Spring 1979 | Acting Together
First published in "The Author"
In the press, whether a short newsy paragraph or a full column of Levin vituperation, my union is dismissed as a foolish little set-up. No one outside our business seems willing to take actors or our problems seriously. We are regarded as infantile egotists of subintelligence, sentimental and overpaid. My brief here is not to defend the very honourable achievements of British Actors' Equity since its formation in the 30s, nor to polish the image of its members. However, that familiar caricature of The Actor is here relevant because, shamefully, it is an impression which some actors seem to have of themselves. Witness the regret, still strongly felt, that Equity ever abandoned its status as a professional association, to become a union affiliated to the TUC, with all the implications of class struggle and party politicking. Hence the continuing internecine scrapping as the Redgrave Far Left's shock-troops fire their irritating arrows into the cottonwool bulk of Equity's other 25,000 members.
It's all Henry Irving's fault. The first theatre knight dragged actors into the middle-class so that today the OBE is within any television actor's grasp. We are now collectively as respectable as a West End first-night audience. At the same time, we retain the traditional workers' pride that the show must go on whatever the conditions backstage. Appreciate that, and you can sniff the conservative flavour of an Equity AGM. It is held in a large London theatre with the 59-strong Council (annually elected by some 14 per cent of their fellowmembers) stretched across the stage, facing the complaints and resolutions of the rest of us. Only 2,000 actors bother to attend these pantomimes. Most actors are apathetic to their union. I try not to be. Their common cry is: "What did Equity ever do for us?" Well quite a lot-although not yet enough.
As 60 per cent of actors are at any time out of work, we are ripe for exploitation by the unscrupulous employer; for disregard by even the most considerate. Even at work, actors are awkward to unify. Spread throughout the country and the media, we are employed on individual short-term contracts. Against these odds, Equity has rightly concentrated on two problems. It has controlled entry into the union and it has fixed minimum standards of pay and working hours. Thereby it has begun to protect the livelihood of its weakest members. The stronger, more established actor will negotiate entirely through his agent. His contract is private and particular to his status. I, for example, have had recourse to Equity only once, when I needed its specialist lawyer's advice over a film contract which was beyond my agent's ken.
But eighteen years ago, when I started acting professionally, without an agent or experience of bargaining. Equity was my protector. I joined a repertory company, signing the standard repertory contract which stipulated, as today, various conditions: hours to be worked, holiday pay, costumes to be provided by me, promises of good behaviour, etc. These items have been gradually changed in favour of actors. Equity, over these years, has been a contortionist, bending over backwards to improve its members' pay in a grossly under-financed side of the business, but taking care not to jeopardise all jobs there by bankrupting the rep. companies. Most rep. directors are ex-actors and/or Equity members in their own right. They would like to raise minimum and maximum wages, actors and their employers are in agreement. So too is the Arts Council, the fount of theatre subsidy. The common enemy is the indifference of successive governments to the theatre and, indeed, actors' collective reluctance to cause an undignified fuss, for "the show must go on".
Yet when I started, amateurs could still act alongside us in crowd scenes and we often worked almost all night (for almost no pay) as each new production approached its first performance. Nowadays we are all professionals and we have overtime rates.
Different standard contracts apply in the West End and yet others for the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company. These latter two make their gradual improvements on the basis of mutual experience of actors and management, the nearest we get to an ordinary union's shopfloor negotiation. Television contracts, too, differ between ITV and BBC, and I share the general greenroom view that ITV pay actors too small a share of their profits and that the BBC cares more for its permanent staff (with their pensions, leave, etc.) than the casually employed artists.
There are many general improvements that Equity should negotiate. Actors should be represented by the union on the boards of BBC and ITV, of the National, the RSC and repertory companies. Actors need protection within the Factories' Act. In all but the newest theatres, backstage conditions are uncomfortable, often unhealthy.
More radically, Equity, as it protects existing jobs, ought to investigate ways of creating opportunities for new ones by, for instance, supporting experiments like the communally-run Actors' Company. Were we to join forces with the other entertainment unions whose interests so often coincide with our own (the Musicians' Union, for example) a formidable combination for the general good might emerge. This seems to me a preferable alternative to the Far Left's shout for all-out nationalisation for which, as yet, they have drawn no viable blueprint. Anyway, all theatres outside the West End are already centrally organised or, at least, strongly influenced by the Arts Council. Certainly union representation in the financial department of the Council might begin to create a pressure group that governments would heed. This would avoid the institutionalised, unadventurous tone of nationalisation.
Developments of this sort would, I think, only make sense if actors felt more involved with their union. An annual vote for the Council, which at present conducts all policy, produces an apathy akin to a local government election. The plans to reconstruct the union by basing it on localised branches, where individual voices could be heard through delegates to central conference, have faltered through fear of the Left's domination. It is a risk worth taking.
Whatever else develops, the closed shop must be retained, despite the sensational anomalies it occasionally produces. It is the only way to give us collective strength in bargaining - a fact even recognised by the abandoned Industrial Relations Act. If just anyone were allowed to act just anywhere, it would be impossible to enforce the minimum wage-the very basis of our union. There are too many undergraduates, models and television personalities eager to bounce on to a stage for a lark and there are far too many actors seeking any job that will pay the rent and help them improve their craft. I welcome, too, each director and designer who joins Equity.
These hopes for my union are not passionate. But time has been and may be again when I shall need Equity more than I do now. On principle, anyway, I should like it stronger and more adventurous. To those ends, I should happily:(1) pay much more than the present dues - say 5 per cent of my income; (2) vote again for that branch and delegate structure. A richer union with an informed and involved membership ought to provide the strength to impose its needs on government-a strength which, currently, it crucially lacks.