West End performers & stage management demand 17% pay rise

Stand Up for 17%
  • Equity’s Stand Up For 17% campaign launches tomorrow, focusing on West End performers and stage management’s demand for a 17% pay rise.
  • Working in the West End is meant to represent the pinnacle of a live performance career in the UK, yet inadequate pay and difficult working hours mean many are struggling with both their finances and their work-life balance.
  • Two thirds of West End members have considered leaving the industry.
  • 45% of West End members have a second job, with almost half who say they do reporting that this is because their West End pay doesn’t cover their living expenses.

Tomorrow (Friday 20 January), Equity – the performing arts and entertainment trade union – launch their ‘Stand Up For 17%’ campaign.

The campaign focuses on Equity members’ demand that West End theatre bosses raise the minimum weekly pay for performers and stage management by 17% – with social media activity (#StandUpFor17) going live in the morning, followed by members putting up campaign posters in their greenrooms across central London in the afternoon.

Equity can reveal that two thirds (61%) of West End members have considered leaving the industry due to terms, conditions and/or pay in the last three years (surveys detailed below*) – running the serious risk of a talent drain to the UK’s renowned live entertainment sector, especially when more money can be earnt in TV and film.

Meanwhile 45% of West End members have a second job, with almost half who say they do (48%) reporting that this is because their West End pay doesn’t cover their living expenses**.

Anthony, a performer in aWest End musical, says: “I’ve been performing in the West End for just over six years now, but when Covid hit I couldn’t work and fell into debt. I took on two part-time sales jobs which I still have to do today alongside my West End work, as the one performing job alone just doesn’t pay enough to cover the cost of living in London and my outgoings. At the moment I work seven days a week non-stop and struggle to find a work-life balance, so am now at a crossroads where I’m thinking if I left the show – gave up on my dream job – and upped my hours on the other jobs that aren’t really my passion, I could earn more money and live more comfortably.”

The minimums are not enough

Working in a West End play or musical is meant to represent the pinnacle of a live performance career in the UK, with years of training needed to gain the required skills – not to mention talent and, in the case of performers, a daily dedication to maintaining performance abilities and physical fitness. Yet inadequate pay and difficult working hours mean many are struggling with their finances and work-life balance.

Ella, stage management in a West End theatre, says: “Because the property I live in with my partner has mould, we’ve both been sick and need to move out. But as we’re both self-employed and work in the performing arts, our combined salary doesn’t pass the affordability check threshold and we’ve not found a landlord that will have us. We also struggle to keep our electricity meter topped up during the winter not only because energy bills have gone up, but also because we both work unsociable hours and sometimes don’t have a chance to get to the shop.”  

What’s more, an Equity survey has shown that rather than the union minimum wages being the lowest threshold for pay, more than half of West End performers and stage management are being paid at these minimums (more details below***). The union’s research shows that the public perception of the West End as a glamourous place where high pay is the norm just isn’t true, with existing pay and conditions presenting huge challenges to talent retention and diversity in the industry.

For example, the minimum for a performer working in a Category C theatre (up to 799 seats, the smallest tier of West End theatres) is currently £629.41 a week (full minimum rates listed below). While that adds up to £2,517.64 a month, once tax (roughly 20%), agent fees (12%) and pension payments (3%) are applied, that leaves these performers with roughly £1,636.46 a month to spend on renting in London, bills, commuting, food, dependents and other living costs.

Crucially, West End show contracts are not permanent, usually lasting between a few months to a year. Yet when performers and stage management can barely cover their day-to-day expenses, they are unable to save to cover the out-of-work periods that are inevitable in a gig-economy industry – let alone save for a family, a house or their retirement.

With the average rent of a room in the capital reported to be £935 per month alongside the rising cost of living and energy bills, this puts many in the West End in a precarious position and forced to live in house shares even as they get older.

Fodhla, stage management in a West End theatre: “I’m currently planning how to leave stage management, the job I love and have done for a decade, because I want to have kids in a year or two and don’t see it being possible if I’m working in live theatre. The hours are relentless and you don’t earn enough money to be able to afford childcare, let alone shoes and books. I’ve worked so hard – I’m really proud of myself and my skills I’ve built up. But if this is the height of my career already, then that’s not sustainable.”

#StandUpFor17

The Stand Up For 17% campaign coincides with the submission of Equity’s West End claim to the Society of London Theatre (SOLT, representing producers and engagers in the West End). Equity and SOLT will negotiate the terms of the collective West End Agreement that sets out the minimum pay, terms and conditions for all performers and stage management working in West End theatres.

The claim asks for a new agreement that will run for two years from April 2023 until April 2025. The changes Equity are seeking to the West End Agreement include the below, and more (get in touch if you would like to view the full claim):

  • A real terms pay increase in minimum rates of pay for Year 1 (April 2023-24) of 17%, and Year 2 (April 2024-25) of a further 10% or RPI if higher.
  • A five-day rehearsal week from Monday to Friday (apart from tech week). Currently, 6-day rehearsal and performance weeks are the norm.
  • An increase to holiday entitlement on the basis that Equity members work a 6-day week for the performance period and the current entitlement is calculated assuming a 5-day work week. This would see a rise from 28 days of holiday pay per year to 34.
  • Increases to fees to remunerate covers (understudies, swings and stage management who step into roles due to absences) for their important work. As highlighted since the Covid-19 pandemic, they have meant the difference between a show going on and producers losing thousands of pounds. Currently, an understudy who must learn their own role as well as that of a lead, only receives £35 a week on top of the normal performance fee. A swing, who must learn multiple ensemble roles – sometimes numbering more than 10 – receives £90 more a week. Equity is seeking significant increases to cover fees in recognition of the extra workload required.

Amy, a swing performer in a West End musical: “I don’t feel like swings get paid enough for the extra work we do – it’s hard to find people who are able to cope with high amounts of stress and perform well, or be able to adapt really quickly on stage. And it’s so much extra revision – I’ve mapped the entire show so I know where everything is at every given moment, and when I’m at home I’m constantly listening to different tracks as well to learn harmonies. I’ve also performed abroad and working in the West End is the worst paid in comparison because the cost of living is so high.”

Paul W Fleming, Equity General Secretary, says: “Coming out of COVID, our industry was determined to ‘build back better’, and Equity’s West End campaign on work, rest and pay is the start of making that aspiration a reality. At a time of high inflation, our members have decided to Stand Up For 17% – a sensible rise in the minimum when rents, energy, and other costs have continued to rocket for over a year. We’re looking forward to sitting down with the producers in the coming months to find a roadmap to implement our reasonable aspirations. Theatre is about people, particularly its talented and skilled workforce – and we need real focus on ensuring performers and stage management are fairly paid, and achieve a proper work-life balance.”

Hannah Plant, Equity West End Official, says: “As Equity’s West End Official I meet working members every week on big shows whose experiences of struggle and hardship don’t tally with rising ticket prices. We need greater financial transparency from producers to ensure that profits aren’t being funnelled off to line the pockets of the rich at the expense of our members. It’s high time West End workers are paid what they deserve given their hard work, expertise and the revenue they generate.”

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