BWW Reviews: PERFORMANCE OF THE CENTURY: 100 YEARS OF ACTORS' EQUITY ASSOCIATION AND THE RISE OF PROFESSIONAL AMERICAN THEATER
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.
Most importantly to the reader, though, Simonson lets actors and stage managers speak for themselves. Dozens of sidebars ("On Craft") educate the reader, perhaps an aspiring actor or stage manager themselves, on the details of a life in professional theatre. You'll get a first-hand account of life on the road from actor Harris Milgram, who toured in West Side Story, and what Lee Roy Reams did backstage before and during a show.
Of interest to any theatre lover are the "Landmark Performance" pages scattered throughout the book. Wyman's warning is most obvious here, because we all have our own memories of great moments in theatre, and assume others share our love. Who could argue with Paul Robeson as Othello, or Ethel Merman in Gypsy? But seriously, no Jerry Orbach? What shortcomings it has in this area (and to be comprehensive would've required at least 1,000 pages) just serve to highlight the rich history of AEA.
Personally, I loved the section titled "Stage Managers and Actors: A Natural Alliance". I've been both and always preferred stage managing. Most people don't realize that stage managers are part of AEA, but for them, this will be as enlightening and entertaining as the rest of the book.
Performance of the Century is as comprehensive a look at the history of Actors' Equity as anyone could want. But it is much, much more. Simonson has given us a celebration of the talented individuals who have built this vibrant, creative industry.