Actors’ Equity Association’s Stefanie Frey talks about the 2019 strike and now

Mobilization Director Stefanie Frey (Courtesy of Actors’ Equity)

The past six years have seen dynamic changes in the gains Equity has been able to make and the way they organize themselves to achieve their goals. In 2019, for the first time in fifty years, Equity continued strike— Theater workers quit their jobs and demanded profit sharing in Broadway development projects. In 2016, big pay raises were won from off-Broadway producers thanks to the #fairwageonstage movement. Bottom-up internal organizing has increased within the union, which before 2017 did not even have an organizing department. Before the pandemic, Equity had stretched its organizing muscles, and now after the vaccine, they look set to do it again. Three major contracts – for touring, production and the League of Resident Theaters – will be renegotiated in 2022. Serious contract campaigns are planned. Likely in anticipation of these campaigns, Equity created the post of Director of Mobilization, which was filled by longtime labor organizer Stefanie Frey.

Frey, an Equity stage manager, has been at the heart of many of the major actions and contract wins the union has been able to achieve over the past six years. She takes on this new role just as the theater is experiencing a post-vaccination comeback, and rank-and-file unionism, nationwide, is taking center stage in the many strikes and labor actions taking place in across the country.

Frey told the Observer, “The labor movement was getting hot, so to speak, and the members were really on and needed a way to organize and channel that energy.”

Frey spoke to Observer about his history of activating Equity members to take collective action and the need to confront the culture of exploitation within theatre. “There’s definitely a culture of being grateful for work and exposure,” Frey told Observer. “In theater you are taught at university level – be grateful for your work.” In 2016, as an Off-Broadway sales representative for Equity, Frey was part of a paradigm-shifting project, #fairwageonstage, a grassroots movement to increase the weekly wages of Off-Broadway actors. At the time, Off-Broadway theaters, which raised a lot of money from grants and foundations, paid actors solely on ticket sales. Theater workers worked, in some cases, for less than minimum wage.

Frey told the Observer: “People were working for $400 a week in New York. It wasn’t even about fairness, it was about getting to the point of a living wage. It was the first time the union had stretched organizing muscles that hadn’t been used for many years. Their movement, a long-term project that involved organizing members in the thousands, took Off-Broadway producers by surprise. In the end, after nearly going on strike, they were able to strike a deal that included, in some theaters, a 84% salary increase.

Years later, in 2019, after moving from sales representative to national organizer, Frey organized members for the 2019 strike against the Broadway League for profit sharing. Equity members attending Broadway development labs and workshops received a pittance for their work. These theater workers helped develop shows that, in some cases, would bring in billions in ticket sales. Frey told the Observer, “Everyone worked on a shitty development project and got frustrated to see it go to Broadway, and the lines that they helped create end up on the show and they get nothing. in return.” The system was broken and deeply unfair. The Equity members wanted a slice of the pie.

The 2019 profit-sharing strike was Equity’s first strike in more than a generation. Organizers like Frey were looking for ways to activate theater professionals at 21st century: a group of people known for having individualistic mindsets when it comes to navigating their careers. Frey told the Observer, “A lot of it was just aimed at people and telling them this is it, this is the time, this is kind of now or never.” Equity managed to convince members that they needed to suspend their work and shut down the system in order to make a profit. The actors had to relearn how to strike and decide, as Frey puts it, “I’d much rather do that [strike]so it pushes us to fix the model, than to sit here and work for 100 bucks and a the water bottle.” They went on strike and within a week the producers decided to cancel or postpone their development projects. After striking the Broadway League for 33 days, Equity won wage increases and a been able to negotiate a share of the future benefits of development projects for actors and managers.

Returning to Equity after a stint as a senior mobilizer for the New York NewsGuild, Stefanie Frey took on the role of Director of Mobilization. With her deep experience in organizing militant members, the work seems designed for her. Frey told Observer, “During COVID in particular, there’s less need to organize because we think it’s about adding jobs or organizing externally, and there’s more need to organize the members together and to mobilize them.”

The creation of the position of director of mobilization and the return of Frey to Equity are only the continuation of the union’s shift towards organizing members, which has been underway for the past six years. However, this shift in tactics comes amid a national shift in labor activism, with strikes and organizing efforts large and small, from Kellogg to the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, happening everywhere. Moreover, with live theater closed for nearly two years and many theater workers driven out of the industry altogether, the remaining actors and managers have little to lose and much to fight for. Amid show closures and cancellations on Broadway while Omicron airs, the live theater changes in real time. With three contracts to be renegotiated in 2022, Equity has brought together a wide range of organizers to allow members to make their voices heard and act together. Having stretched its muscles in winning campaigns over the past six years, Equity may be able to mobilize members in massive numbers in a way that hasn’t been seen in a generation.

Actors' Equity Engagement Director, Stefanie Frey, Talks Organizing Theater

Andrew B. Reiter