Why I Joined and Became Active in Equity
1 February 2014
It was June 1962. I was 15 and the youngest Betty Fox Dancer appearing in Roundabout; a summer show at Britannia pier Theatre Great Yarmouth. I got the job after an audition I had half forgotten about - a hasty phone call the week before rehearsals started asked me to report to the theatre the following week for two weeks of rehearsals. I must have been their reserve! I joined a team of older and more experienced dancers in a revue, which included Yana, Jimmy Clithero and the 3 Monarchs who I thought were the funniest thing in the show.
I still have somewhere my Esher Standard Contract. We got £4.10s a week for rehearsals and £9.00 per week for a total of 12 shows with 7 costume changes in each (2 of them quick changes – very quick changes) – that was 14 appearances per night in costumes hired from the Palladium. Not for the faint hearted! The only new items we were given was 2 pairs of satin stilettos and two pairs of fishnet tights.
Having come from a left-wing family I had always as a matter of principle joined the appropriate union. Like a lot of aspiring dance and drama students I had been earning odd money from bits of film work and art modelling (I had joined the T&GWU when I became a model because I was told it was the only union available for me – I clearly came into the ‘general category’).
On the opening week of Roundabout someone came round and asked if we would like to join Equity. “Oh I don’t think so”, said most of the girls (this was before the time of the closed shop). I was appalled. “I’ll join”, I said, “give me the forms”. Elaine, a girl I shared a room who said her dad was a communist also joined. We were the youngest in the company but we were the ones deputised to represent the show at a Variety meeting in London that summer. I remember getting a lift from someone in the small hours on Saturday night down to London and a 3am bus from the Embankment to my parents home in Croydon where we grabbed a few hours sleep before taking the train up to central London for the Sunday afternoon meeting. I think I was too tired to take on board much of what was said as we had to rush to catch a train back to Great Yarmouth after the meeting finished, but I was quite proud of being an Equity dep at the tender age of 15.
I kept my membership active through drama school and for several subsequent years of marriage and small children. I had married an academic was living in Birmingham and my career in theatre seemed to have receded beyond a point where saddled with small children and with a husband keen for me to pursue an academic career it seemed unlikely to re-start. We were desperately short of money and buying our first home. Reluctantly I let my membership lapse.
Fast forward 20 years - 1991. I was now the General Manager of the Library Theatre, a post incompatible with being a single mother and trying to bring up the youngest of my 4 children alone. My career in the arts had restarted on the administrative side when I moved to Manchester. I yearned to be more creatively involved – kick start an acting career, which had been confined to community theatre for a few years, and I wanted to write. Instead I found myself in a windowless airless cupboard wrestling with the company’s accounts and trying to keep the theatre afloat during the years of the Thatcher cuts which painfully required us to give up our second theatre The Forum in Wythenshawe. I was often visited by Bill Tankard the Equity regional secretary at the time on some business backstage and on one visit I said how sad I was that I could not resume my Equity membership because by this time the union was a closed shop and my original application to rejoin had been hemmed round with the usual Catch 22 conditions which made it look impossible to get back in.
“When did you first join?”, asked Bill, and I told him about my experience as a chorus girl in Great Yarmouth and in subsequent touring shows. It turned out Bill was great mates with Cedric, one of the 3 Monarchs, and having reminisced a bit about him Bill said, “Leave it with me” – a phrase I had often heard him use but which I did not necessarily expect to signify anything. Imagine my surprise when just 2 days later I got a letter from Equity offering me membership back again if I paid off a manageable amount of back dues. I sent the cheque that day and have never let my membership lapse since. It is now 51 years since I first joined and 22 years since I rejoined.
To say it was difficult to resume a theatre career on the other side of the lights as a woman in her mid-50’s who has a hearing loss is an understatement but I am grateful for the public liability insurance cover Equity gives me for the weekly dance class I run for older dancers. I have through my own efforts forged links with many theatre companies internationally and had the great privilege and pleasure of directing Brecht and Shakespeare as well as creating original plays in Nepal, Thailand and India I now mainly direct (which I love), write and adapt plays and act whenever the opportunity arises. In the process I have acquired an MA in Applied Theatre.
I have also linked my theatre work to social activism and have created events for three GMCND Peace festivals and researched an anti-war event called Eloquent Protest initially for Feelgood Theatre and subsequently with a loose collective of performers and musicians called ‘Artists for Peace’. This summer Caroline Melliar-Smith, Florence King (a new Equity member) and I were involved in a site-specific adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. Great fun, and great to be working with Equity professionals again.
Our union like so many others has our back to the wall at the moment – there has never been a more vital moment to forge links with the rest of the trade union movement and unite to fight back against the tide of recessionary politics which threatens working people. I hope Equity will play a part in this. I was happy to carry our union banner on September 29th on the huge TUC demo and hope more members can be made to take a more active part in the fight against the cuts.
WHY DID I BECOME AN ACTIVE MEMBER?
by Richard Howell-Jones
“Oh, why indeed?
In mid-1981, not long after Mrs Thatch had become Prime Minister (& how ironic is that?), I fulfilled one of the outstanding achievements of my life: I was accepted as a member of the British Actors’ Equity Association (incorporating the Variety Artists’ Federation), a union whose stage-name was ‘Equity’.
But my delight in receiving the card wasn’t because I was a committed trade-unionist; I didn’t understand politics & kept as far away from it as possible, a situation which still applies today.
No: I joined because otherwise I couldn’t be a professional actor – the ‘closed shop’ (hence the irony). And for years, whilst languidly pursuing my career (if you can call it that), I maintained my membership, but otherwise did more-or-less what the majority does when paperwork with the twin masks logo arrives in the post: binned it. (Latterly, I began to recycle it.)
I never thought about the union, except that it was a requirement, & later a ‘badge of office’; something that showed you to be serious about your work, however infrequent; certainly it convinced the Job Centre that I wasn’t some starry-eyed wannabe with delusions of talent.
Then one day I met, quite by chance, a very angry man called David Corden (don’t groan at the back!), who insisted on telling me why he thought there ought to be a breakaway actors’ union, & his plans to achieve it. To my surprise, I found myself telling him what a bad idea this was, why Equity was a good thing, & marshalling convincing arguments. Mildly bemused, I went home, feeling that somehow this union ideal had crept up on me when I wasn’t looking.
Fast-forward (as this is a small newsletter) some years, & I’m attending my first General Branch meeting – the reason why is hard to recall, but perhaps to do with the branch’s bizarre opposition (long since rescinded) to the 24:7 festival, which position struck me as silly & worth challenging. While there, I met Vicky Allen, for whom I’d read some scripts at the Manchester Actors Centre. I was much vexed at the time about how to get my son to school while without transport. Without prompting, she offered her husband’s pride, his Ford Probe. I didn’t accept, as I felt Burnley wasn’t anywhere to park on the street a sports car retailing at over £27,000, but her spontaneity & generosity increased my respect for Equity members by several notches.
In one of Fate’s less amusing turns, it was that meeting which proved to be her last. Less than a fortnight later, she died for no really good reason.
Purely out of respect, I went to her funeral. And before the service & after it, in the rain & the sun, in the car park & the pub, people kept sidling up to me & unsubtly suggesting I really ought to join the General Branch committee. Very flattering, of course – but then a member of staff joined in.
There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, is irresistible, even if you’ve a big life-belt. And I hadn’t. But it occurred to me that perhaps there was something I could contribute, some way I could be of use, through the business experience I’d gained working at the Northern Actors’ Centre & New Breed Theatre Co, & my generally hanging around the acting scene. So, despite uncertainty, I offered to join the committee. Within five minutes, I’d been made secretary & treasurer. The rest, as they say, is hysteria.
Five years later, I am no longer a committee member. But that isn’t anything to do with the union.”
Why I Joined the North West General Branch
by Natalie Amber
"I have been a member of Equity since graduating from Drama school in 2006 as we were told if you were serious about the profession then you should. Why was my reaction what do i gain from it? Apart from being £115 poorer a year. It was while I was doing some volunteering for collecting for others In the west end and working along side some very proactive members of the union that I realised it is about working together as an industry, helping and supporting each other and each one of us play a crucial part in it.
Equity is not just this thing that you pay money into and gives you a level of insurance. Without each one of us doing something and standing up for the conditions we want to work in, then we would continue to be exploited left right and Center. By being part of the union if you are unhappy about something then you can do something about it and not be out there on your own. Which is another element and one of the most important for me and that is being part of your local branch. This can be a very lonely career at times especially in between jobs.
I experienced this greatly 3 years ago when an accident I had while training had such an impact on my life that I had to leave my life in London where i had lived for 12 years and move back to Manchester where I didn't know anyone, and felt very lost. It was through the Equity magazine that I found out about the Northwest General Branch and the summer social they were holding. At first I felt a little awkward about going as I didn't know anyone and had no one to go with. However I found very quickly I had little to fear. As soon I walked in to Joshua Brooks I was met by happy smiles and very chatty people and couldn't have felt more at home.
The branch has helped me to really settle down in Manchester and enjoy the fantastic creative scene it has to offer. So much so that I wanted to contribute to the creative scene in Manchester and help it thrive more so stood to be on the branch committee and have been apart of the committee for the last two years. The branch is somewhere any one is welcome and meets monthly. It is a place where you can be a true active part of your industry, meet new people and collaborate with people. The possibilities are endless as they are what you make them."
Why I Joined the North West of England General Branch
by Jamie Byron
"I blame Jamie Briers. (Equity North West & Isle of Man Organiser).
I got to know Jamie through Company visits to the Library Theatre Company many years ago. As Company Stage Manager of the LTC I hadn't been a member of the Union for over 15 years. I was disgruntled. What could Equity do for me? Jamie could see my frustration and the reasons why I had stepped away from the Union all those years before.
Gradually, not insistently, Jamie gave me guidance. As a Company man I was wary of rocking the boat. But I was on on an Equity contract - so what did I have to fear? The subsided rep deal was now fixed for 6 years and I knew that I would have to abide by the decisions made in that deal. But I was still frustrated. Should I go on being frustrated and grumble? Or should I voice my opinions? Jamie listened and made a suggestion. I was introduced to the Northwest of England General Branch when Jamie took me to one of their meetings. I sat silently and listened. I learnt a thing or two about the Branch and it's intentions. I was inspired. But only a little. Another meeting later (this time at Briton's Protection) it felt less formal and I was included in some of the conversation that took place. Still I listened and learnt a little more. On attending another Branch meeting I was so inspired I actually said I would re-join the Union. I became good friends with one of the attendees and over time we have come to understand the Branch-it's workings; the Union-it's rules; the formality and conventionality of the Union - but realised that it doesn't have to be so rigid. Time has changed my point of view. Encouragement has brought rewards.
In the three years since I joined the Branch I have become it's Vice Chair and my friend and fellow attendee (Barry Evans) is the Chair of our Branch. In time there will be other Chairpersons of the Branch. Joining the Branch has made a huge difference to my opinion of the Union. I blame Jamie Briers."
Why I Joined....
by Barry Evans
"I joined our Union in 2003 as a student member. Our lecturer, Paul Elsam,
deemed it highly important to be a member but right now, I forget exactly
what his view was. Like a little sheep I joined. It was unfortunate that I
joined this way because a few years later, now into my work as an actor, I
questioned: what has Equity ever done for me? Sure it had secured my
professional name and something about this £10mil insurance? I knew very
little and struggled to see the benefits. I am now eternally grateful for a
disagreement I had with a production company that led me to seek advice and
support from our local organiser, Jamie Briers. The help and support our
staff give to us, the members, is tremendous. Their interest in the best
possible outcomes of problems or difficult situations, the improvement of
working environments and their upkeep - that's what Equity does for us. But
Jamie and I got to talking - there's another avenue to be involved with the
Union. Had I thought about being a member of the local Branch? After going
to a few meetings, I quickly discovered that we too can affect what our
Union does and I realised we have a voice and instant unity with fellow
members. Monthly meetings bring the local members together to discuss what
is happening in the local area (any problems or better still, any
celebrations) by using it as a forum for discussion or to hear a guest
speaker from a key part of our industry. Over time, I have met some
brilliant people through our Branch I am proud to call good friends, made
new contacts for future work and enjoyed being an active member within our
Union. Since my first meeting in 2009, I have since been voted as Chair of
the Branch and proud to serve as such as one of two Chairs (myself and Jamie
Byron) and enjoy trying to support Natalie Amber's amazing efforts with
Creativity Talks - the woman is a superb force for good! I am equally proud
to have represented the Branch this year with Jamie Byron at this year's
Annual Representatives Conference. Its a rewarding feeling to represent your
Branch at such an event.
If you have toyed with the idea of joining in to support your local Branch,
I'd like to meet you, too, at the next meeting (14 July, 12:00, 3MT) as the
circles grow larger and larger."
Why Did I Get Involved? Read On...
by David Corden
I became a member of Equity in 1997 as a registered graduate but had to change my surname, even though I had been in constant contact with the membership department throughout my third year to confirm that my name was ‘available’. After writing a letter to the then General Secretary, Peter Finch (no, not that one), I received a rather condescending ‘apology’ and then spent the majority of one wet Thursday in a coffee shop in the centre of Manchester trying to come up with a new name.
I had already done a film under my original name, my agent and I had been marketing me under my original name. As you can imagine, my first experience with Equity left me frustrated, disappointed and angry. A few months later I was offered a commercial and called Guild House to ask their advice (due to the commercials strike) and was told not to do it. I then discovered, just in time, that the contract was using the accepted 1991 agreement, so I was in fact entitled to do it in accordance with Equity’s policy towards commercials at the time. This annoyed me even further. There was I, a recent graduate with all the incumbent debt, being initially told not to work. But I continued to pay my subs so that I could keep that Holy Grail I had coveted for so long – my Equity card.
Roll on to that dreadful date in 2001 – 9/11. I, like many others, had spent the day horrifically glued to the television to morbidly witness again and again the planes crashing into the twin towers, the explosions, the demolition, the death. I almost didn’t go to the Contact Theatre for the meeting that would lead to the inauguration of the North West of England General Branch. However, attend I did. I also contributed to the meeting and asked and pursued some questions that the ‘panel’ did not really feel comfortable with answering. There followed a buffet, drinks and a more relaxed opportunity to talk to fellow members and apologise to those I had put pressure on. Then, a very tall man introduced himself as Mike Cain (no, not that one) and badgered me almost as much as I had badgered the ‘panel’. He flatteringly said that someone with the sort of tenacity I displayed (I think he also mentioned a terrier) was exactly the sort of person that the new branch committee would need. My attitude was that I didn’t want to be involved in the union, as it had never done me any favours and I didn’t agree much with the direction in which it was headed. Then he said those magic words to me, “The only way you can change it is from the inside”.
So, I stood for the first committee, got elected, represented the branch at my first ARC, became Vice-Chair for six weeks, then found myself being elected Chair. A month later the first Newsletter went out, albeit with a hastily re-written leader article as the first one I wrote was deemed a little too radical.
The rest, as they say, is history. I have often been at loggerheads with senior staff over the years regarding the ‘service’ aspect of the union, as I believed that the best way to approach recruitment and retention was to address those who said, “What can Equity do for me”. As such, I encouraged the development of workshops for branch members – but for free. I still firmly believe that the union, via the efforts of branches, should engage and attract members in this way. The social aspect too, with branch parties, became popular and presented an opportunity for members to meet each other in a more relaxed environment but, more importantly, it allowed members to thank members for being members.
Serving the branch variously as Chair and Secretary, I realised the need to engage the support of other branches and stood and was elected to the Northern Area Committee for its last three terms and more recently to the Audio Committee, from within which I was elected to its Negotiating Team.
For someone who didn’t want to get involved in the first place, you may find this odd. In the final analysis, I got involved in Equity because I love my fellow members; that wonderful bunch of eccentric, illogical, inventive, creative, joyous people whose true passion in life is to engage, challenge and, ultimately, entertain...And that’s something worth fighting for."