Stephanie Street: ‘If you really want to tackle inequality, show us the money’

Michael Sheen recently offered to take a pay cut to achieve gender-pay equality and has also marched for women's rights. Photo: Shutterstock
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I am in the midst of a career first. After 17 years (intermittently) treading the boards, I am delighted to be heading up West. And as I make my first foray into London’s commercial theatre, I’m learning a lot.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise after four years campaigning for equality, but the inequality of pay in the commercial sector is astounding.

While a member of the ensemble in a commercial show – who works their bones off in a breathless whirl of singing, dancing and costume changing – is paid Equity minimum of £631 a week, the star can be on multiples of tens of thousands.

This could mean some members of companies are paid a hundred times more than their colleagues, which strikes me as absolutely unconscionable.

Michael Sheen recently offered to take a pay cut in order to help achieve gender-pay equality. He said this as he was marching for women’s rights so you get the sense it wasn’t just lip service.

I was less persuaded by Mark Wahlberg’s gesture to donate his $1.5 million pay for the reshoots of All the Money in the World (1,500 times his co-star Michelle Williams’ pay) to Time’s Up. Would he have done the same if the wage disparity had not come to light?

The context says a lot. Williams was reportedly supportive of the reshoots (Ridley Scott’s bold decision to cut out Kevin Spacey after all the revelations) and she was paid just $1,000, whereas USA Today revealed Wahlberg held up the recasting of Christopher Plummer until he, Wahlberg, was paid.

Gender may be front and centre in the discrimination debate, but the reality is that our industry is riven to the core with inequality along the additional lines of race, age and disability. And one way in which this is most clearly seen is in the astounding gulfs in pay across commercial and subsidised sectors.

And let’s not forget that many people cut their teeth in the ‘professional’ sphere through unpaid or poorly paid work on the fringe.

I don’t think anyone should work for free. Ever. That’s why it’s called work

This obviously means such starting opportunities are only feasible for those with independent financial means, those without caring responsibilities, the privileged few. And, I have to be clear, I don’t think anyone should work for free. Ever. That’s why it’s called work.

Access to our industry for those who are under-represented will only improve if we get over our English awkwardness around talking about money; we need to have a frank and open conversation about who gets paid what.

It’s also dependent on those at the top swallowing a bit of their greed. I hate to come across all socialist, but much in the way I can’t understand why Lionel Messi gets millions a year to kick a ball about, I can’t fathom how any acting, however transcendental, warrants tens of thousands of pounds a week.

Unless we want theatre to be for the rich, and made by the rich, we need not only to talk about equality but to do the numbers as well.