Kevin Kline in 1981's "Pirates of Penzance," an image from "Performance of the Century." As the book explains, the Kevin Kline Awards have honored regional theater in St. Louis since 2006.
The century-long history of Actors’ Equity, the union representing stage actors and stage managers, is being honored in a new hardcover book by one of the country’s most highly regarded theater scribes.
In "Performance of the Century," Robert Simonson, a longtime writer for Playbill and other publications, recounts the union’s involvement in a historic 1919 strike and the turmoil of the blacklist years, and later the challenge of the AIDS epidemic, when its members formed what would become Equity Fights AIDS.
In a recent interview with Backstage, Simonson talked about a moment performers remember their entire lives -- receiving their Equity Card, proof of membership in the union -- and said aspiring actors would benefit by learning more about the history of the union, which numbers 48,000 members.
"Perhaps they’ve never actually sat down and thought how improbable it is that there is even an actor’s union," said Simonson, who notes that we associate unions with blue collar labor more than “elective” professions, such as acting.
The officers of Actors’ Equity Association today focus on securing the safety, health and rights of stage actors, and work in general as a progressive force for the industry. Case in point: the union successfully fought to secure payment for cast members of the musical "Rebecca," after an investor scandal doomed the show this fall.
The 240-page book features a foreword by AEA president Nick Wyman and is illustrated with historical images and more than 200 color and black-and-white photos. The cover art for “Performance of the Century" is by Broadway.com’s Justin "Squigs" Robertson, who designed a wraparound graphic immortalizing famous performances of dozens of stage greats, from Carol Channing to B.D. Wong.
"Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors' Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater” is available from Applause Books, and can be purchased here.