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Comrade in a Borrowed Gown-AEA at 100

June 19, 2013

I was once in a bar in Savannah, Georgia, chatting with a young couple, who were both union pipe-fitters in the Local. The young woman explained to me that her father was in the pipe-fitters union, and got her in right after high school. She met her husband at work too.

“I totally believe in unions,” I exclaimed, in an attempt to bond with them. “I’m in the Screen Actors’ Guild and Actors Equity Association, so you know, we are comrades…. solidarity people!!”

Either because they were good natured, inebriated or a combination, they actually didn’t slap me for being so patronizing and instead continued to engage with me. They were really nice people, luckily, because I was getting stupider by the minute.

“So,” I asked. “What do union pipe-fitters do?!”

“Uh,” the young man replied. “We fit pipes.”

Indeed.

And that is just one difference between performers’ unions and other guilds… After all, there is no one task, no one job, that we members of AEA or SAG-AFTRA do. This became evident to me at the 100th Anniversary Gala of Actors’ Equity Association on Monday. At my table of “rank-and-file” members there was: a stage manager who worked for a decade on Cats; a young lady who did national musical tours; a Malaysian gentleman who got into Equity when he got a job on the Broadway production of Miss Saigon; and a woman who started as an actor, then taught theatre at Carnegie Mellon, and now is returning to her performing roots. We were a diverse group and it occurred to me that I ought to give the union a break. While it’s far from perfect, AEA does a pretty good job of protecting and representing a large and you might even say rag-tag group of theatre professionals, who would never be able to agree on a single task we all do…

So while we can discuss the union’s finer points in another post, today, in the spirit of good will, pride and solidarity I am bringing you a short report from the AEA 100th anniversary gala, which I attended, in a borrowed gown.

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WHO: Actors’ Equity Association, is of course, the labor union representing American stage actors and stage managers. The party on Monday was well attended by union staff (who knew we had so many lawyers?!); volunteers (the people who serve as elected representatives, and give a lot of time and passion to the organization); reps from SAG-AFTRA (do I smell another merger?); a few Broadway celebrities (also union members) and 400 rank-and-file members, selected to attend through a lottery. I got a golden ticket myself.

WHAT: It was a gala (drinks, photos, dinner, speeches and dancing) to celebrate the union’s 100th anniversary. If you don’t know how the union came to be have a listen to this NPR piece on the history.

WHERE: It was at the fancy-schmancy Hilton on 53rd St in New York on Monday. But the union already held 100th birthday parties in Los Angeles and Chicago and will travel to all the other regional offices over the next few months to celebrate.

HOW DID THE NIGHT GO: As we arrived, we were encouraged to get our photo taken at the step-and-repeat (a banner with AEA repeated all over it–just like you see at any red carpet event.) Then came cocktail hour, then dinner (lobster salad, filet mignon, and spinach, because some jokester in the kitchen wanted us to spend the rest of the night paranoid about having something stuck in our teeth.) Soon after it was time for speeches from the leaders: Executive Director Mary McColl and President Nick Wyman. The speeches were, as you would expect in the performers’ union, excellent. Ms. McColl even read a letter of congratulations from President Obama.

Then we were treated to performances from the hysterically funny Harriet Harris and the smooth Norm Lewis. Finally, the whole room had a chance to sing Happy Birthday to Equity. I felt like I was in a gigantic production of Annie Get your Gun as all the actors tried to outdo each other on the high notes. Then, we danced!

WHY?: Ah, there’s the rub. Why? You might be wondering how a union that has a more than 50 percent unemployment rate can justify serving lobster and steak to a ballroom full of people? Well, I’m guessing it had a lot to do with the step-and-repeat. Representatives from the union circulated the room encouraging us all to take full advantage of the step-and-repeat banner and tweet/facebbok/instagram the photos. #AEA100 was the suggested hashtag. Of course, the union needed to celebrate their 100th birthday in a big way. But by inviting a group of rank-and-file members, having just enough celebrities to make it glamorous but not overwhelming, and by making all the attendees feel pampered for the evening, the union upped their chances of having that Equity logo splashed all over social and traditional media, in a positive way. (#proudToBeUnionMember) or something like that. And the more people outside AEA know about it, the more chance we have of growing, becoming more respected and more integrated in all theatres across America. Then maybe we too can sit in a bar and answer silly questions about our profession without a trace of irony or shame, just like the pipe-fitters do.

“Oh, what to AEA members do?”

“Uh, we do theatre.”

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