Carson D. Elrod
Off Broadway, New Media, and LORT
We’re in the middle of a global crisis. On March 12th, the country locked down. I lost work. So did you. We all did. We’re looking into the future together with a sense of fear and dread in an already challenging line of work.
The silver lining is that we’re not alone and that our union has a unique role to play weathering this storm. Equity’s core functions now must include providing relief, hope, and visionary leadership as we struggle together. If ever there were a moment for solidarity, this is it. We need to have each other’s backs now more than ever.
As your councilor, I will offer compassion, affection, respect, and decisive action as we navigate these unfathomable circumstances. I have no doubt that the American theatre will survive and once again thrive. If re-elected, I will make sure that stage managers and actors survive and thrive too. I will demand that we lobby all public and private channels to make sure our members get needed relief.
The United States will need theatre more than ever when this tribulation ends. I am certain that our members will help heal the country. We have a crucial role to play in the story of this crisis because we will be the ones telling it. When the theatres fill up again with human beings desperate for connection and community, I want to make sure that our members do so with a fair wage on stage.
I’m originally from Topeka, Kansas. I moved to NYC in 1997 to get my MFA from NYU’s Graduate Acting Program. I’ve lived all over the city. East Village, Harlem, South Bronx, Lower East Side, and finally, now Bushwick, Brooklyn.
I’m from a big and fun family that is now spread out all over the country. I have so many aunts, uncles, cousins, and now the babies of cousins! We have such a great time together and at Christmas, we all convene in Topeka, Kansas at my mother’s place where we cram like 30 people into a house together where we sing, dance, and laugh constantly for a few days. I’m really lucky to have such a warm and functional family and I wish we all lived closer to each other so that we could see each other more than just once a year.
My Equity Card: I got my Equity card doing the American Premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s play Comic Potential (With Kellie Overbey!) at Manhattan Theatre Club in the year 2000.
How/Why is Equity and this work important to you?
I could spend all day on this question. This is more like the prompt of a book! OK, how do I break this down?
Well, it’s my firm belief that labor in this country doesn’t know it’s own worth or value. And in particular, actors are incredibly vulnerable to buying into the myth that they are worthless, easily replaceable, and “lucky” to work. It’s actually not unique to our industry. All over the country, working people are told that they’re lucky to have anything and not to rock the boat. But it’s a myth. Work has value and human beings deserve to live with dignity. All it would ever take anywhere is for people, standing together in solidarity, to organize and demand to be treated fairly. Unfortunately this country has produced such economic anxiety among so many millions of people that many are afraid to stand up for themselves and demand a fair wage because they’ve been made to think they’re “lucky” to have anything.
Well it doesn’t have to be that way! That’s where unions come in! The whole function of a union is to help develop labor consciousness in people. Unions let people know that they are valuable, crucial, and stronger together. Unions allow workers to come together and collectively bargain for the fair pay and safe working conditions they deserve. Equity has been incredibly effective over the years at creating safe working conditions. On certain contracts Equity has been effective in demanding fair wages. But Equity has still has long way to go making all of our contracts fair and a long way to go with communications and member engagement to develop labor consciousness in our members. Many Equity members go to bed wondering how they’ll make ends meet and convinced there’s nothing that can be done. I was one of those people until 2014.
In 2014, I invited a group of actors I knew over to my apartment to brainstorm what our contracts would look like if they were perfect. That meeting turned into two. And a third. And then I was asked to come into the union and talk directly to staff and leadership about these issues. Then I was asked to serve on the Off Broadway negotiating team. It was incredibly illuminating. On that team I was repeatedly struck by how many members of our own team had internalized our employers’ arguments and point of view. I don’t mean this as an indictment of my fellow team members. It’s an indictment of years of pro-management and anti-union propaganda. I realized that my job on that team was to just keep saying, “What we are asking is reasonable, do-able, and long overdue. Even with the large percentage increases we’re asking for, we’re still not going to get a living wage. But we can at least get closer to a fair one.” That negotiation concluded with us getting up to 83% salary increases, some the largest percentage increases in American Labor history. I was thrilled and heartened by our success. But I didn’t walk out of there thinking we’d “won”. We haven’t won while people still can’t pay their rent WHILE WORKING an Equity contract. We haven’t won while thousands of our members lack health insurance. We haven’t won while our members have unpaid and unreasonable two hour commutes to work. We haven’t won while Stage Managers still don’t have ASM’s on every contract. We haven’t won until there is MRE on every contract. We haven’t won until stage managers and actors get buyouts or right of first refusal for the roles/jobs they originated when that production moves. We haven’t won until every Equity member who books a job knows that they’ll be able to pay their most basic bills with their work and know that the conditions that they work in will be 100% safe and sanitary.
But what I did understand, fundamentally, in my bones after the Off Broadway negotiation is that the #FairWageOnStage movement was responsible for our success. By harnessing the voices, the talents, and the passion of 100% of our members working the Off Broadway agreement, we made the “impossible” a reality. I realized that when our members are educated, energized, invested, and organized, literally anything is possible. It was then, that with many of the people I’d organized with and worked so tirelessly with during the Off Broadway negotiation, that we decided we needed to take our energy, commitment, and passion to Equity’s governance structure. #FairWageOnCouncil was born and we ran and won seats!
Serving on council has been a humbling privilege. I’ve learned a lot about what I know and don’t know. I’ve learned a lot about the value of “institutional knowledge”. I’ve also learned the deadly quicksand that can happen where great ideas are thrown into working groups for years or something we should have done years ago takes years to get done now, even when everyone in the room agrees and votes to get it done. And I’ve seen the trap of believing that just because something’s always been done a certain way that that way is the right way. I’ve had moments of profound joy watching something revolutionary like Judge It By The Budget get adopted into Union policy and I’ve had moments of frustration as a brilliant member resolution takes years to be adopted, despite it being obviously the right thing to do. Either way, I’m happy to be in the room on your behalf so I have an eye on what’s happening or not happening and have the opportunity to fight hard to get policies our members need enacted.
In the last three years, my point of view has changed a lot about what Equity governance is, how it functions, and who is doing it. I am sincerely happy to report that the vast majority of our governance is made up of selfless volunteers committing hundreds of hours to running our union. There’s no one on council who doesn’t think that their approach is the best approach to achieve the best results for the majority of our members. I have nothing but respect and admiration for anyone volunteering their time to work on behalf of membership. I’ve also learned how tirelessly our staff works to administer, execute, and enforce our contracts. Is there a lot to improve on? Yes there is. And I want that stuff improved yesterday. But I’m heartened every time I step into the building knowing that we are all truly on the same team.
I promise you that I will walk into every council meeting with the intention to work with my colleagues with compassion, kindness, diplomacy, and directness. When I don’t understand something, I will ask for clarity. When I have a difference of opinion, I will voice it. When I think something is f’d up, I will certainly say so. But more than anything, I promise that my animating impulse will always be to put myself in the shoes of a member working these contracts and ask myself what kind of wages and working conditions I would want, what kind of concessions I would accept, and what I would consider “fair”. You deserve it. Thank you and I look forward to serving you.