In an age where union-bashing is all the rage, Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors' Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater by Robert Simonson is a powerful chronicle of excellence achieved by union professionals.
I expected this beautiful, 240-page history of Actors' Equity to be a nice coffee table book. And although AEA president Nick Wyman admits in his foreward that "many important people and events get short shrift or no mention at all", it is far more than a pretty addition to your living room.
Simonson explains that actors will act with or without a union, and many have a love/hate relationship with AEA. But he takes us through its rich history to prove there is much more love than hate.
The whole concept of a union for actors was not only difficult for producers to accept, but some actors, as well: unions were for laborers, and they were artists. But even they could not argue with the working conditions: little or no hot water for removing makeup, up to ten weeks of rehearsal for no pay, purchasing their own costumes, contracts that were enforced only at the whim of the producers. They were traditions, but not until Actors' Equity were they replaced by new traditions: safe working conditions, fair pay, pension and benefits. Not until Actors' Equity were actors and stage managers considered worthy of the same respect as truck drivers and plumbers.
There are other traditions included here that are not strictly union, but are nevertheless part of the New York theatre scene, whether it's St. Malachy's, gypsy robes or the Stage Door Canteen. The union's involvement in the fights against segregation, apartheid, the Red Scare and AIDS is well-documented. It reflects better on them than the occasional, sometimes petty disagreements with their own members.
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