CHRISTINE PAYNE explains how Equity is looking to improve diversity in the creative industries
THIS year, Equity’s annual representative conference (ARC) takes place in the same week that we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Equity and the Variety Artistes’ Federation (VAF) joining together.
In response to the growth of commercial television in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Equity and the VAF were heavily engaged in negotiations to secure contractual agreements for performers.
Both unions went out on strike against ITV to win better terms for their members in 1961.
During, and in the period following the dispute it became clear that one union representing variety artists and performers would be stronger and better able to counter the power of the employers.
An amalgamation proposal was put to the VAF’s 1963 AGM and the official transfer of members took place on May 16 1967. This date was marked with an event at the London Palladium hosted by comedian Jimmy Cricket and attended by artistes who were part of that historic amalgamation of members, as well as members who joined subsequently.
Today Equity continues to represent thousands of entertainers around the country who perform in working men’s clubs, pubs, circuses, care homes, at weddings, in public spaces and many other venues.
These performers often face huge challenges in the course of their working lives, including night-time and lone working, withholding of payments, closure of venues and health and safety risks.
As well as providing insurances and casework support for members, Equity’s activists have campaigned against threats to venues which led to the passage of the Live Music Act 2012 and further deregulation of other areas of entertainment in subsequent years.
Equity’s variety, circus and entertainment committee continues to campaign for the “agent of change” principle to be incorporated into planning laws in order to protect local venues placed under threat from development projects.
Equity has also recently established networks for members working as puppeteers, children’s entertainers, circus artists and comedians.
Historically, variety and live entertainment were among the most important routes for working-class people to access a career in the performing arts. This weekend, ARC representatives will be debating a motion that asks Equity to put economic and social mobility on the union’s national agenda — a policy that will crystallise our work on this issue.
There is political consensus that working-class representation in the arts needs to be improved and since the start of this year Equity has been working with government and opposition to address this issue.
Department for Culture Media & Sport data from 2015 found that 91.8 per cent of jobs in the creative economy were held by people in more advantaged socio-economic groups.
In the performing arts sector, it is also notable that many of our most successful black and minority ethnic (BAME) performers, many of whom come from working-class backgrounds, have not necessarily found that success through pathways in the British creative industries.
Many of them trained in Britain and due to a lack of opportunities moved to the US where they have been offered much more work in the TV and film industry there.
There are significant and complex barriers preventing all those from working-class backgrounds, including BAME, LGBT+, deaf and disabled people and women workers, from accessing and sustaining a career in the creative professions.
Dr Dave O’Brien, who has written on this subject extensively, describes a “leaky pipeline” of processes and events — from early years to adult working life — that are preventing working-class people from succeeding in the creative industries.
Equity policy is aimed at addressing these points in the leaky pipeline. We campaign for all children to be offered the opportunity to experience drama as a curriculum subject in its own right, taught by teachers trained in the subject and properly rewarded and recognised for their work.
We know that fees for drama schools are unaffordable for many young people and for the first time last year we took part in the NUS/UCU national demonstration for free, accessible higher education.
Shortly we will also be undertaking work to ask drama schools to audit and examine the charging of audition fees at drama schools.
While Equity has been successful at campaigning and negotiating to secure professional pay for our members, a safety net remains vital for performers and other creative workers from working-class backgrounds.
We will continue our work to fight against cuts to social security support and against the introduction of universal credit, which penalises self-employed workers through the application of the minimum income floor. We will also continue to campaign against rises in national insurance payments and the government’s Making Tax Digital project.
In the context of debates around employment status and rights, we have drawn on our experience of successfully organising in what is the original gig economy and have called for better parental and sick pay provisions to be introduced for self-employed workers.
It is crucial that people from working-class backgrounds, including those who are women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled, see and hear themselves portrayed on stage, screen and radio in incidental as well as leading roles.
We have called on employers in our sector to embrace the opportunity of incidental casting not only as a moral imperative to reflecting diverse communities, but also because there are commercial gains to be had in appealing to a broader audience range.
Finally, recruitment practices in the performing arts are often built around personal relationships, subjective judgements and networking.
The casting process can also be inaccessible for performers with caring responsibilities or those who do not normally work or live in London because of short notice of auditions, the extensive preparation sometimes required for roles and the cost of travel.
During the last two years a working party of Equity members has been examining ways to increase fairness and opportunities in the casting process and we will be publishing our Manifesto for Casting this summer which will challenge all those involved in the casting process to come up with recruitment practices that are fair, less stressful and accessible for a more diverse pool of talent.