by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
When we think of Union workers, actors probably aren't the first people who come to mind. But every actor in the cast of Sweat is a member of Actors' Equity Association. Founded in 1913, Equity is the U.S. labor union that represents more than 50,000 Actors and Stage Managers. As we enter the final week of the show, I asked the cast about getting their Union card.
What was your first job as a union member of Actors' Equity?
Johanna Day (Tracey)
I do believe my first on stage equity job was Three Postcards by Craig Lucas. I had gotten into the Circle Rep Lab, and I auditioned for a lab production of it and then they decided to do it on their main stage. Off Broadway, proper. Very exciting! It was a time when you didn't have to be a TV star to do theater! An exaggeration, I know. The play had originally been done in NYC, around 1987. Craig wanted to work on it more. Did I mention it was a musical?
Kevin Kenerly (Brucie)
My first equity gig was with Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1999. Coriolanus directed by Tony Taccone, and Darker Face of The Earth, written by poet laureate Rita Dove. It was the beginning of my becoming part of that OSF family.
Tara Mallen (Jessie)
My first AEA show was in the fall of 1991 in New York City in a lovely play by Susan Zeder called The Death and Life of Sherlock Holmes. It was at the Open Eye: New Stagings theater on the Upper West Side and I played a little boy who was a street urchin/pick-pocket until it was revealed in the end of the play that I was actually a girl. I moved to Chicago in 1993 but there was precious little Equity opportunities for a young woman in her twenties. I had at least twenty different people tell me within the first six months of being there that I should drop my card. But I was proud of being a Union actor; of being seen as a professional. I met with the Chicago AEA office and, with their guidance and encouragement, began producing plays. AEA worked with me to develop codes and contracts that I could afford and my company, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, was born. Ten years ago we made the jump to a Tier One theater which means I am now able to offer the amazing artists in our ensemble health insurance. I am lucky enough to have lived on both sides of the fence, as an actor for 25 years and as a producer for 20. It is something that I believe distinguishes Rivendell in the sea of wonderful small companies in Chicago, and I know it is something I am still to this day — 25 years later — that proud of.
Reza Salazar (Oscar)
My first Equity job was the Off Broadway world premiere of My Mañana Comes by Elizabeth Irwin and Directed by Chay Yew. I learned so much with Chay, he kicked my butt during rehearsals, I was so scared...but here are three things he said to me that I will never forget. "You have to work twice as hard," "You have to do it all over again tomorrow," and "Directors talk to each other about Actors!!!"
Kimberly Scott (Cynthia)
I got my Equity card on my second show at Yale Rep while I was still a student at Yale School of Drama. It was the world premiere of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson. I was very young and somewhat ignorant of how incredibly fortunate I was to be cast in such a prestigious project so early in my career. But I did know this: becoming a member of the union early was a big stepping stone. I am profoundly grateful for everything I learned from my veteran union brothers and sisters during those first few years. Their wisdom and encouragement was invaluable and I do my best to pay that debt forward today.
Stephen Michael Spencer (Jason)
My first union job was in a production of The Tempest at the NC Shakespeare Festival, which is no longer in operation due to lack of funding...hmmm. Ah the life of the Equity Candidate, playing the Boatswain and a Spirit, one with a sweet whistle and a floor length coat, the latter... a full body spandex suit covered in scales. When I finally received my card was in Graduate School at Cleveland Play House in a production of Yentl. I played a Yeshiva student as well as made a ton of really awesome klesmer-like music. It was awesome.
Tramell Tillman (Chris)
My 1st union job was playing the role of Bob Cratchit in Clarence Brown Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was a grad student at the time attending the University of Tennessee. It was a milestone for us because Bob Cratchit had not been played by a black man before at the theater, I felt fortunate to be part of history. Strangely enough, that show birthed one of the most prolific moments in theater for me. During the run of the show, news of the Sandy Hook tragedy rocked our community. I remember silently sobbing in the dressing room as I watched slain children carried away by the paramedics. Mourning the loss of Tiny Tim became surreal for me on stage. Audiences have seen A Christmas Carol several times, it's a holiday classic. During the scene of Christmas Yet to Come, I had the difficult task of comforting my family during our loss. But for some reason, that night, it was completely different. As a community, we all paused (metaphorically) and mourned the lives of those children and grieved with those families, without saying a word. It was in that moment that I experienced the true power and communal force of theater. I still get emotional thinking about it.
Jack Willis (Stan)
It was my first show out of grad school. Gemini by Albert Innaurato at the New Arts Theater in Dallas. Every night they catered the big picnic scene by this great Italian restaurant down the street from the theater. So I had free dinners for four weeks.
Tyrone Wilson (Evan)
My first Union job was actually back at Yale Rep Theater. I attended Yale Drama School and had acted in several shows at the Rep as a student. Within a year of graduating from Yale I was hired to replace an actor in Wole Soyinka’s Play of Giants. And the real kicker is that Kimberly Scott was in the same show as a student!!
(Photos: left to right, top row: Johanna Day, Kevin Kenerly, Tara Mallen; middle row: Reza Salazar, Kimberly Scott, Stephen Michael Spencer; bottom row: Tramell Tillman, Jack Willis, Tyrone Wilson.)