Why Stage Managers Are Included in the Actors’ Union

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier
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AEA Member Card.  Photo: JLOPO
There were several ways for Harry Watson Jr. to join the union in 1925.

[Guest Author: Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier]

I’ve often wondered why stage managers are included in the actors' union. Wouldn’t it be more fitting for the stage managers to join the directors’ union? Or even the producers’ union? And yet, even from its founding, stage managers have always been included under the umbrella of AEA.

In 1913, at the beginning of Actors’ Equity Association, theatre artists often changed hats, or donned multiple hats at the same time. The stage manager was often part-technical director, part-designer, and part-actor. Like today, actors often stage manage between contracts and stage managers act. Unlike today, the stage managers sometimes also acted in the shows they managed. This mentality of “jack-of-all-trades” wasn’t limited to stage managers, but also included directors, choreographers, designers, crew, etc.

In the 1919 constitution, Actors’ Equity defined their membership as

  1. those that acted in the theatrical profession,
  2. those that supported the objectives of the association, and
  3. those elected by the council

A stage manager could join as an actor, or with a lay membership (support), or thru election. This loophole also applied to directors, choreographers, designers, etc. The only unwritten exclusions included Chorus members, as Chorus Equity was a sister union at the time; and producers, as their business associations were thought to be antagonistic with AEA membership.

At the end of 1919/beginning of 1920, an arbitration case was settled between an Assistant Stage Manager, who was also an Equity Member, and a producer. The ASM had petitioned that as an AEA member, the producer needed to give him two weeks’ notice before dismissing his services. In response to this arbitration case, on February 16, 1920, the AEA council carried a motion that stage managers and assistant stage managers were to be considered regular members of the company; written into future agreements and contracts, and covered by the same rules that applied to other AEA members. In subsequent contracts/ rulebooks/ constitutions, stage managers and their assistants were specifically mentioned and included, and soon after had Stage Managers had their own section in the rulebook.

Interestingly, the AEA council, also offered the directors the opportunity for a special section of AEA with a potential seat on the council. AEA created a special contract for directors to be used when employed by members of the producers’ union. Despite this, directors were not specifically mentioned or included in the acting contracts or rulebooks.  The directors’ peripheral membership continued until the 1950s when the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society was formed.

By the 1950’s, the stage managers and their assistants were imbedded into the AEA union, discouraging the group from breaking off to join or create a different union. Stage Managers are so entrenched in the AEA rulebook, it remains an excellent reason to stay today. In theory, the stage managers could move to an alternate union, but in practice, this move makes a lot less sense. Stage Managers and the chosen deputies are the two individuals who must work with and around the AEA agreement – Wouldn’t you want the person in charge of making sure the rules are being followed to benefit too?