New Theater and the Unions

New Theater and the Unions

I want to discuss a mistaken policy of certain theater craft unions, and suggest a remedy. The matter has an importance in itself, because in recent years there has been a growth in new theater “off Broadway” that may, if it is encouraged, come to some real living theater. The union policy has been a discouragement—almost as bad as the unavailability of real-estate— and it has been attacked with the usual jeering debater’s points by the tribe unsympathetic to unionism as such. But especially I want to discuss this question because it is, in parvo, a remarkably apt case of what is becoming the chief problem of our contemporary culture: how to live and breathe creatively in a society whose technology and organizations unavoidably make for conformity.

Without mentioning names, let me tell the story concretely in a case where I happen to know the facts. Here is a company devoted to new theater that has now for nearly ten years kept at work under arduous conditions, in larger or smaller quarters as it could get or build them by their own and their friends’ voluntary labor. The nucleus of the company is a group of theater people, actors, musicians, dancers, and writers—some of them of great reputation—who have all of them, for from ten to fifty years, given themselves, often financially unrewarded, to the development of our modern art. They are a constellation comparable, for example, to the fine group that cooperated as the Provincetown Players. Nobody would question that they are devoted to the growth of theater and not to making money; they try to make enough to sustain themselves.

Now in casting their productions, they want to employ Equity actors. Many of those who voluntarily built the place they now occupy are Equity actors, and naturally, having laid the bricks, they want to act. By and large, professional actors belong to Equity and most of the best actors are professional, so you want to cast them. Now the situation among actors is as follows: (1) About 95% are chronically unemployed. (2) Actors have a kind of hunger, a need, to act. (3) Understanding this, Equity permits its members to work, in certain circumstances, for as little as $40 a week, regarding this figure, I guess, as pretty near the decent subsistence-minimum that a person must have, no matter what his enthusiasm or other satisfaction in the work. When, then, this company sends out a casting-call in the professional journals, there are hundreds of responses from actors eager for any part, hoping to advance their careers by appearing and getting notices, and many of them glad to work in a cultured non-commercial atmosphere on intrinsically more interesting material, where they can learn something. That is, small non-commercial theaters of high standards, and trained professional actors, are mutually useful to one another; and Equity recognizes this obvious fact.

The professional theater, however, is organized also on the pr...

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