A 1945 Code of Ethics for Theatre Workers Surfaces by Janet Thielke | August 11, 2009 While appearing on Broadway in her Tony-nominated role of Jeanette in The Full Monty in August, 2001, Equity member Kathleen Freeman died of lung cancer. Equity Councillor Jane A. Johnston, a longtime friend and executrix for Ms. Freeman’s estate, later discovered among Ms. Freeman’s papers a document containing A Code of Ethics for Theatre Workers. Ms. Freeman was a daughter of a small time vaudevillian team. Her childhood experience of touring with her parents inspired this Code of Ethics, Ms. Johnston writes. She also notes: “What is particularly interesting about this list of dos and don’ts for the theatre is that it was written in 1945 when Kathleen was establishing one of the first small theatres in Los Angeles and she was 24 years old. I wish I had been told some of ‘the rules’ when I was a young actress instead of having to pick them up as I went along.”
The theatre was the Circle Players (with Charlie Chaplin among its backers), which later evolved into the Players’ Ring. Although there is no record that either company used an Equity contract (they certainly pre-dated the 99-Seat Code in Los Angeles), Ms. Johnston confirms that all the participants were professionals.
Foreword to the Code
“A part of the great tradition of the theatre is the code of ethics which belong to every worker in the theatre. This code is not a superstition, nor a dogma, nor a ritual which is enforced by tribunals; it is an attitude toward your vocation, your fellow workers, your audiences and yourself. It is a kind of self-discipline which does not rob you of your invaluable individualism.
“Those of you who have been in show business know the full connotation of these precepts. Those of you who are new to show business will soon learn. The Circle Players, since its founding in 1945, has always striven to stand for the finest in theatre, and it will continue to do so. Therefore, it is with the sincere purpose of continued dedication to the great traditions of the theatre that these items are here presented.”
The “rules” follow:
1. I shall never miss a performance.
2. I shall play every performance with energy, enthusiasm and to the best of my ability regardless of size of audience, personal illness, bad weather, accident, or even death in my family.
3. I shall forego all social activities which interfere with rehearsals or any other scheduled work at the theatre, and I shall always be on time.
4. I shall never make a curtain late by my failure to be ready on time.
5. I shall never miss an entrance.
6. I shall never leave the theatre building or the stage area until I have completed my performance, unless I am specifically excused by the stage manager; curtain calls are a part of the show.
7. I shall not let the comments of friends, relatives or critics change any phase of my work without proper consultation; I shall not change lines, business, lights, properties, settings or costumes or any phase of the production without consultation with and permission of my director or producer or their agents, and I shall inform all people concerned.
8. I shall forego the gratification of my ego for the demands of the play.
9. I shall remember my business is to create illusion; therefore, I shall not break the illusion by appearing in costume and makeup off-stage or outside the theatre.
10. I shall accept my director’s and producer’s advice and counsel in the spirit in which it is given, for they can see the production as a whole and my work from the front.
11. I shall never “put on an act” while viewing other artists’ work as a member of an audience, nor shall I make caustic criticism from jealousy or for the sake of being smart.
12. I shall respect the play and the playwright and, remembering that “a work of art is not a work of art until it is finished,” I shall not condemn a play while it is in rehearsal.
13. I shall not spread rumor or gossip which is malicious and tends to reflect discredit on my show, the theatre, or any personnel connected with them-either to people inside or outside the group.
14. Since I respect the theatre in which I work, I shall do my best to keep it looking clean, orderly and attractive regardless of whether I am specifically assigned to such work or not.
15. I shall handle stage properties and costumes with care for I know they are part of the tools of my trade and are a vital part of the physical production.
16. I shall follow rules of courtesy, deportment and common decency applicable in all walks of life (and especially in a business in close contact with the public) when I am in the theatre, and I shall observe the rules and regulations of any specific theatre where I work.
17. I shall never lose my enthusiasm for theatre because of disappointments.
In addition, the document continued:
“I understand that membership in the Circle Theatre entitles me to the privilege of working, when I am so assigned, in any of the phases of a production, including: props, lights, sound, construction, house management, box office, publicity and stage managing-as well as acting. I realize it is possible I may not be cast in a part for many months, but I will not allow this to dampen my enthusiasm or desire to work, since I realize without my willingness to do all other phases of theatre work, there would be no theatre for me to act in.”
All members of the Circle Theatre were required to sign this document. And they must have-because the theatre, and the group into which it evolved, was successful for many years.
The second half of my tour experience was punctuated by actors trying their best to remain professional while dealing with the challenges of losing and gaining cast members, powering through successive one-nighters, a manager imposing his authority as opposed to earning it, and facing the inevitable end to any contract- unemployment.
The incredibly talented man who played our lead for the first part of our run did what incredibly talented people always do- booked another job. He left us somewhere in California and his understudy was thrust into the role. The process of working the two of them and the new chorus member in and out of the show seemed eternal, and the poor, ten-person chorus was put through their paces, re-staging the show for 9 of them, 8 of them, 7 of them, and, the most dreaded incarnation, 6 of them. At a certain point the need for rehearsal was rendered unnecessary and codes like, “ ‘A’ blocking for 3 and 3,” was the only thing that stage management needed to utter in order for each of them to incorporate the myriad of individual changes that made each incarnation of the show look great.
As the company rep, I did my best to familiarize myself with our contract and handbook, communicate information that affected the production as a whole as well as individuals, and dole out hugs whenever and wherever they were needed. There was a time when I felt overwhelmed by the constant dissatisfaction felt by the acting company, and then one day I realized it wasn’t that everyone was unhappy, it was that a different person was unhappy every day. In that instant, my role became so clear- help people recognize when they simply needed a friendly ear versus when they needed to pursue action up the chain of command. After that, I was always willing to hear my cast mates out, and navigate the emotions inevitably attached to each situation and get to the root of the problem. However, there was one little snag. While I expected easily resolvable and ultimately small issues to come up every day, including my own, our company manager was reporting these momentary bouts of unhappiness as attacks against himself and therefore, the producing company. This lead to a very misguided and one sided picture of the acting company being reported to our producer, which lead to hurt feelings on his part after working very hard on this project, which lead to a very negative and disparaging speech being made by him to us a few, very short hours before our final performance. Amends have been made, and I hope that the only long term affects of this negative situation were lessons learned by all parties involved. In the very least, it was a lesson learned by me.
Whenever things were difficult you could catch at least one of us saying, at least we have Dayton. We spent two weeks in a hotel and not on a bus, frequenting the local eateries and pubs, and using the time on our hands to do some projects of our own. Some of my cast mates even made a horror movie! The service at the hotel was sublime. After being caught by the night manager video-taping a submission in one of the ballrooms at 1:00 in the morning, he laughed and winked every time I saw him thereafter, and the valet guys drove us all over town happily chatting about the merits of Dayton, OH. I tried my first attempt at a fundraising event in the form of a cabaret hosted by a drag queen, and it created some major stress, but all of that disappeared the moment our accompanist hit his first downbeat. We had a blast that night, and despite the charity forbidding us to use their name in any of the advertising because the event was taking place in a bar, our drag queen host had to be replaced last minute because she had to go to the hospital with another drag queen, and there were strippers (yes, strippers) scheduled for the same night, we raised almost $300 from the local gays who were probably only expecting to drink and maybe hook-up with a cute stranger (the main objective of any single person in a bar, not just the gays, marriage equality now!)
My ‘ship friends’ who have never done a truck and bus always ask me how a terrestrial tour compares, and I consistently answer, “it’s just like being on a ship, except you can use your cell phone.” Much of your autonomy is lost, therefore interpersonal issues are magnified, having a kitchen or a single room feels like having a piece of heaven all to yourself, no one has any secrets (or they were really good at keeping them from me), and every day feels like a week, every week feels like a month, and after it’s over you feel the need to sleep for a very long time.
Since the age of sixteen my adventures in musical theater have taken me all over the country. For the next six months I will be coast hopping between New York and LA. Here are my stories.