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Historical Overview

1919 Strike

Actors rally for the strike of 1919

By the beginning of the 20th century, exploitation had become a permanent condition of an actor's employment. Producers set their own working conditions and pay scale. There was no compensation for rehearsals or holidays and rehearsal time was unlimited.

The emergence of the labor movement changed the face of American Theatre forever. The stage hands' union, The National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees was recognized in 1910, and The Dramatists' Guild, formed in 1912, became the bargaining agent for all playwrights.

Women of Equity

The Women of Equity Bound for Wall Street , 1919

Equity's constitution was drafted by May 1913, and Actors' Equity Association was formally recognized on July 18, 1919 by the American Federation of Labor (later to become the AFL-CIO).

In the ensuing years, rules were negotiated concerning bonding, which required producers to post sufficient advance funds to guarantee salaries and benefits, minimum salaries, rehearsal pay, restrictions on the employment of foreign actors, and protections in dealings with theatrical agents.

Marie Dressler and Ethel Barrymore

Marie Dressler and Ethel Barrymore During the 1919 Strike

In 1919, Equity called the first strike in the history of the American theatre, demanding recognition as the performers' representative and bargaining agent. The strike lasted 30 days, spread to eight cities, closed 37 plays, prevented the opening of 16 others and cost millions of dollars.

Chorus performers joined in the fight along with the actors. Five days after the strike began, Chorus Equity was formed. Hollywood screen star Marie Dressler, who began her career in the chorus at $8 per week, was instrumental in forming the chorus union, and was elected its first president.

When the strike ended, the producers signed a five-year contract that included most of Equity's demands.

Equity and Chorus Equity eventually merged in 1955.

Frank Bacon leads his company

Frank Bacon leads his company as the 1919 strike begins

Actors' Equity has always been a leader in the area of Civil Rights.

In 1947, when the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. barred black audience members, Equity resolved that its members would not play at the National and the theatre closed. Five years later, the National reopened under different management and with a non-discrimination policy.

In 1961, the League of Theatres and Producers agreed that no actor would be required to perform in any theatre or place of performance where discrimination is practiced against any actor or patron by reason of race, creed or color. This policy has since been extended to prohibit discrimination based on gender, sexual preference or political belief.

Equity has also adopted policies to help increase employment opportunities for actors of color, disabled, senior, and women performers.

Columbus Circle

Equity's New York parade passing Columbus Circle

The Equity-League Pension & Health Trust Funds were created as the result of a 13-day strike which closed all Broadway theatres in June, 1960.

1964 saw the equalization of the rehearsal and the minimum performance salary.

A "Principal Interview" requirement (since expanded to include auditions) was also established, providing an opportunity for Equity performers to be seen by producers.

The Association is concerned also with fostering the growth of American theatres. Equity has championed the preservation of historic theatres as a vital element of our cultural heritage, continues to support and participate in discussions on the possible merger of all the performer unions, and is exploring new methods and technologies to increase communication with its members to be as responsive as possible to their needs.


History and Award pages:

Equity Awards
Historical Overview
Equity Timeline
Gypsy Robe

AEA Presidents
Francis Wilson 1913 – 1920
John Emerson 1920 – 1928
Ralph Morgan* 1924
Frank Gillmore 1928 – 1937
Burgess Meredith* 1937 - 1938
Arthur Byron 1938 – 1940
Bert Lytell 1940 – 1946
Clarence Derwent 1946 – 1952
Ralph Bellamy 1952 – 1964
Frederick O’Neal 1964 – 1973
Theodore Bikel 1973 – 1982
Ellen Burstyn 1982 – 1985
Colleen Dewhurst 1985 – 1991
Ron Silver 1991 – 2000
Patrick Quinn 2000 – 2006
Mark Zimmerman 2006 - 2009
Paige Price* 2009 - 2010
Nick Wyman 2010

*Acting President

Executive Directors
Frank Gillmore 1918 – 1928
Paul Dullzell 1928 – 1948
Louis Simon 1949 – 1952
Angus Duncan 1952 – 1972
Edward Weston* 1972 – 1973
Donald Grody 1973 – 1980
Willard Swire* 1980 – 1981
Alan Eisenberg 1981 – 2006
John P. Connolly 2007 - 2009
Carol Waaser* 2009 - 2011
Mary McColl 2011 -

*Acting Executive Director

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