A life in the theater can be tough. There's applause every night but you might go through a hundred auditions to land in just one show, and most working actors go from job to job just to keep going. As one actor puts it: most actors are self-unemployed. Yet they do keep going. And for many the symbol of being a working actor is an Actors Equity card. The union of professional stage actors and stage managers turns 100 years old tomorrow. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Nicholas Wyman got his Equity card in 1974 when he landed a job in the national tour of "Grease." A Broadway veteran, he's now the president of Actors Equity Association. And even though he says an actor's union might seem like an oxymoron, it's flourished for a century.

NICHOLAS WYMAN: How the actors, who you think of these preening, narcissistic self-involved, self-centered, you know, artistes have all banded together - the successful ones with the less successful ones, to work for the common good, to help one another get the best possible deal they can with various producers and employers - that they have done this and risked their own livelihoods and careers through the years is really moving.

LUNDEN: Equity was born out of dismal working conditions in 1903, says Robert Simonson, who's authored a coffee table book, "Performance of the Century," about the history of the union.

ROBERT SIMONSON: Back then, if you were a regular rank and file actor, first of all, you rehearsed without pay. And rehearsals could take as long as the producers said they could. Like, for a play, maybe six weeks; for a musical, up to fourteen weeks. Imagine working for fourteen weeks and getting no money. As for costumes, you had to buy your own - they were not provided for you. Train fare, hotels - all on you, all coming out of your pocket book.

LUNDEN: But for the first several years, producers of Broadway shows and national tours didn't honor Equity's contract. So, in 1919, the union went on strike and theaters across the country shut down. Most big stars of the time, like the legendary Ethel Barrymore, supported Equity. But others, like George M. Cohan, who wrote "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and was also a producer, didn't.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) You won't do any business if you haven't got a band...

LUNDEN: Robert Simonson.

SIMONSON: And so he said he would be an elevator operator before he'd join the union. And, you know, the day after he said that, there were, like, signs in windows saying: Wanted: Elevator Operator. George M. Cohan need not apply.

LUNDEN: After a month, the producers relented and Equity established itself as the union for actors and stage managers. In the intervening years, Equity has grown into a truly national organization with the explosion of professional off-Broadway and regional theaters. Simonson say contracts with those venues were hard fought.

SIMONSON: It was always a balancing act and there were always fights. And little by little they figured out how to handle all these new regional theaters, how to handle these off-Broadway theaters, without killing the movement.

LUNDEN: Still, it's a national union where, at any given time, most of its members are out of work, says President Nicholas Wyman.

WYMAN: There are about 49,000 members and in any one year, I think about 17,000 work. Over the course of a three-year period, about half of the members have work. But that means half of the members don't. And, of the members who do work, the medium income is about $7,500.

LUNDEN: But Wyman says their own financial insecurity and empathy as actors has pushed Equity's members to take on social issues over the course of the last hundred years.

WYMAN: They have been at the forefront of social movements. They are fighting against the black list during the McCarthy era, fighting against segregation - they helped to integrate the National Theatre in Washington - fighting on behalf of worker's rights, on behalf of, you know, the people struggling with AIDS and HIV, on behalf of marriage equality.

LUNDEN: As Equity enters its second century, it finds that theater, like many other American industries, is struggling with the economic downturn. Gary Blackman is co-director of ArtsPower, a national touring children's theater company. He says financial pressure forced them to make the decision to go non-Equity a few years ago.

GARY BLACKMAN: The primary issue was the rising cost of health care and we decided that in order to adapt to what was going on and to keep the company up and running going non-Equity would save the tremendous cost of health care.

LUNDEN: Nicholas Wyman is aware of those concerns. He says the union has made concessions in order to help struggling companies to keep actors employed and theater alive.

WYMAN: I'm a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all boats, in that it can only help our members if our bargaining partners, if the theaters and the employers that we bargain with, are successful. That's a great thing.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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