November has descended, but what many of you may not know is that it marks AAUK’s 22nd anniversary. With American Thanksgiving around the corner, now is an appropriate moment to look back at our beginnings, and celebrate everything the organization provides our community.

Back in the mists of time that was the 1990s, Equity as a union had a very different structure, one that was heaving with committees, subcommittees, and specialist groups. One of these was a thriving specialist committee called the North American Artists Committee, which had been formed years before to help advise on US and Canadian actor work permits, and look after the resident North American actor community. Although the immigration regime was already tightening by then, previously benevolent regulations meant that a sizable community of U.S. and Canadian actors had put down roots in the UK, and it had made sense for there to be a group within the union to look after them.

However, a review of the union’s structure in the late ‘90s showed that Equity had become unwieldy and inefficient, and a shakeup was triggered, with the result that the North American Artists Committee was summarily axed. Although many in our community were hurt and angry at the time, it gave us an opportunity to reform outside of the strictures of a trade union - and the North American Actors Association,  the original name for AAUK, was born in November 1997. It turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened.

Without the need to adhere to union policies, we were free to concentrate on the special interests and challenges our community of actors faced. A big problem at the time was convincing casting directors that there were genuine Americans and Canadians around and that we could work in the UK legally. Increasing changes to the immigration system meant working visas were being curtailed and casters were shying away from us, frustrated at casting actors who had to leave the country by the time a project was up and running. To address this, we laid down some simple rules of membership: in order to belong, everyone had to have the ability to work unrestricted in both the UK and the US or Canada, and be a professional actor. We then created our own directory and mailed it to casting directors; gave press interviews; petitioned for theatres to audition genuine Yanks or Canuks for North American roles; distributed a bimonthly newsletter (by snailmail - life was very different then); and formed relationships with Spotlight and Equity. We also started our annual playreading festival to showcase members, and even decided to build a cutting edge marketing tool called a website. Over two decades later, the organization is still going strong.

What is astonishing is that, in all the time it has been running, the NAAA/AAUK has always been independent, self-run and self-funded. Headed by a small committee, everyone, with the exception of the fabulous part-time administrator Kelly, is a full time actor, volunteering their time to keep the organization ticking over. An enormous amount of work goes on behind the scenes: keeping the website up-to-date, compiling and sending out the newsletters, arranging workshops and social events, organizing the play reading festival, managing the accounts, working on industrial relationships, and generally keeping everything running smoothly. At a time of year for giving thanks, the energetic people in charge  - Claudette, Erick, Lance, Sam, and Kelly to name a few - should get a round of applause for everything they do for the members.

As founding mama of NAAA, and chief executive until 2008 when I stepped down due to increasing work commitments, I’m incredibly proud to see what the AAUK has become, and delighted that it continues to succeed. Some of our other founding members are still around and are active members; some have left acting or left the country; and some, sadly, have taken their final bows - including Nick Simons, who passed away only this week.

Nick was a member of the North American Artists Committee and then part of the original NAAA executive committee for many years. Although British born, Nick had also lived and worked in the USA and Canada, where he performed at the Stratford Festival. Back in the UK, he worked as an actor with both the RSC and the National Theatre, and as a director and integrative counselor. In addition to his committee duties, he often directed for the AAUK playreading festivals, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He will be missed, and we offer him one last, heartfelt, round of applause.