‘Disgusting’ backstage conditions threaten the future of regional theatres, actors warn
Actors have warned that theatres are becoming untenable as places of work because of “disgusting” and dangerous backstage conditions.
Mould, loose tiles, leaking drains, hanging wires, rats and a lack of disabled access are just some of the issues cited by performers and creatives.
Equity has vowed to take action after a motion passed at its Annual Representative Conference warned that a “patch-and-mend mentality” in theatres would result in the disappearance of regional venues, as the eventual expense of repair would be too great for either public or private owners.
Actor Daniel Page, proposing the motion on behalf of the West and South West London Branch, said: “I’ve seen gaffer tape holding up wires, gaffer tape holding up dressing-room mirrors, and I fear that we will lose these palaces that are our working environment if we don’t do something about it soon.
“Money is being spent on these theatres, but it always ends up being front-of-house and not backstage.”
Page added that he had experienced an accident in a theatre due to a loose floor tile, which had not been repaired.
Actor Malcolm Ward echoed his comments. He said: “When I’ve been on tour, it’s usually for a maximum of one week in each place, so if somebody does spot something and they report it to management, the temptation [for the management] is to say: ‘Oh yeah, we will deal with that’, knowing that whoever complained is not going to be there next week.”
General list councillor Hywel Morgan said Equity needed a high-profile campaign to show the public how “appalling” conditions could be.
He said: “It’s not just performers, I know of a West End theatre where a young stage manager had to contend with the fact that a drain that leaked was running through where she was working right next to the lighting racks. I don’t need to point out that electricity and water don’t mix.”
Actor Phoebe Kemp, chair of the Deaf and Disabled Members Committee, added that, for disabled actors, the issue went beyond unpleasant conditions, as disabled performers “can’t even get into half the theatres in the country”.
As a result of the motion, which was passed unanimously, Equity is to meet with other backstage unions to discuss concerns and work to create a set of guidelines.
Equity will also work with theatre owners to set targets on timelines for restoration work, and, if the response from theatres is unsatisfactory, run a public campaign highlighting the state of theatres.
This follows a similar motion passed at Equity’s ARC in 2009, which resulted in a campaign for “better and healthier” working conditions after complaints of rats and sewage floods.
Helen Ryan, assistant national secretary at BECTU, agreed that backstage conditions were a “big issue” and said the entertainment union was aware of this and was lobbying theatres to improve conditions.
She said: “Workspaces for creatives and crew tend to be down in a basement, where it is dark and dingy and some are even damp and suffering with mould.
“Another problem we tend to have is when our members do night changeovers – the facilities are much more restricted, and people forget that. That means we have to lobby for things like kettles and microwaves.”
She added: “It’s about reminding theatres they shouldn’t just focus on what the public can see; they have to invest money behind the scenes.”
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