A Letter To Equity

On January 17th Equity, the performing arts union, will be holding an open meeting for actors and dancers so they can discuss the issues that are important to them. Writer and Editor Francis Richard sent a letter to that organisation, we have copied it below, in full, with the author’s permission, outlining issues that need to be addressed.

Beth Haines Doran
Live Performance Department

Dear Beth,

With regard to your open meeting for actors and dancers at opera houses on 17 January 2013, please find attached my personal observations and proposals based on views I have heard expressed by a number of dancers (and one actor) over the past few years by acquaintances of my Equity member daughter who have performed in operas.

As you know, dancers and actors already striving to eke out a meagre living on short-term contracts and minimal wages are dependent upon being called to auditions. Perhaps understandably, many therefore lack the confidence to rock the boat by expressing their individual views robustly or publicly, or seek to negotiate reasonable improvements to their contracts.

And it has already been said somewhere that trying to persuade performing artists to undertake collective action in order to improve their own situation is like trying to herd cats.

I realise that fighting to introduce performers’ fees that reflect a living wage is a perennial problem in the UK, but why is it? It is incumbent upon Arts Council England, performing arts colleges and theatre schools, impresarios and arts journalists alike – not just Equity – to properly address these issues by first asking themselves the following question:

“How is it that the very people who live off the work of professional actors and dancers by teaching them, contracting them, administering them and writing about them enjoy salaries, benefits, terms and conditions the majority of artists can only dream of?”

So I hope you will accept this document from an “interested party” (I’m actually a PR writer and editor). I may have bowdlerised your industry’s jargon, and the views expressed in the attached paper may be arrogant, naïve and simplistic, but I hope they can add something to the debate, because I hope and believe your meeting could be a game changer.

All power to your elbow, and good luck!

With kind regards,
Name and Address Supplied

Identified Issues

“¢ Current minimum fees, terms and conditions for actors and dancers at opera houses in the UK start from a pitifully low base (£25), as is highlighted when productions tour overseas.

“¢ Opera company administrators appear reluctant to acknowledge actors’ and dancers’ expertise, or to value it as highly as that of singers, chorus members and musicians.

“¢ The administrators who negotiate actors’ and dancers’ fees appear to base them on an arbitrary sliding scale that differs between different productions within the same company, and between different opera companies.

“¢ Some opera cast administrators only forward casting calls and auditions notices to restricted lists of ‘favoured’ actors and dancers (ROH) – possibly those they know will accept lower fees. Others simply select the first batch of performers to respond to a call and ignore the remainder regardless of their eligibility, experience or expertise (Glyndebourne).

Both flout industry Best Practice – yet administrators are duty-bound to help directors/choreographers audition or call as many appropriately-qualified actors or dancers as is reasonable.

“¢ Opera company administrators (rather than choreographers or directors) also make seemingly arbitrary decisions about what makes performances by actors and dancers ‘worthy’ of improved performance fees, including additional fees payments for cinema simulcasts, DVD filming, solo roles etc.

“¢ A reason cited by opera companies reluctant to increase meagre fees for actors and dancers is the claim that “the production has gone over budget” – even as they alter set designs and costumes and pay singers multiple thousands of pounds per performance.

“¢ All of the above results in contracted freelance actors and dancers in opera houses having to individually negotiate improved fees even as intensive (and often collaborative) rehearsals are taking place, ensuring a weak and fragmented negotiating position. It also leads to some productions lacking a ‘cover’ dancer in case of injury etc.

Proposed Motions

1 “¢ That opera cast administrators follow industry Best Practice by announcing and/or forwarding casting calls and/or audition notices to as wide a selection of suitably-qualified actors and dancers in the UK as is reasonably possible, and assess ALL responses fairly and equitably

2 “¢ That ALL actors and dancers contracted to perform onstage or offstage in UK opera houses, however briefly, be paid an Equity-Approved Minimum Fee, and that this minimum fee be made mandatory for all UK and visiting opera companies from 5 April 2013.

3 “¢ That this Equity-Approved Minimum Fee be subdivided as follows:

a. Rehearsal Fees:
Minimum £100 per day/£500 per week (Monday to Friday);”¨Minimum £150 per day (Saturday and Sunday).

b. Performance Fees:
Minimum £150 per performance, however brief.

c. Additional Fees:
Solos and/or featured roles:
Minimum £75 per performance;
DVD filming, cinema simulcast transmissions etc:
Minimum £100 per day.

4 “¢ That when requested to do so by any party Equity will arbitrate and/or negotiate on behalf of actors or dancers contracted by opera houses when disputes arise, with no subsequent professional disadvantage being conferred on the performers by the opera houses.

The views expressed here are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Article19.