Actors Equity invests in Chicago

The theatrical union sets up shop in the West Loop.

November 1, 2010

Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers, cut the ribbon Monday night on the new Chicago headquarters for its 13-state Central Region.

As Shakespeare observed, "What's past is prologue," and so it is with Equity's new HQ, an historic West Loop survivor of The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The building at 557 W. Randolph Street dates from 1855 and originally housed a wholesale flour dealer. Equity has had several different downtown addresses over the years, so a move to different digs isn't itself newsworthy. But this time the union owns the building, the only bricks and mortar Equity owns anywhere, including New York City where the union's national offices are located.

The four-story, 22,000 square foot building was purchased late in 2008 after the economic bust and has been undergoing a gut renovation since then. Kathryn V. Lamkey, Central Regional Director, explained that Equity found "a motivated seller. We were a buyer who could pay cash. We didn't have to take a mortgage." She continued, "It was a good long-term investment for any monies we had in reserve" at a time when rates of return on bonds, CD's and money market funds had collapsed.

Equity itself will occupy most of the building with offices, a members' service center, the Lonergan library and audition rooms although some office space is available for rent. Founded in 1913, Actors Equity Association has 49,000 members nationwide heavily clustered in New York and Los Angeles. The entire Central Region has 4,600 members of whom about 1,500 live in Chicago. With fewer than 10% of the membership, the Central Region nonetheless accounts year after year for more than 14% of the union's total workweeks nationwide.

In Chicago alone, 58 theaters operate on Equity contracts which cover everything from Broadway shows at the big Loop theaters to small storefront playhouses in the neighborhoods. The most lucrative contract is the Production Contract covering cast members and stage managers in Broadway shows, but the most important contract to Chicago is the Chicago Area Theatre "CAT" contract which covers the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Victory Gardens Theater, Writers' Theatre, Next Theatre Company, Lookingglass Theatre and several dozen smaller companies. In a good year, the CAT houses will chalk up over 6,000 work weeks.

First negotiated in the early 1980's, the highly flexible CAT contract has had a substantial impact on the growth and development of professional theater in Chicago, and has been used as the model for similar contracts nationwide.