Equity wage call challenges theatres to put actors first

Click to follow
Ralph Fiennes is currently one of the most famous and acclaimed world actors. This week the star of The English Patient will earn pounds 200 appearing in Chekhov at the Almeida Theatre. That's pounds 10 more than the minimum wage for actors, but pounds 50 less than the new minimum Equity is claiming from the Theatrical Management Association.

If it seems bizarre that Fiennes is paid pounds 50 less than the union's minimum demand, then here is an even more bizarre thought. If we have a Labour government, the first union to call its members to take industrial action and be campaigning for a minimum wage under the new regime is likely to be Equity. The union has instructed its 35,000 members not to sign new contracts with subsidised regional repertory companies. More than 100 theatres will be affected, and if fresh talks fail to settle the dispute, they may not be able to cast shows for the autumn season. Equity insists that pounds 190 a week is not a living wage. It also wants an increase in the subsistence allowance for actors working away from home from pounds 56 to pounds 75 a week. The TMA says that its members, heavily reliant on diminishing public subsidy, cannot pay the new wage claim. Around 30 smaller theatres could be driven to bankruptcy, others would have to put on fewer plays with smaller casts and shorten their seasons.

Well, not necessarily. One illustrious TMA member to have broken ranks with the theatre managers is Thelma Holt, West End producer, who also runs regional tours and chairs the Arts Council theatre panel. Though as an actress she has been "resting" for 17 years, she put up her hand at the Equity meeting to vote for a refusal to sign contracts. "The answer," she tells me, "is that theatres must change their priorities. Actors are never the top priority. There are development departments, marketing departments and an awful lot is spent on design. Right down the bottom of the totem pole are the actors. But theatre audiences are dwindling, so perhaps we have to ask how much good has all this concentration on marketing done?" She is putting her money where her mouth is. For her current national tour of The Merchant of Venice with David Schofield she has cut the marketing budget by 12 per cent, and no actor is paid less than pounds 300.

The change of priorities need not end with marketing and design. Even the sacred cow of "education" is arguably not something theatres should be devoting their stretched budgets to. Miss Holt agrees. "There is no reason why local education authorities shouldn't take over the education functions." There is every reason why theatre's priority must be a living wage and subsistence allowance for actors. Great performances are the best education about the theatre. And they can even be more memorable than those expensive poster campaigns.