What Is Equity + Why Should You Care?

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Photo Source: Courtesy of Equity

Welcome to Decoded, a regular series that deciphers different corners of the UK performance landscape. This week, Backstage examines Equity, the Actors’ Union. It’s been around since 1930 and is still going strong. We take a look at why that might be and why you might want to get involved.

What is it?
Equity is the trade union representing “performers and creative practitioners” in the UK. With over 47,000 members, most British actors, models, and even puppeteers are members—and getting your Equity card is usually an important first step in a performer’s career. Equity’s main role is to negotiate minimum pay and conditions for members, make sure you’re being paid for the work you’ve done, lobby on your behalf with employers and government as well listing your official acting name—but more of that later!   

Up until the 1980s, you had to be a member of Equity to get an acting job in the UK. Mrs Thatcher, a notorious lover of unions, generally stopped all that and now performers can get nonunion work. However, the majority of UK actors are members. Equity offers free legal representation and public liability insurance but there’s no such thing as a free lunch and all members have to pay a yearly subscription.  

READ: How to Join Equity If You’re an Actor in the UK

Why should I care?
Joining Equity is seen as the first step to a professional career—and for good reason. As well as the legal and representative benefits, Equity also helps you reserve your name. You might think that was your parents’ job but no, actors must decide on a unique name that no one else already has, and Equity can help with that. 

As their website proclaims: “Your Equity name is crucial for the distribution of royalties and for casting clarity. It’s also your brand.” So, it’s bad news if your name is Benedict Cumberbatch or Claire Foy because those names are already taken, but Miss Oprah Pencilsharpener...you may well be in luck.

There are other handy little perks to joining the union, too. They run a Job Information Service listing up-to-date paid work opportunities; they’ve got a list of theatrical digs where actors can stay when on tour, and they also provide career advice to students and paid-up members.

READ: Do Theatre Actors in the UK Need to Join Equity? 

How do I get involved?
If you want to get involved, you have to join up. Subscription fees are based on your earnings in the last tax year: the more you earn, the more you pay. If you’re on £23,900 or less, you pay £136 a year but if you’re working with Spielberg and raking in over £272k—well, congratulations—you’d owe £2,729 a year. There are also reductions for students, new graduates and child actors.  

What else do I need to know?
Some critics have argued that Equity’s days as a force to be reckoned with may be in the past. However, Equity might well point to its recent West End conditions agreement, the establishment of a Change Network to deal with issues facing black actors, and its attempts to help members navigate the post-Weinstein landscape as examples of its collective power in action.

More in our Decoded series:

More for UK actors? Check out the magazine.