“Hi there, I’m your Equity representative,” said the shy, chipper, and palpably redundant chap who popped into my non-Equity panto rehearsal a couple of years ago. “I know this is a non-Equity project, but I’m here to support you and answer any questions you may have. By the way, if you never want to work for this company again, you can probably sue them for Equity wages.”
I may be paraphrasing (I’m getting on a bit now), but essentially that’s what he said. My head swam with the cognitive dissonance of the friendly, but mildly contemptuous feelings I had for this representative of a fallen titan, who now had little to no power over how I was treated on this job, clashing with the unexpected jellyfish of his hidden unionised nunchucks.
I had read with jealousy about the glory days of Equity’s reign over cowering rep theatre bosses 40 years ago. But it seemed that since rep theatre had died and Maggie had stomped on anything that looked like a union, Equity was nothing more dangerous than Father Ted’s protest outside the naughty cinema. “Down with this sort of thing,” it squeaked pointlessly.
But it seems I might have been wrong. Equity certainly isn’t the behemoth it used to be, and, vicious-circle-ly, its membership has dwindled, leaving it with less and less power. But for actors who haven’t given up on it entirely, the moment to join, or re-join, may be now.
Last year the new Hope Theatre in Islington pledged to pay the minimum wage to all its workers, from ushers to actors. Then, in September this year, The Stage announced that Theatre Delicatessen would be the first theatre company to sign a Living Wage pledge. That means all of its performers and staff will be paid at least £7.65/hr, which is the amount that is needed to live above the poverty line, and more than a quid over the National Minimum Wage of £6.50/hr. These theatres have set an exciting new precedent for fringe theatre, showing that paying fairly is not impossible.
There are those who would argue that enforcing the minimum or living wage upon all fringe theatres would basically murder creativity in Britain, where an admirable culture of poverty-stricken fringe artists banding together in their rickety threadbaredness to make theatre against all the odds has sprung up and is flourishing. I would argue that if the Hope theatre and Theatre Deli are able to pay properly, other fringe organisations need to bloody well ring them up and ask how to do it. It must be possible, because it’s been done.
And until they do that, there are things that we can do ourselves. We as theatregoers can choose who gets our cash and our kudos. We can boycott theatres with a reputation for not paying their actors; be open and curious with each other about what is being paid where; help theatres that pay fairly by supporting them on social media, sharing their pages and talking about their shows. But as well as all this, our solidarity would be most powerful, now more than ever, if it were represented by a single, unifying body like Equity.
The pay gap in Britain is nowhere more visible than in its theatres, where millions are made from successful West End ventures, while more than half of actors live below the poverty line. And it’s no shocker when we realise that the disempowerment of Equity correlates precisely with the widening of this gap. Perhaps Equity hasn’t been able to protect actors from the ruthless savaging that arts industry funding has endured in the past few years, but to be frank, Equity can’t perform for you unless you play ball. Refusing to trust a body that can bring actors together is to remain isolated and vulnerable, and God knows being an actor is lonely enough.
If ever there was a time when Equity could swing forward with momentum gained from larger membership, it is now, with a precedent of fair wages starting to appear in Fringe theatres, murmurs cropping up around Westminster about the living wage and the minimum wage, and a deluge of accumulated anger building up to breaking point against inequality, as we look forward to a change of government. The larger Equity’s membership, the more sway it has to lobby the government to pay attention to the problems in our theatre.
I scraped together my membership fee this year, because punting a hundred quid a year on something that might eventually make a change (and which also insures me against bits of set falling on me and gets me cheap theatre tickets into the bargain) is better than doing nothing but applying for another twelve unpaid acting jobs and hoping that things will get better on their own. The industry may be in a terrible state, but there’s a whole lot worse that it can get, and no-one is going to stick up for us silly old actors and our silly old theatre if we don’t stick up for ourselves. To all the shady purveyors of unpaid acting jobs, and the fat cats who bleed money from other people’s creativity, my fellow actors I bid you come together and call in unison our noble rallying cry: DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING.
You can join Equity here.