Exclusive: Rats and sewage floods – Equity calls for West End backstage improvements

Lalayn Baluch

Equity Annual Representative Conference: West End performers are to launch a campaign for “better and healthier” working conditions after complaining of rats, sewage floods and insufficient facilities in the backstage areas of London’s historic theatres.

It was unanimously decided at Equity’s Annual Representative Conference, held this week in Blackpool, that a working party be set up to carry out a survey of venues in the West End and establish the extent of the problem.

The motion recommended that the research be undertaken in partnership with Bectu and the Musicians’ Union. It will be used to lobby theatre owners and improve working conditions.

Speaking at the conference, Equity chorus and ensemble councillor Tim Walton complained of one venue where the dressing room had twice been flooded with sewage in the two years that he had worked there, and said that 50 male cast and crew members had been forced to share a single toilet.

“We don’t have enough toilets, we don’t have enough showers, sometimes when we do have enough toilets and showers, they are in awful condition – there is no ventilation. We have rat infestations,” he explained. “In La Cage aux Folles, currently at the Playhouse Theatre, they have one dressing room downstage that is occupied by the entire ensemble and that one toilet is meant to be used by everyone, including the band. Hairspray at Shaftesbury Theatre has a rat infestation and they find rat droppings in their make-up.”

Walton hit out at London theatre owners such as Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber for improving customer areas within the historic venues, but failing to find space for basic facilities for actors.

He added: “The reality is that these old theatres can invest in new ways. The Victoria Palace Theatre bought a property above the shops next to it and built three huge dressing rooms, which are air conditioned, with six bathrooms, toilet and shower facilities. It was a pleasure to work there.

“Gone are the years that we want to be sitting there with a little piece of mirror to be found from somewhere and do our make-up. We are professionals, we are good at what we do and I think it is about time that we were treated that way.”

Last year, Equity and the Society of London Theatre came to an agreement to increase the minimum rate for those employed within the West End’s larger venues to £550, with additional Sunday payments.

Equity assistant general secretary for theatre and variety Stephen Spence said: “Having dealt with that issue, we would seek to deal with those problems, including the vermin infestations that exist in the theatres. I know that the employers for some period of time have been discussing with various bodies, such as the Theatres Trust, about what can be done in terms of receiving help and assistance to modernise their theatres. That would be something that we would be happy to talk to them about as part of this campaign.”

David Blyth, operations and building development director of the Ambassador Theatre Group, which runs the Playhouse, confirmed that the venue had a total of seven toilets backstage for performers to use.

He added: “With regards to all our theatres and their backstage conditions, we have a rolling plan across all our London theatres to improve these facilities, but unfortunately we are always going to be constrained by the original size and design of these historic buildings.

“We are pleased that we have been able to include additional showers and air conditioning to many of our back of house areas, including dressing rooms, wardrobe areas, crew and band rooms.

“It is always at the forefront of our minds that it is as important to improve the backstage areas as well as the front of house public facilities.”

A spokesperson for Theatre of Comedy, which runs the Shaftesbury, said: “Every large building in the centre of London has a rodent problem. This has been exacerbated by building work in the vicinity of the theatre and every effort has been made to deal with this effectively. The Shaftesbury Theatre has no worse a problem than any other theatre or indeed any other building in central London.”

In-depth coverage of the Equity ARC will be included in next week’s edition of The Stage

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