Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…
Emily Cohen is in her 20s and works in theatre and TV as well as running her own theatre company. She is an associate member of a national company
John Pepper is 31 and for the past 10 years has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National and in radio, television and film
Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally
Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre
Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, Annie has worked predominantly in regional theatres and is a writer and street performer
Jon I received a panicked text from a friend the other day because she’d had an email about voting in a rule-change referendum and she didn’t know or understand what was on the table. This also made me think about the terribly low turnout in the council elections.
Peter I’m a big supporter of Equity and pretty active.
Annie Ah, Equity. My darling Equity. I’m not as active with it as I’d like to be, but I think it is very important for us creative folk. Stronger together, aye?
Peter I think the low vote in council elections is for two reasons – the first is voters don’t think representatives know people well enough, and the second is that as long as the union is broadly doing what it wants, it doesn’t really care who’s on the council.
Beryl I also missed the recent rule-change referendum but I think we are definitely stronger together.
Jon Why don’t people vote, do we think? Peter mentioned unfamiliarity and apathy…
Annie There’s not much engagement. We get the Equity magazine but it’s fairly old-school I think.
John It’s got to be apathy, hasn’t it? Maybe a feeling of “well, they probably are pretty powerless anyway, so what’s the point?”
Jon I’d add that turnout is more likely to be low in a union where the majority isn’t actually currently employed in the industry. That’s a fairly unique situation.
John The Equity pension is a godsend. Worth the monthly payments just for that.
Peter I’ve been a deputy many times. I go to my local branch and have been on committees. I get very disappointed, even angry, when people don’t join.
John I absolutely love being part of a union, but I always have a nagging feeling that, as a union, Equity is not the strongest.
Emily Equity has really let me down recently, I’m sorry to say. I think it conveniently turns a blind eye to things sometimes.
Annie Yes, I feel like I was let down after an injury one time – but I have deputied for a couple of companies during theatre seasons.
Beryl I have been a dep loads of times. They don’t always get it right, but I do think deputies are trying.
Jon I think a lot of actors have a “they didn’t help” story, and I say that as a passionate union man.
Beryl A few years ago I was in a large company that had a big ensemble of young, mostly male grads. One told me his drama school didn’t advocate the union. It said there was no point.
Jon Emily – how has being let down by Equity left you feeling?
Emily I feel really fucking angry, to be honest. I can’t believe they didn’t help at all, it was a really awful situation and they weren’t there for us at all. They didn’t reply to emails.
Beryl Sorry to hear this.
Jon That’s when it gets tricky – when you feel like nobody’s listening and the answer can tend to be “try someone else”.
Peter Equity doesn’t get everything right, but we’d be a hundred times worse off without it.
John Yes Peter, agreed.
Emily Yeah, completely, but when you’re let down like I was, you do sort of go, ‘what am I paying for then?’
Annie I think a lot of creatives think “what do they even do?!” I know I did for a while but I stayed a member because I figured it was better to be part of a union than not.
Beryl Without them, there would be so much more exploitation and bad working conditions.
Emily I mean, I know they do brilliant things and I wouldn’t dream of cancelling my membership, but it makes me so upset.
Jon And of course upsetting situations loom larger in the heart and brain than things ticking along well. It’s such a tricky one. That’s what I mean about all of us having a story. The other story is holiday pay and missed breaks and 12-hour overnights.
Emily Yeah, so true.
Peter If you’re angry, Emily, complain. And if you’re as angry as you say, complain to the top. The general secretary, Christine Payne, is a very good listener.
Annie I’ve been saying no a lot more, but when there’s always some budding performer willing to take the job and undercut the whole profession what can we do?
Peter A lot of the exploitation is down to us. We take on jobs that are “no pay but good exposure”. And so many young actors are afraid to make a fuss. I was a dep on a job where someone had a problem. She only called Equity when I sat in the room with her and virtually held her hand while she called the Equity organiser.
Annie There’s definitely a fear of not being employed again if you get Equity involved.
John I think there should be two Equity deps in each company: someone with experience partnered with a less experienced dep.
Peter I’ve often done that. Mentored a young member as a deputy.
Beryl I’ve shared the role a few times.
Annie I remember an actor once asked me to do the Equity dep role because they were so nervous about kicking up a fuss.
John It can often be a lot of pressure being Equity dep if you basically have no idea what you are doing.
Jon Especially since the dep is our contact with the union, despite not actually being an officer of it.
Peter Often the youngest member of the company is coerced into taking it on.
Jon I suppose, as an older actor, I should stop loudly saying “hell no” when anyone suggests me as a dep. I’ve been there and done it but I should do it again.
Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email email@example.com