Actors' Equity Association (AEA) is a labor organization for live theatrical performers and stage managers. Directors and choreographers have a separate union, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, while television and film actors belong to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Some performers prefer to belong to the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA); circus performers, showgirls, comedians, and magicians, for example, tend to be in the AGVA.
Like other labor organizations, the Actors' Equity Association negotiates on behalf of its members for better rates of pay, working conditions, set hours, and other protections. Theaters that wish to host Equity actors must fulfill certain conditions set out by the Actors' Equity Association, including meeting basic pay requirements. In theaters where Equity and non-Equity actors are mixed, this can result in inequality and unrest at times, as Equity actors typically receive a higher rate of pay.
In addition to protecting performers and stage managers, the Actors' Equity Association also has the stated goal of keeping the tradition of live theatrical performance in the United States alive. Actors' Equity Association was a key player in the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts, and it continues to support a variety of initiatives which promote and preserve live theater. For example, the AEA helped to protect several historic Broadway theaters from demolition in the 1990s, arguing that they were an important part of America's cultural history.
This organization was founded in 1913 by 112 theatrical actors, with the goal of breaking the stranglehold theater owners held on most actors. In 1919, Actors' Equity Association joined the American Federation of Labor, and struck for formal recognition as a labor union. Actors' Equity is headquartered in New York City, which has been the seat of America's live theater community for centuries, with branch offices in Orlando, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Members of the Actors' Equity Association have access to health and pension plans, along with assistance in negotiating contracts and benefits with individual theaters. Actors' Equity Association also has a long history of promoting equality and fair treatment among its members; it strongly opposed segregation historically, for example, and it also stood up against the infamous Hollywood Blacklist. This union continues to be an innovative force in the theater community while keeping live theater accessible and relevant to Americans.