NEW YORK — "Artists don't lead anymore, and we should, because the arts really do belong to the people," said Colleen Dewhurst with the forcefulness for which she has become known as both actress and activist.
The actress has been a whirlwind of activity in recent years, speaking and working on behalf of women's issues, the peace movement--she is outgoing president of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament--and, more recently, efforts to solve the AIDS issue.
June marked the end of her first year in a three-year term as president of Actors Equity, the 37,000-member stage actors union. Many in the theater community say she is one of the most active and aggressive presidents in the history of the century-old union.
"We are communicators," Dewhurst said of actors' public--as well as professional--roles, during a recent interview in her office at Equity's mid-Manhattan national headquarters. The union also maintains offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.
"Ten years ago, I'd never have thought I'd be president of Actors Equity," she said. "But in the back of my mind has been the realization that I really love actors."
Dewhurst said it was "a growing realization of the problems facing actors" that led her to seek the presidency of Equity in 1985, at a time when she was thinking she should "pull back a bit" from her various activities.
She pointed out that problems resulting from unemployment, ill health, old age and the like became clearer to her over a five-year term on the executive committee of the Actors Fund of America.
"Previous to this, my knowledge of Equity was zilch," Dewhurst said. "I simply was an actor doing my job. I was a member of my union, and that was that. And I think--and you can see from attendance at membership meetings--that most actors feel this way about (Equity).
"But I would like to see more and more of us become aware of what's going on around us, and become involved--young people, in particular.
"Equity can deal forcefully with a lot of the issues that affect us, including the current state of the American theater," she continued, citing the possibility of "a meeting of the minds" of knowledgeable people in the theater to discuss the increasing difficulty of finding and producing new and "relevant" plays, especially in New York.
"If ever we needed to be opened up viscerally, it is now, in this robot time we live in," she said.
Acknowledging that "there are no set rules and regulations" concerning Equity's presidency, beyond "a consulting role," Dewhurst said firmly, "but I have no intention of being a figurehead. I feel I can bring some influence to bear on the areas that really interest me."
One of her more passionate interests is the so-called "non-traditional" casting of actors in roles without regard to race or gender.
"We are not now representing society as it now exists," said Dewhurst, referring to the traditional casting of white actors in stage roles unless the role as written stipulates otherwise; this is especially true when casting the classics, she said. "And this is one area where the theater could take the lead, because art is supposed to represent life. At least, we could send a message," she added, "and if the audience doesn't like it, they can walk out (of the theater)."
To try to rectify what Dewhurst considers an inequity, she said Actors Equity is now making "nontraditional" casting suggestions for new play scripts and encouraging theaters around the country to bring minority community leaders onto theater boards of directors.
Dewhurst's own schedule is filled with personal visits to such theaters--she serves on several such boards--in her role as Equity president. She's also theater program panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Yet, these and duties to her other interests have not, she said, detracted from her own work as an actress.
"I work for a living as well as for the love of it--acting is my profession," said Dewhurst, the mother of two grown sons from her marriage to actor George C. Scott. She spends what little private time she has at home in Upstate New York with producer Ken Marsolais.
She acknowledged that she has had few good film roles over the years. "Perhaps I've never been offered a truly interesting one," she said. But she pointed out that she recently completed a four-month engagement at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center in Chekhov's "The Seagull,"--"to stretch my muscles"--and that she recently was seen in a highly praised ABC-TV Movie, "Between Two Women," as well as in a public television series, "Anne of Green Gables."
She just returned from completing work on an independently made for TV movie, "Woman in the Wind," and she will next be seen on Showtime in the made-for-cable movie version of "As Is," William Hoffman's play about AIDS.
"At this point in my life, I feel I have gotten a lot out of my profession," said Dewhurst. "I don't know what I'd be doing, or where I'd be without it, but I certainly would not be as constantly stimulated."