Welcome to Decoded, a regular series that deciphers the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of different corners of the UK performance landscape. This week, Backstage takes a look at Equity, the Actors’ Union. It’s been around since 1930 and still going strong. We take a look at why that might be and why you might want to get involved.
Don’t Say: “Aren’t unions all a bit ’80s?!”
Do Say: “I know Equity has got my back. I stand united with my fellow actors. Together we are stronger!”
What is it?
Equity is the trade union representing “performers and creative practitioners” in the UK. With over 43,000 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 ’80s, 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 – which is great, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch and all members do have to pay a yearly subscription.
Why should I care?
As we’ve already mentioned, 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, as an actor, 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 careers advice to students and paid-up members.
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 – which basically means the more you earn, the more you pay. If you’re on £21,900 or less you pay £128 a year but if you’re working with Spielberg and raking in over £250k then firstly, congratulations and secondly, you’d owe Equity £2,569 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 claim, 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.
Check out Backstage’s UK audition listings!