Posted by christine

Christmas – coldest day of season. Rehearsal A.M. Holiday for all class of society, but Actors, whose labors are increased – not their salaries – to two or three extra performances. They are made to suffer for others' amusements, filling manager's purses while their own are empty. At Theatre P.M. – three pieces – fine house
– Harry Watkins, December 25th, 1849

Holiday seasons have come and gone since Harry Watkins trod the boards, but one thing hasn’t changed – theater people work holidays. I am a doorperson at Broadway’s August Wilson Theater, where I spend the holidays, not with my biological family, but with my theatrical family.

We do it every year. So did Harry.

Theater workers today do have one advantage over their counterparts in Harry’s day. We have unions – unions that guarantee time and a half and other premium pay for working holidays. Today’s Broadway theater hosts nine representative bodies: Actor’s Equity (actors and stage managers), Local 1 (stagehands and sound), Local 802 (musicians), Local 764 (wardrobe), Local 798 (hair and makeup), Local 306 (front of house and doorpersons), Union 32BJ (theater cleaners and porters), Local 751 (treasurers and ticket sellers) and the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. As a member of Local 306, I make an extra $60 per holiday performance, which adds up to about $600 of holiday pay per annum. Before taxes, of course.

For the majority of Harry Watkin’s life, there were no unions and no protections, particularly for actors. In late 1849 and early 1850, Harry frequently mentions William Evans Burton’s predilection for shutting down his Philadelphia theater with no remuneration for the actors. Even a contract could be violated for management’s needs. On May 23rd, Harry writes about a note put up in a Baltimore green room, directed at himself, complaining that any actor refusing any part would be terminated. Though the roles in question were against his contract, Harry relents, “more for money than reputation.” It’s a shame that Harry felt this was his only choice, but without any kind of pay guarantee or union protection, his options were obey or lose his job. As he’d spent the beginning of the year unemployed, Harry needed this engagement.

Without unions, the only recourse for a sick or out of work actor was to borrow money or to stage a benefit performance. When he was working steadily, Harry frequently lent money to struggling actors, only to then spend chunks of the diary complaining about the lack of repayment. He also participated in benefits, which required him to take a reduced salary so that the box office receipts from the performance could go to support the actor for whom the benefit was staged. This tradition lives on, in a somewhat altered form, in special Monday and Sunday night performances staged for the benefit of The Actors Fund, a charity that supports the entire theatrical community via free clinics and health care, job placement and training, and housing for the elderly.

The stagehands formed the first formal theatrical unions, calling their first strike in 1888 with the goal of obtaining a dollar per show and fifty cents per load in and load out. Actors would not formerly unionize until December 12, 1912 when Actors Equity was officially formed. Too late for Harry, but the improvements for actors made by the union are mapped out in the Actors Equity timeline.

So today, actors (and everyone else) are paid better to work the holidays. But Harry does still have it right – while some additional renumeration is there now, we " are made to suffer for others' amusements, filling manager's purses." After all, what other week in the year does Wicked make over $3 million?