EEO Committees Celebrate Diversity

With more than two hundred fifty years’ worth of combined experience working on Broadway, regionally and everything in between, a panel of theatrical legends came together for Pass It On: Thriving Artists Reflect on a Life in the Theatre at the New York Equity office. The group shared countless life lessons only learnt through long careers in the theatre. Moderated by Lee Roy Reams, the panel consisted of actors Harvey Evans, Joan Shepard, and Francis Jue, as well as longtime stage manager Frank D. Hartenstein. Each spoke about how they got their Equity cards, how to handle the droughts between jobs and the intricacies of balancing life, work, and a passion for the theatre.

When asked how to create as many opportunities for one’s career as possible, Reams told everyone that they “must always be seen.” He said to do benefits, do readings (all on AEA contracts or codes, of course), but no matter what to “know what you want to do and maintain a positive attitude about your work.” Jue added that being a perpetual student allows him to always find new avenues to explore.

All expressed their overwhelming love of the theatre and their devotion to their craft. Reams spoke candidly about feeling a spark every time he walked past a Broadway house, and Evans spoke of how honored he was to have never needed a non-acting job to support himself. “God bless my Equity pension!” he said.

The event, sponsored by the Eastern Region Equal Employment Opportunity Committee and its Senior Performers Sub-Committee, was produced by EEO Committee members Kristine Nevins and Brenda Gardner. Nevins said that the panel “was our way of recognizing how important our longtime members are to our union.”

In celebration of October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the Western EEO committee sponsored The Play’s The Thing: Variations, which celebrated performers with disabilities. The event, which took place at the new Western Regional Headquarters in North Hollywood, is the fourth in a series of readings celebrating the protected groups. It featured an evening of scenes from Tom Griffin’s The Boys Next Door (directed by AEA member Diana Elizabeth Jordan), Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (featuring member Regan Linton; directed by member Ann Colby Stocking) and finally, Jordan with a cutting from a one-act show she is about to perform, Watch Your Headby Lynda Rodriguez.

Following the performances was a panel discussion moderated by Stocking, with Gail Williamson — a local agent for performers with disabilities — along with Jordan and Linton. This was "an evening to celebrate the work, acting, both for all actors and to highlight those working with disabilities,” Jordan said. 

The panel discussion centered on several key points. The actors spoke of the importance of finding ways to tell their own stories as well as work in mainstream productions. When it comes to hiring performers with disabilities, there has been movement, but it’s been slow; most disabled roles are still cast with able-bodied actors. The actors spoke about the challenges of getting seen by agents/producers/directors who are often afraid of dealing with disabled performers, but also because accessibility at audition and performing venues is often lacking. The key, the panelists said, was making sure that they continue to get out there, to show up, to be prepared and be at the top of their game.

Linton shared that she was leaving imminently for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Not only is she the first wheelchair user to be hired at the theatre, she is also the first with a disability to be hired for a full season (a deaf actor was hired for a single show last year).

“I'm so glad this event gave us the chance to demonstrate that the greatest plays in the theatrical canon can be done — successfully and excellently — with actors who are physically unique,” said Linton. “Casting actors with disabilities doesn't take anything away from the work, it makes it more interesting.”