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Equity wins wages for amateur actors on RSC tour

Malcolm Sinclair. Photo: Phil Adams
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Amateurs hired to perform in a Royal Shakespeare Company touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will receive the minimum wage, after union Equity challenged the theatre’s decision to use unpaid non-professionals.

The tour will mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the RSC will work with a different amateur theatre company in each location to cast six actors to play the Mechanicals, including characters such as Bottom and Peter Quince.

However, it has emerged that Equity objected to the plans, with the union claiming it did not believe the tour was an “appropriate venture”. It criticised the decision to use amateur performers at a time when professionals were “finding reduced opportunities for employment in our subsidised theatres”.

The RSC said that the decision to use amateurs was an artistic one, and warned Equity that, if the production did not go ahead as planned, it would not happen at all. This would have resulted in the loss of work for professional performers in the show, as well as the stage management team.

Following discussions, the two sides reached an agreement specifically for the production that will see the amateurs paid the minimum wage for “hours the amateur cast work with the RSC directing team”. Equity insisted on payment from the RSC because the amateurs were “likely to be ‘workers’ in a legal sense”. It has also been agreed that Equity can “have access to those people for the purposes of information sharing and industrial discussions”.

During negotiations it was also agreed that the RSC will hold regional casting sessions for the roles to be played by professional performers in the tour, and other parts in future RSC shows.

Equity president Malcolm Sinclair described this as important for the union, because “many members living outside London don’t get the proper opportunities to audition, as most of theatre, TV and film castings are so London-centric”.

Sinclair also claimed that Equity had faced a “Hobson’s choice” with the RSC, claiming: “Whichever way we went was not good in some respect. In my view, the way we finally decided was the least bad.”

He reiterated that the RSC had labelled its decision to use amateurs as an artistic one, but called this “unconvincing”.

Sinclair added: “If the production did not go ahead, there would be no substitute production in place, which meant the loss of at least 18 paid acting roles, plus a full stage management team, on a long well-paid contract.”

As part of the RSC and Equity agreement, amateur theatre companies working on the show will become co-producers. This means posters for the show will state that the tour, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation, is a co-production between the RSC and “amateur companies across the UK”. The posters will state: “This is an arrangement developed between the RSC and Equity”.

An RSC spokeswoman said: “We want to celebrate Shakespeare’s legacy as we lead up to 2016 and find news ways of bringing the pleasures of his plays to the widest audience.”

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