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The Green Room: Is there a gender pay gap in theatre?

Photo: Shutterstock

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

John Pepper is 31, and for the past 10 years has worked extensively as an actor in various regional theatres, the National Theatre and in radio, television and feature film

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays and toured both national and internationally

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays

Beryl As far as I’m aware, yes.

Albert Given that on so many jobs, we’re paid the Equity minimum, I’m not sure how a gender gap comes into play.

John Clearly it’s the case at the top, but is this something that goes right down to ensemble level?

Beryl I think it seems to be at the top end of the pay scale, and I don’t think the disparity is as bad as lots of other areas of work. Representation is more of an issue.

Vivian The gender pay gap exists because the work that actresses do in the industry is not seen as important or as valuable as the actors’ work. That is because we place the actor/male at the centre of the narrative. We centre him as the neutral, the base control, the sun around which all action happens.

Jon There are two levels here, I think one is TV pay (as illustrated in the BBC salaries revealed the other week) and the other is that a lot of theatre still has around a 2:1 ratio of men to women in the way shows are cast.

Albert The ERA campaign run by Polly Kemp is doing a fair bit to try and redress the situation for middle-aged actresses.

Jenny I know I have suffered in the past from a gender pay gap, but I’m sure the producers would argue it was an ‘experience’ pay gap. But how a man with three scenes gets paid more than the leading lady I have no idea. He wasn’t famous or anything.

Albert Perhaps he had a better agent Jenny?

Jenny I think you might be right Albert – that agent is long gone now.

Vivian Until we change the stories we tell, and change the eyes through which we see drama unfolding, we will find it very difficult to convince people that I should be paid the same as Hamlet. Or Lear. Or Willy Loman. Or Vanya.

JennyPeople often avoid seem to talking about money in the business – so apart from that one occasion I’m not sure. I know I’ve been on lower pay than my leading man but that was when the lead was ‘off the telly’.

Jon Etiquette is an interesting area. Would transparency around pay be a good thing?

Jenny It would be good. Horrible, but hopefully with a good outcome.

John I think that would be great. I’ve a feeling that the etiquette is there to protect the people who are earning the most, which is the few.

Jon I’ve certainly been on jobs where people were told we were all on the same basic which proved to be untrue, so maybe that ‘etiquette’ helps producers be less than honest?

Jenny Exactly. A more open forum would force their hand, perhaps.

John It might help to shake the idea that actors are overpaid layabouts.

Beryl The sordid topic of coin.

Albert I think we all have to have a realistic knowledge of our own worth, and be prepared to say no to poorly paid or underpaid jobs, rather than expect pay equality to be achieved for us.

Jon It’s a question of how it’s handled, I guess. We don’t want a salary board outside the theatre with the production shots.

JohnTransparency would be bad for producers. I got my fingers burned on my first job when talking about pay and I’ll never do it again.

Beryl I have been asked to keep quiet about my wage before to avoid upsetting the lead.

Jon John, what happened?

John There was a contract extension, and I got an extra £50 per week which was really not bad 10 years ago. One of the other actors whose agent was clearly still in negotiation asked what I was getting extra and I just told them. I wasn’t in the producer’s best books after that.

Jon What about the representation point that Beryl brought up – should more be done about gender-balanced casting?

Beryl More should be done, but I think it’s starting to happen.

Jenny Definitely – and more of an emphasis on women in stories as more than just a love interest.

Vivian I’ve always leave something out when talking about gender parity. It’s not just a question of quantity, it’s the quality of the roles. There’s no point going, ‘look, 50:50’, when the actresses are playing waitress, girlfriend, maid, bar worker or ‘role that has three lines so we might as well make it a woman’.

Beryl Having more female writers on board is a major factor.

Jon Victoria Sadler’s excellent work logging the number of works by female playwrights presented in London’s major theatres every year is not particularly encouraging reading. This year the Royal Court was at the top of the pile, with the Old Vic at the bottom.

John Gender-balanced casting though seems to be slowly going in the right direction. A hell of a lot more should be done.

Vivian My gender, like my race and my ability only exists in relation to a cisgender man. I exist as a woman – as a girlfriend, a mother, a sister, a whore or a maid to a man. It’s always going to be hard to get people to believe in paying the same, when we aren’t valued with the same amount of work. So it’s not as simple as 50:50 casts, or paying the actress the same as the actor.

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