Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) Essay

Cheap Custom Writing Service

This Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) Essayexample is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need a custom essay or research paper on this topic, please use our writing services. offers reliable custom essay writing services that can help you to receive high grades and impress your professors with the quality of each essay or research paper you hand in.

Actors’  Equity  Association  surfaced  in  the  early years of the 20th  century  as a viable labor  union for  stage  actors  who  had  previously  been  at  the mercy of management. Before Equity, as it became known,   gained   viability,   standardized contracts were unheard of in American  theater.  Actors gave 8 to 10 performances a week and worked 52 weeks a  year.  They  were  expected   to  rehearse   for  as much  as 3 months  without pay. Actors  were also required    to   furnish   and   care   for   their   own costumes.   On  road   tours,   they  paid  their  own hotel bills and transportation costs. Holidays  and election  week  were  peak  seasons  in  the  theater, and profits  quickly mounted up. However,  actors were required to work at half pay during those periods. In the summer of 1919, actor dissatisfaction gained momentum, and Equity called a strike, shutting   down   theaters   in  all  major   American cities  and  crippling   the  entertainment  industry. The strike, which gained the support of stars such as Ethel, Lionel, and John Barrymore,  was successful  because  of  the  significant   loyalty  of Equity  members   and  widespread support  from local businesses and the media. That success led to an 8-hour  workday for stage actors  and financial concessions  for lower-paid actors.  The strike also established  Equity as the voice of stage actors and stagehands for  the  rest  of the  20th  century  and into the 21st century.

Before Equity

After the Civil War ended in 1865, theater managers continued to garner power. Through the Theatrical Syndicate,  six men  maintained tight  control  over the entire industry. By the end of the 19th  century, the syndicate owned 37 major theaters. Actors had formed the Actors’ Society of America in 1896, but it proved  to have little clout. At the dawn  of the 20th    century,    the    Schubert    Brothers    began amassing  even greater  power  by building  a chain of theaters  all over the United States.

Although   leading   stars   were   often   able   to dictate  their  own  terms,  the  majority   of  theater actors did not even make minimum wage. Contracts specified  that  actors  could  be fined  or  dismissed not only for missing performances or public drunkenness but  also for activities  such as laughing or talking loudly in their dressing rooms or for simply  being  “unsatisfactory.” Theater   musicians had  already  organized,  establishing  the American Federation  of Musicians.

The Actors’ Equity Association  was formed  by 112 actors in May 1913  at the Pabst Grand  Circle Hotel   under   the  leadership   of  Charles   Coburn, Edward  Edis, and  George Arliss. The comic actor Francis Wilson served as the first president.  At the time, theater  was the fourth-largest industry  in the United  States, but  actors  were able to claim only minute  amounts of  profits.  Even  though   Equity accepted   the   need   to   affiliate   the   group   with organized  labor  under the American Federation  of Labor,  led by Samuel Gompers,  they were unable to do so until the White Rats Actors’ Union, which represented  vaudevillian   actors,   agreed   to   step down  as the voice of American  actors. That  move in  1919   cleared   the   way   for   the   creation   of Associated Actors and Artistes of America. Known as the Four A’s, the group  encompassed all aspects of the working  world  of the American theater.

The Strike

In 1919,  theater  managers  formed  the  Managers’ Association  and  refused  to  recognize  Equity  as a viable union.  Equity members  responded by going on strike. When the strike began, Equity’s war chest consisted of only $13,000. A major benefit held on August  18, 1919,  at the Lexington  Avenue Opera House in New York City raised $31,000 in a single night.  The  gala was  emceed by W. C. Fields, and performers included Eddie Cantor and Pearl White. The  comedian  Ed Wynn  had  been  banned  from appearing on stage by a court order. Undaunted, he gave his performance from the audience.

Opposition  to  the  strike  was  led  by  powerhouses such as George M. Cohan, the Schubert Brothers, Florenz Ziegfeld, and David Belasco. Nevertheless,  the  actors  stood  firm, and  management  lost $3  million  after  theaters  in New  York, Chicago,  Philadelphia, St. Louis,  and  Providence went dark.  By the end of the month,  Equity membership had risen to 14,000, and the war chest had swelled to $110,923.

The  provisions   of  the  settlement   guaranteed actors at least 2 weeks of work after rehearsing for 6 weeks for a musical, and 4 weeks for other plays. Costume  and transportation costs were to be paid for all actors earning less than $150 a week. Actors were  guaranteed  an  eight-show   workweek, and management agreed to abide by arbitration.

Equity’s Legacy

When   the   film  industry   began   drawing   large audiences  in  the  1920s,  theater   began  a  steady decline.  The  number   of  theaters   in  the  United States  decreased  from  1,549  in  1910  to  674  in 1925. At the same time, the number of touring companies  dropped from 236 to 34.

Equity  unsuccessfully  attempted to  extend  its reach  to  Hollywood. Instead,  the  film, and  later television,   industry   came  to  be  represented  by groups  such  as  the  Academy  of  Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Screen Actors Guild, and the American   Federation   of  Television   and   Radio Artists.  Equity  ultimately   formed   alliances  with these groups.

Over time, Equity won additional concessions for its members.  In 1933,  a minimum  wage  for  stage actors was finally enacted. The minimum  wage continues  to  be  important  since  only  17  percent  of Equity’s 47,000 members, who range from Broadway actors  to those appearing on stage in Las Vegas and at American  theme parks,  earned  less than  $15,000 from stage work in 2008. Equity has also established rules for auditions, rehearsals,  and work  hours  and conditions. Striking  and  threatening to  strike  continue  to be viable tools  for protecting the rights  of Equity’s  membership. Equity  has  also  established health  plans  and pensions  for its members,  and the group has endorsed causes such as rights for gay and disabled actors and protecting the landmark status of venerable American theater  buildings.


  1. Actors’ Equity Association. “Equity Timeline, 1913–2013.” (Accessed February  2014).
  2. Eyring, Teresa. “Actors and Money.” American  Theatre, 25/1 (January  2008).
  3. Holmes, Sean P. Weavers of Dreams, Unite! Actor’s Unionism in Early Twentieth-Century America. Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 2013.
  4. Rogers, Lynne. “The Actor Revolt.” American  Heritage, v.47/51  (September 1996).
  5. Simmons, Renée A. Frederick Douglass O’Neal: Pioneer of the Actors’ Equity New York: Garland, 1996.
  6. Simonson, Robert. “Equity’s First Act.” American  Theatre, v.30/3 (March  2013).

See also:


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655