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Equity and Spotlight’s name rules create a crisis of identity

In 2006, I went to my first Olivier awards ceremony as an agent, and watched three children, including George Maguire, become the youngest ever recipients of best actor in a musical gongs, for their performances in Billy Elliot.

Following in Jamie Bell’s celluloid footsteps, they made theatre history, and their images became iconic. But when Maguire appeared in a fringe musical called Lift, I Googled his name and he didn’t look anything like he did in 2006.

Wanting representation, he met with Alex Segal and me, and I asked him why Lift wasn’t on his CV. “I wasn’t in Lift,” he replied. “That’s another guy with the same name.”

I’d encountered this once before, but it was easily sorted out by contacting the actor’s agent, who was happy to ask the client to change her name.

When it came to a request for the other George Maguire to change his name, the agency involved was uncooperative, so we went to Equity. How could two members have the same name, given the Equity name register is a key selling point to get actors to join the union?

[pullquote]How could two members have the same name?[/pullquote]

I was told that our George Maguire had joined Equity first, and so the second George Maguire to join Equity is registered with a slightly modified name – modified with Equity, that is. On Spotlight, he’s still George Maguire meaning our Olivier award-winning client is not able to join Spotlight under his Equity name.

Spotlight allows a child to be registered with the same name as an adult. In a world where children can win acting awards this seems to me a recipe for disaster, and makes no sense. Actors should campaign for Spotlight to change its policy.

In a separate case, we have a client called Jacob Chapman, whose CV identifies various projects including two series of Channel 4’s Beaver Falls, and who is about to star in a lead role in Universal’s new film Legacy. Jacob is on the children’s register, but he cannot progress to the adult register because there is another Jacob Chapman. Jacob is 20 but we have to keep him as a child to keep his identity.

In response to this, Spotlight said:

Jacob Chapman appears in Children and Young Performers where we do allow same names to be used both within that directory and in conjunction with any adult performer. If Jacob wanted to transfer to actors at a later date, however, he would be asked to change his name.

Surely, then, Equity could help. Alas:

The position of Equity and Spotlight is very similar. We do not, and cannot, dictate what names people choose to use in the wider world, and under UK law there is no prohibition on two members working in the same industry under the same name – be it plumbing or acting, the same rules apply.

Our organisations assert that we will, separately, only allow one member per name to register, but we do not share a database. Firstly as a trade union we are prevented by law from revealing the trade union membership of any member without their prior consent, and secondly because our remit (covering not just actors, but directors, stage management, models and other entertainers) is much larger than Spotlight’s, which applies its rules to each directory separately. While we always advise members to work under their registered Equity name, there is no sanction under our rules for failing to do so.

If there is no sanction under Equity rules on failing to operate in the industry under the name given on the name register, what is the point of the register? If Equity cannot do more to set its register as the industry standard by which all others follow, then one of its principal reasons to compel actors to join falls into question.

[pullquote]Why can’t Equity and Spotlight simply work together?[/pullquote]

Is it in the actor’s and industry’s interest for Spotlight and Equity not to mirror databases? Each claims it has no legal right to enforce the other, but why can they not simply agree to work together, even if the law does not compel them to?

This isn’t a petty squabble. We have a real problem. A young man needs to make a living. And his identity could be confused with that of another actor, who joined Equity later than him, which might affect his future employment and career progression.

On Equity’s own website it states that members should “always decide on one professional name, across the board”. This statement is clear and unambiguous, yet Equity does not seem to want to enforce them. Equity says it can’t stop the other George Maguire using the name George Maguire. Spotlight says it doesn’t have to follow Equity’s register, and that it plans to continue to allow children and adults to share the same names on Spotlight – but not when a child becomes an adult. I urge them to meet with each other to discuss mirroring their name registers, and for Spotlight especially to stop allowing children to register with the same names as adults (and vice versa).

I’d welcome a dialogue with all parties to resolve this positively for everyone.

Read more columns by Stuart Piper [1]