Catching Up With Actors' Equity Association Executive Director Alvin Vincent, Jr. | Playbill

Special Features Catching Up With Actors' Equity Association Executive Director Alvin Vincent, Jr.

Playbill talk with the union exec about Equity's new president, Brooke Shields, unionizing with Disneyland performers, and more.

Alvin Vincent, Jr. Marc J. Franklin

It's a heady time to be at Actors' Equity Association, the union that counts Broadway actors and stage managers (along with professional performers nationwide) amongst its membership.

After narrowly avoiding strikes while negotiating on new Broadway and national touring contracts, the union finds itself again at odds with theatrical producers via The Broadway League, this time over the Development Agreement that governs pre-production work for plays and musicals on their way to the stage. The Union was forced to put all new development work on pause last month after a breakdown in negotiations, a move that puts a lot of question marks around new shows trying to make their way to the Main Stem. (Don't panic—as The Broadway League said in a response statement, "these negotiations have no impact on current Broadway and touring productions or those opening this season." In other words, there's still time.)

But on the other hand, Equity also has a lot of new members following several recent new successful unionization votes, perhaps most notably for character, parade, and show performers at California's Disneyland. They also just got a new high-profile president in Brooke Shields, lending her A-list profile to the wants and needs of performers and stage managers across the country.

Playbill recently caught up with Equity's Executive Director Alvin Vincent, Jr. to talk about all of these topics and more. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Equity just recently added Disneyland employees to its roster of members. How did that come about?
Alvin Vincent, Jr.: The cool thing about Disneyland in California is that these workers chose us. These 1,700 workers at Disneyland, characters and parade performers, wanted a better way of life on the job. They wanted to have safer working conditions. They wanted better and more fair compensation. They wanted a voice in their work. And so they picked us, and that’s when organizing works best. They asked us to help organize, and they’re very thoughtful and clear about needing a union. It's been about a six-month process of conversations leading up to their election, which was an overwhelming victory.

The whole thing was worker driven, and that’s really what organizing is supposed to be. It has also reverberated almost globally. We’re hearing from workers everywhere about the excitement around this. When one worker sees another worker stand up for a better way of life, it gives them hope. The victory was phenomenal for these folks, and they gave hope to workers everywhere.

I am going there on Monday to spend a couple of days in the park, meeting with workers there. We’re in the process of doing surveys and town halls where they can tell us exactly what they want in their first contract. We are really excited to be starting negotiations on their first contract.

What are you hearing were the main inspirations for these workers unionizing?
Each worker has a different perspective on what needs to change in their workspace. Some common themes were around safety on the job, and fair compensation. Those are the two main things, but there will be other issues we identify in this process with the surveys and town halls.

It feels like Equity is broadening their membership, between this Disneyland action and some other recent unionizations. Has that been a goal for AEA?
Well I’ve said frequently that workers should have a fair choice to have a union if they want one. And when they fit within our world—which includes people working in live theatre and other theatrical work in non-traditional settings—when it fits within our jurisdiction, we are happy to represent them. 

We’ve had other victories like the Griffith Observatory. We’re getting performers from other theme parks. I started here in February of 2022, and we already had an organizing department with a great organizing director. We needed to build that team to be able to meet the needs of the workers, but we did that. We built that department out. That was the first step. And then we got the word out with our own members, that if they know someone who wants representation on their job, to let us know. We also have been getting a lot of attention after our successful negotiation on the Broadway Production Contract, and I think that led to workers reaching out to us. It’s a really exciting time with Equity right now.

Was the union’s adoption of an Open Access policy part of that strategy as well?
That process happened before I got to Equity, but the crux of that decision was making sure that workers had a choice to decide when they wanted to become a member of the union versus the employer. For the most part, employers had been controlling the joining process for Equity, and we thought that wasn’t right. Changing that policy put that decision in workers’ hands.

To that end, there’s been a fair amount of chatter about when and if performers should join Equity, specifically with actors on non-union tours being more vocal about why they’ve chosen to work outside of union contracts. What would you say to performers who are maybe at the beginning of their careers and not yet Union members as they go about making those decisions?
When we went into our last negotiations on the Production Contract, we focused on language that was going to make our members safer, both physically and in terms of harassment and bullying. 

When you work on a union contract, you have those protections. You have fair compensation. You know what you’re getting paid, and you know when you’re going to get an increase. Honestly, it’s not really that different from other industries. You have a union job, you have protection. You have proper compensation. You have representatives to advocate for you when things go wrong. 

When I think of non-union actors, I think about wanting to continue to show that their work has value.

Let’s talk about the Development Agreement that is currently being negotiated. What are the goals there?
We are asking for fair compensation for work that’s done in development. The point of disagreement is around a different philosophy in what this work, and what the compensation for that work looks like. When a show is developing, creatives have an idea and test it out, and hope that it’s successful and becomes a full show. We know there’s no revenue there yet, but at some point, there will be. We had so many shows this year that went through the same development process and became successful.

Management seems to be sticking to a belief that because the process is not developing revenue, it should not have the same kind of compensation structure as other contracts, and we just fundamentally disagree with that. It’s still work. Actors and stage managers are showing up and being present and bringing their artistry. It’s an investment for future shows. Every other industry has to make investment in their future services or products. Management looks at it different, so this will take a little time. But we’re not giving up. They’re willing to talk, so we will find a path forward.

When you’re talking about compensation, are you talking about the pay they immediately receive during a show’s development, or this concept of profit sharing, which has been raised more and more by lots in the industry lately.
We’re talking about the immediate compensation. 

We actually agreed in our last Development Agreement negotiations in 2019 to not re-engage on potential profit sharing conversations for 10 years, so that’s off the table until 2029.

Do you have any timeline for these current negotiations?
No. In the decision to not approve any new development work as of June 17, we knew that it would be a while before we re-engage. Both sides have to see what it looks like not having this process in place before we get back to it.

Brooke Shields Heather Gershonowitz

Tell me about new Equity President Brooke Shields!
She is amazing. From the moment that I met her, she talked about using her platform to lift up issues that are important to members. She talks a lot about unity, about unifying workers and union members. She talks a lot about bringing attention to everything that the union cares about, like arts funding, and using her platform to lift those things up. It’s a really exciting time, and she’s ready to jump right in.

Do you have an idea of what her big goals are?
She’s had a long, successful career, and she really wanted to be here for us now. She knows there are a lot of issues important to the Union. She talks a lot about listening, and she does. When she talk, she wants to know how she can help—she’s that kind of thoughtful person.

When someone that level of famous takes a role on that, you sometimes see an almost humorous response to it. But in this case, we just watched sitcom star Fran Drescher totally wipe the floor with Hollywood producers, so that feels not right.

I know that's something Brooke knows firsthand, too, because of where her career has taken her—this work is different everywhere. If you’re in New Orleans or Chicago or Houston, each member has a different experience. We want to be there and listen to what’s important from everywhere we have members, and it’s just very clear Brooke is ready to do that work.

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