Fringe theatre practitioners have claimed Equity is scaremongering about the potential legal consequences of shows operating on a profit-share basis.
They have described a letter distributed by the union warning that producers may be in breach of national minimum wage regulations as heavy handed, with one complaining that it risks closing down the fringe for non-commercial productions.
Playwright and director Gregory Motton, who cancelled his fringe show after receiving the letter from the union, has claimed the correspondence is threatening, and implies that theatremakers are breaking the law.
He had intended to stage a musical adaptation of Dracula earlier this year on a profit-share basis, but decided to call off the show at the auditions stage after receiving the letter from Equity warning him about NMW legislation.
The playwright has claimed that the union’s warning could destroy the fringe.
Motton, who lost his £1,500 deposit from London venue the Union Chapel after he cancelled the show six weeks before the performance date, said: “It’s not just the money, it’s what it means to the fringe. It’s the end of the fringe. If they do this [send the letter to many fringe producers] it will mean that only commercial producers can operate there, which means only people with capital or inherited money.”
Equity confirmed that it sends out this standard letter “fairly frequently” to alert producers that they could be potentially in breach of NMW legislation.
It said that the letter is distributed to those who are advertising profit-share, low or no wage productions whenever Equity sees these advertisements or is notified about them.
Another leading fringe practitioner told The Stage that the letter from Equity was “scaremongering” and that the union had been sending out the document for a couple of years.
The producer, who asked not to be named, said: “The letter is appalling. Unfortunately this producer [Motton] has taken it seriously. I have to say, a lot of producers have thrown it in the bin. I imagine several venues have thrown it in the bin as well.”
The union’s letter to Motton stated that several members had made Equity aware of his forthcoming show and were “concerned about the terms of employment offered” for it.
The letter stated that if Motton could not confirm that either those involved in the show would not qualify as workers under the definition of the NMW Act, or that they would receive NMW and other statutory rights, then the union would “have to refer the matter to HM Revenue and Customs”.
The document also stated that numerous cases had shown that performers and stage managers working in theatre were entitled to statutory workers’ rights. The letter cites examples including the recent high-profile tribunal ruling that ordered a fringe director to pay five actors the NMW for taking part in a show he advertised as profit-share. The director in this case has now lodged an appeal against the decision, as reported by The Stage last week (front page).
Motton said that his show had been intended to be a genuine profit-share arrangement, but decided to cancel the production due to the implication in the letter that he would be investigated.
However, an Equity spokesman emphasised the union was not able to initiate legal action against someone they believed to be breaching NMW rules. He said only workers could take action. “There will be lots of shows potentially in breach of legislation but will never be caught up because there are people working in them who are perfectly happy to do it. We are not out there stirring them up,” he said.