavor in our country, we tend to forget about our history. I think a lot of actors understand how Equity is powerful, and is in the actors’ corner, and can help their careers, but I think a lot of them don’t understand the history of the union, and all the challenges and all the battles that were fought in the past to get where they are today. And perhaps they’ve never actually sat down and thought how improbable it is that there is even an actor’s union. It’s an odd idea when you think of it, that actors would team together and protect one another rather than just protecting their own career and their own livelihood. So it’s always good to know where you came from. It’s always good to know the worth and the importance of the organization that you belong to.
I saw that you threw in a mention of Backstage in the book!
Simonson: Yeah—that was one of my ideas too, because you know, it’s the actor’s bible and all! If it’s a book about actors, there has to be a sidebar on that!