Many younger actors don’t realise that until 1990 you couldn’t perform professionally without being a member of Equity. By the time “closed-shop” unions became illegal, Equity was one of the last with an agreement that meant employers could only employ their members. Today, you can be a jobbing actor in the UK without joining the union, enjoying some of the hard-won benefits of better pay and conditions without giving Equity a penny. However, especially for stage and immersive performers, the case for being a card-carrying member of Equity is a strong one. With that in mind, here’s the Backstage guide to whether or not stage actors need to sign up and pay their dues as a member of the actors’ union.
As a trade union, Equity protects its members from unfair treatment by employers, poor conditions, and pay disputes.
One of Equity’s slogans is: “Even when our members perform solo, they are not alone.” Unions work on the idea of “collective bargaining.” If you, as an individual, ask for fair pay and better conditions, an employer may not give it to you. Whereas, if the 47,000+ members of Equity ask for it, employers are much more likely to listen. This is how the Equity Minimum contract came about and it’s how the union continues to fight to improve pay, conditions, and opportunities for performers across the industry.
Alongside looking to get you the best deal, Equity can represent you in disputes with employers, provide specialist advice, and insure you against accidents at work.
The union sets the standards for pay and conditions across the commercial and subsidised stage industry and steps in to resolve disputes, representing members to producers.
Alongside upholding standards in Equity contracts, the union is constantly negotiating better terms for stage performers and, especially since actor Maureen Beattie became president, has been bullish in pursuing the best deals. Equity has been pushing for better pay and rights at work, as in their new deal for performers in the West End. It’s also been helping everyone get cast and feel safe in the process regardless of their characteristics, from launching a casting manifesto to their guide for casting trans performers.
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Problems happen and when they do, it pays to have a union behind you.
Actors who have been around the block will know working life is rarely straightforward and that late payment, no payment, or issues around working hours and breaks are common. Working environments are important to your health, wellbeing, and performance – especially for stage actors, who are required for weeks of rehearsals and perform regularly. So too is having fair wages, holiday pay, and time off. If you’re on an Equity contract, the union makes sure any slips in conditions or pay you report are resolved.
One important reason why it doesn’t pay to wait until you have an issue to join Equity is that you might not spot something until it’s too late. Being a member means having access to rates and contracts, so you’ll be able to work out if you’re getting the right deal before you accept the job. You can also speak to the union if you’re unsure of something. Wait until it’s too late and, in some cases, it might be.
Equity is also constantly adapting and working towards bettering the deal you get as an actor. It has recently bargained to have the opportunity to work flexibly put into West End contracts and, with the union behind you, will enforce it if a producer turns down a fair request.
Lastly, Equity represents the members, so by becoming one you’ll get a say in what Equity do or campaign on next.
Whether you are running kids’ parties, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, or dancing on a cruise ship, you don’t have to look far to see good reasons to join the union.
Taking work from employers that don’t sign up to Equity’s fees and contracts means putting yourself at risk of exploitation. And even where companies do sign up to Equity’s agreements, you might find yourself in a situation where producers don’t meet expectations and you need advice or assistance.
Equity will have your back if a problem arises, and the fact the union has local branches, a presence at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the support of sister unions internationally means the union could have a person there to help you out, wherever you are.
Wherever you’re working, if you are being employed as an actor it’s best to be a member of Equity so that the union can represent your interests if all is not as it seems.
Equity is combatting the problem of low- or no-pay jobs, but it also recognises these gigs are a big part of becoming a jobbing actor. The union has bargained for a deal with fringe theatres and companies at the Edinburgh Festival called a Fringe Contract which, although it’s less than Equity Minimum, gets a fair rate and terms, which mean performers get adequate breaks, time off, and holiday pay.
If you’re performing in a non-traditional acting role like immersive theatre or interactive events, Equity is in your corner. It’s made immersive theatre a priority in its Professionally Made, Professionally Paid campaign and highlighted how this section of the industry poses risks for performers which they can advise on.
Although pay is a major issue across fringe theatre, immersive productions can also risk the safety and wellbeing of performers at work. Shows may have unclear boundaries and require actors to manage audiences, and performances frequently make use of temporary venues which may not have adequate security, backstage, or break spaces. Equity is gathering information through surveys and meetings to better understand how the immersive industry works, and has launched an immersive theatre network for members in the meantime.
Equity runs a bullying and harassment helpline and can provide advice and support for those experiencing issues at work.
Long before allegations against Kevin Spacey and The Old Vic set off British theatre’s own MeToo moment, Equity has been supporting performers experiencing bullying and harassment across an industry where it’s sadly common. The union is “committed to helping those who have endured bullying, threats, or attacks, and to changing our industry’s culture to stop perpetrators” and holding them accountable for their actions.
Being a member of Equity means you can call on the union’s support and expertise when dealing with harassment, discrimination or bullying in both the short and long term. While Equity has published a guide for those experiencing this at work as well as special support for victims of stalking, being a member will allow you to access bespoke advice and services, including getting Equity’s help in taking employers to court.
For an in-depth look at how Equity won damages from a theatre company after they sexually harassed and discriminated against a performer, read Helen Vine’s story.
Alongside everything you would expect from a union, Equity also provides services, advice, and resources for actors.
Here’s a selection:
- Public Liability Insurance for members, often a requirement of performance jobs.
- Members get to discuss contracts for overseas work, including dance and cruises and the union also advises members taking roles on non-Equity contracts.
- Free advice and representation on issues relating to tax, national insurance, and social security, including online guides and a helpline.
- Equity has a Careers and Learning Advice Service which can provide members with one-to-one support.
- Members can apply for a Dance Passport for working in the EU.
- You can register your Equity Name.
- Equity runs a pension scheme for performers which is the only pension that employers in the industry will pay into, on top of your fees.
- The union has a regularly updated list of approved digs which is handy for touring or working away from home.
- Discounts on everything from tickets to car breakdown cover.
To join, you need to meet the union’s criteria and then pay a yearly subscription to maintain your membership.
For a full rundown of what you need to join, check out our guide: How to Join Equity.
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