Incorporating the Variety Artistes' Federation
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ARC Observers report from Dee Mardi

22 July 2013

Official Observer Report of Equity Conference, May 19-20th 2013

I knew this would be a good conference as soon as I saw my bedroom! The size of it, facilities and décor at The Hotel Ibis at Earls’ Court was so much better than the cold, shoddy and cramped room supplied at the Paragon in Birmingham last year. And that wasn’t the only improvement. Louise Grainger had clearly acted on my emailed comment- hope the food's better quality than last year's generally was! For last year’s door stop sandwiches with virtually invisible filling for lunch, limp salad, and ‘get there early or there’ll be nothing left’ stewed excuses for a Chinese dinner, were replaced by first class cuisine during which I think everyone’s palates and tastes were catered for, and following which I was well stuffed but contemplating thirds because the salads, cous cous, fish, meat, fruit, cakes, éclairs, rice, curries, vegebubbles, etc really were in plenty and cooked bootifully!

Apparently, last year’s venue cost the most ever. Rumour has it, official complaints were made, but no-one’s disclosed- at least not to me- whether Equity paid the bill in full or partially. Unless of course, I’ve overlooked it in the annual report which, though comprehensive and necessary, would have caused me indigestion if I’d have had attempted to read and swallow its contents in the few free precious minutes afforded us during the conference. (Unfortunately, I was in a show all week before and had no chance of even perusing let alone absorbing!)

I actually missed the opening of the conference not because Martyn hadn’t chauffered me there intime but on account of being so excited about my room and its views across London. And a desperate need to grab a cuppa before I joined Martyn and Brian at a table close to one of the exits- strategically positioned in case we each needed a quick getaway- to hear. and this is respectfully said, what seemed an eternal list of members, well and lesser known, who had passed away during the year, including from Essex. It was actually quite a humbling experience. I really liked the last standing ovation they were given- and, not meant in a macabre way, hope Equity is still going long enough for me to be included in one in due course!

At this point, I’m going to mention a little late night after dinner conversation I had with our general secretary Christine Payne, and Martin Brown, which came about after another member- whose name escapes me- coerced me into donating a glass of vino from our table for their consumption. Being there for the Branch, I saw an opportunity to branch out or rather into territory unchartered! A conversation with the powers that be! So carpe diem and all that, I seized a ¾ full bottle of white as well as what was left of the day, and delivered it personally, whereupon I was invited to join them, introduced myself as Essex’s Official Observer and saw that as a cue to bring our branch chairman in on the chat too! Clever plan, me-thought!

What struck me about our chat was the genuine concern at the top that unless Equity goes forward with the support of its members, gains new members including and especially younger, and a healthier financial status, that it will fold in this climate where the larger unions only have the clout and means to survive. I was also struck by Christine’s sincerity, and how hard working she is personally- night and day!

Our president’s opening address earlier that day was highly charged, passionate, and strong. It roused the conference into applause and a real sense of camaraderie and unity. He spoke about the disconnect between members and the union and the hope that the new structure will bridge the divide, especially with young members.

Now if ever there is a man who can’t stand government minister Maria Miller, it’s Malcolm Sinclair. His frustration with this so-called minister of Culture, her blindness to and deafness to Equity’s activities etc. didn’t go unnoticed. “Where has she been? Has she not been listening?” He called her criticisms “contemptible”. And everybody agreed!

Malcolm raised the subject of pornography within the industry. My eyes opened wider in reading a handout over lunch of real casting breakdowns taken from just March and April. Here’s a few!

Involves some leather clothing to attract You Tube fans.

Actor: full suit of armour. Actress: full nudity.

I mostly shoot girls with very little on. Was the director talking about what he/she doesn’t wear or ‘the girls’?!

Wanted: Man and hot woman. Obviously wasn’t talking a employing a middle aged menopausal woman!

Actor: must be able to drive. Actress: Must look hot. Well that’s easily achieved if the actor doesn’t know how to work the air con in the car!

You will be required to act as well as be really attractive.Hhhmm.

You have to be young and attractive but there are no other attributes to the character. Hhhmmm. Perhaps Maria Miller should have a word with the Education Minister about changing the curriculum for GCSEs and A levels to prepare the young people of today for a ‘working’ career?

Actress: big boobs, great abs.

If you feel comfortable in a bra that would be a bonus. Any comment, Stan? Brian?

Needs to be ok that we glimpse her butt in the shower and comfortable with the ‘rape’ scene.

Bit of a slut.

Is it any wonder that serious questions are being asked and concerns being raised about what work there is likely to be for young and older actresses in the future?

Christine Payne’s speech included a slide presentation in film style which caught everyone’s attention. It focused on what Equity has been doing, especially its successes, including now having 43,013 members, and again, created an amenable atmosphere.

She delivered the latest bad news however, concerning national insurance contribution changes for entertainers including the likely loss of benefits. Those on TV, film and theatre contracts of service would be liable for tax as well as national insurance deductions. Equity is working with BECS on this. The Musicians Union however, is supporting the government changes… partly because they can send substitutes in to do the job if they get a better paid offer. Christine rallied for people to send letters of concern to George Osbourne.

The good news was that an employers’ tribunal established on non-genuinely collaborative theatre where there is bogus profit share, that Equity members must be paid the minimum wage.

An interesting and enlightening talk was given by Daniel Evans who is Artistic Director of The Sheffield Theatres.

There was an emotional appeal on behalf of Belarus Free Theatre. The stories about the abuse of human rights and denial of artistic freedom were horrific.

Three were made Hononary Life Members, including Essex County’s own Michael Branwell.

Stephen Spence, Assistant General Secretary Industrial and Organising spoke. In respect of Motion 7, raised huge concern over the loss of 2000 social club venues and our workplaces and said that in any other industry, major action would have been taken.

Bryn Evans named Craig Joseph as the person who lied in the defamation case and who cost Equity £5/600,000 in costs. He assured Conference that at the appropriate time “all avenues of action would be explored against the 3 members, including Craig Joseph.”

In respect of Motion 19, wanting identification and clarification of what happens to a motion passed by 2/3 majority at the ARC, Assistant General Secretary Martin Brown was a little miffed at the Council being accused of not discussing/following up. He stated they get together in September to discuss motions; next in January to discuss again and then pass on. He said he doesn’t know what’s wrong or what else the Brighton and Sussex Branch wants!

A rather superfluous debate took place on asking how many members use the diary and whether an ‘Equity app’ for phones would be more useful. Surprisingly, young members were rather proud to flash their diaries under their peers’ noses!

Bryn Evans regards Motion 21 as balmy! And pretty much the whole of conference agreed with him in respect of the Walk-on and Supporting Artists’ Committee In line with Rule 43 this Annual Representative Conference agrees to the dissolution of the union. The proposer of the motion- Maggie Hevicon-Thompson actually asked Conference to vote against it. The motion only proposed as a means to draw attention to their problems. Needless to say, the motion was overwhelmingly voted against.

Motions were proposed, seconded, debated, not debated, remitted, carried, voted against and this information can be obtained via other sources! I didn’t hear all the motions. And some, it is fair to say, flew over my head- I really do think a 15 or 20 minute afternoon coffee break is in everyone’s best interests – especially for those who unlike me could actually vote, if only to stop us switching off, getting numb bums, and to hop off to the loo without missing any of the proceedings. (Talking of which, when in the loo, I actually got talking to one of the members of the Young Members Kezia Davies, mentioned our branch were trying to recruit more young people and asked if she thought anyone from the YM might like to come and talk to us about ways we could recruit more of them into our branch. She was in favour but said she’d need expenses paid (she’s up North) and maybe better to get someone closer. She suggested we speak to Matt Hood- Head of Department and Membership Relations.)

And on the subject of talking, or more specifically speech giving, given the nature of the industry we are in, you’d think that all- or almost all members- could in fact deliver a good speech! Not so, Equity debaters… Tedious, rambling around the houses with no sense of direction, monotone and uncreative- except for the rare few, including Tigger Blaise who even baked, brought and offered out her cakes to make her point! I’m now considering advertising my training services to the others!

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the final session post lunch on Monday. But by then, I’d observed enough to report back on, including that some members I’d met last year were conspicuous by their absence this. And that whilst some Conference regulars and sections were vociferously clinging on to the past and past grievances, some who’d voiced opposition in the past had in fact moved on to, if not wholly accept the structural changes etc, at least voice a willingness to try them- to give it a go. My overall conclusion was that this was a more successful conference than last year. The mood and outcomes very different to last year’s and that overall, members were trying to pull together.

Dee Mardi

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