NEW YORK CITY: Alan Eisenberg, the longest-serving executive director of Actors’ Equity Association, died on Oct. 7 at the age of 88 in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He is survived by his wife, Claire Copley, and his daughters, Mollie Copley Eisenberg and Emma Copley Eisenberg.
In his time at Equity, which spanned 1981 to 2006, Eisenberg led the union to tremendous growth in membership, work weeks, and member earnings, and steered Equity through several firestorms, including the 1990 Miss Saigon casting controversy, uncertain times for the industry following the Sept. 11 attacks, and the challenges of increased non-union touring.
Raised in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in a secular Jewish household, Eisenberg attended the University of Michigan, where he majored in English and wrote a sports column for the Michigan Daily. After graduating from New York University Law School, he practiced law at the same time as he embraced the bohemian art scene in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, working a second job as a night espresso operator at the Café Figaro. His next job was in labor law.
“If I was going to be a lawyer,” he told an interviewer for the oral history library of the American Jewish Committee at the New York Public Library, “I decided I was going to be a labor lawyer, because it had an inherent drama to it, like literature.”
After a few years representing employers, Eisenberg returned to representing unions as a question of conscience, eventually spending four years working as a staff attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, where he argued in front of the Supreme Court. He later became a senior partner at Spelman, Eisenberg, Paul, and Wagner, a Washington, D.C., firm that represented trade unions. As the firm’s rep for the Newspaper Guild, Eisenberg served as the lead lawyer during the 1975 Washington Post strike. All the while he was an avid student of film, music, visual art, and especially theatre, attending whenever he could.
The job at Equity, which Eisenberg started in 1981, finally combined his dedication to unions and his longtime love of the arts. Between 1981 and the time he announced his retirement in 2005, membership increased from 28,678 to 46,000, work weeks increased by more than 70,000 weeks annually, earnings for stage managers and actors jumped from $118.6 million to $250.3 million, and Equity investments increased in value from $1.7 million to more than $22 million. Along with Equity president Patrick Quinn, Eisenberg helped create the Experimental Touring Program in the Production Contract, which averted the wholesale loss of the road to non-union tours and created opportunities for a greater variety of work to reach audiences across the country. “Alan’s contributions to Equity were immeasurable,” said Actors’ Equity Association president Kate Shindle in a statement.
Eisenberg was a shrewd negotiator, driven by the goal of getting the best possible benefits for the greatest number of artists. When the Equity Health plan faced $16 million in debt in 2003, Eisenberg’s fought for increased employer contributions, stabilizing the fund and ensuring its continuation. He was also instrumental in securing domestic partnership benefits as a part of Equity’s health care coverage, extending crucial care to members and their loved ones during the HIV/AIDS crisis. In 1990, when a British production of Miss Saigon sought to cast white actors in Asian roles, Eisenberg vociferously objected, eventually reaching a compromise between artistic integrity and increased opportunities for actors of color.
Finally, he guided the union through the 2003 Broadway musicians’ union strike, ensuring Equity’s support of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. His role in founding the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds (COBUG) the previous year, which he also co-chaired, ensured the musicians could count on solidarity from all the other unions working in the industry as well.
Eisenberg loved the spectacle and emotional honesty of theatre, continuing to see shows multiple nights a week for business and for pleasure throughout his time with Equity. Upon his retirement, he was made a life member of Actors’ Equity Association, a rare honor granted by the union’s national council to those who have made exceptional contributions on behalf of actors and stage managers. Beyond Equity, Eisenberg served as vice president of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and of Theatre Authority, and as a board member for the Actors’ Equity Foundation, the Actors’ Fund of America (now known as the Entertainment Community Fund), the Actors Work Program, Career Transition for Dancers, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center and the Non-Traditional Casting Project. He served as chair of the Broadway Alliance, a member of the Tony Awards administration committee and a vice president of the Department for Professional Employees of the AFL-CIO.
He also taught at the Yale School of Drama as a visiting professor for many years, as well as at the University of Michigan Theatre Department where, in 2007, he and Equity created an annual award in his name to recognize outstanding talent and career potential in a graduating senior from the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Department. A number of Eisenberg Award recipients have gone on to have notable careers on the stage, including Erika Henningsen (Mean Girls), Isabelle McCalla (The Prom), and Desi Oakley (Waitress). The University of Michigan archives also house the collection of Playbills that Eisenberg accumulated during his many years of theatregoing during his Equity tenure.
In his retirement, he was a dedicated volunteer mentor with Open Doors, a program of the Theatre Development Fund in which mentors take high school students from underserved New York City high schools to Broadway or off-Broadway shows and facilitate discussions about the productions. Eisenberg always said that to be an artist was the highest calling.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to represent the council and American stage actors and stage managers,” he said at the end of his tenure with the union. “I have always tried to carry out this responsibility with dedication to, and pride in, the membership. I have always been and continue to be committed to helping all our actors.”
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