Martin Brown Keynote Speech

THEATRE BATH CONFERENCE – 29 OCTOBER 2013

 

Speaking notes – Martin Brown, Assistant General Secretary, Equity

 

 

My Theatre Matters! – the campaign developed by Equity, The Stage newspaper and the Theatrical Management Association – which encourages theatre audiences to tell their local Council leader how much they value their Council’s support of local theatres.

 

But fist, what is Equity? It is a trade union – that is a collection of workers, in our case actors, singers, dancers, variety artists and other performance professionals – who have come together to defend and improve upon their working conditions.

 

Equity’s main role is to negotiate agreements with employers – the BBC, the National Theatre, the Theatrical Management Association and many others – from which come the contracts that members and others work on. Equity negotiates minimum salaries and actors’ agents do what they can to bargain a fee for their client which is above that minimum.

 

How do you join? You submit evidence of professional work and pay your fee – the current minimum annual subscription is £116, but if you are lucky enough to be earning a lot out of the business you can pay the top rate which is £2,328 a year. If you are a performing arts student you can join for much cheaper – just £17 a year.

 

Why should you join? Three killer arguments:

1.

Huge numbers of people want to work in the entertainment industry – so much so that many of them will work for free or even pay to work as a way of getting in. That competition between workers hands employers a massive advantage – they can play one aspiring performer off against another. The only force that stands in the way of this exploitation is Equity. Our collective agreements with the key employers maintain basic standards that without Equity would not be there.

2.

Individual workers in the entertainment industry are very vulnerable. If something goes wrong who is going to pick up the pieces? If you are in Equity, your union will. We have expert organisers who can get you what you deserve if a contact is broken or if you get injured and we spend hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in legal fees defending members where we can’t get a negotiated settlement.

3.

It gives you a voice over your industry. A voice about how workers are treated, a voice about how the arts are funded, a voice about how your industry operates.

 

Finally your Equity card says that you are a professional. It is about how you see yourself and how others see you. In my view, it is one of the most important elements of your tool kits as a performance professional.

 

 

MY THEATRE MATTERS

 

Local councils are facing massive cuts in central government funding. Hackney in East London –£266 pounds per head in central Government grant – North Dorset £2.70.

 

Three big spending budgets – children’s social care, adult social care and waste management. In 2010 these took 50% of local spending across England.

 

As budgets squeezed these three absolutely essential services which must be maintained will take a bigger and bigger slice of the cake. Cost of social care and waste management going up while the total budgets available to council are coming down.

 

By 2020 it is estimated that these three budgets will account for over 75% of what is left of local government spending. Other spending – libraries, environmental control, the registration of birth, marriages and deaths, housing, etc, etc will be fighting for a share of what is left.

 

The arts, which is non-statutory, is at real risk.

 

Some Council leaders are warning that within a few years they will not be able to meet those three big statutory duties let alone discretionary spending like the arts.

 

Somerset was the first Council in living memory to make the decision to cut its arts spending to zero.

 

Somerset was followed by Westminster and Moray in Scotland and even Newcastle announced it was cutting all its arts budget. It was persuaded back from the brink.

 

Not just 100% cuts to fear. English local council spending on the arts fell from £9.59 per head in 2008 to £7.53 in 2012 and that downward trend is set to continue.

 

While the biggest source of income for theatres is earned income – principally ticket sales – council funding is crucial. Theatres in the South West get about 9% of their income from their local authorities.

 

Local theatres are facing a perfect storm:

Arts Council England cuts started in April 2011 and will continue.

business sponsorship is declining rapidly outside of London;

box office is coming under pressure as audiences feel the pinch;

and local authorities are beginning to see arts funding as an easy target for cuts.

 

Equity joined with the Theatrical Management Association and The Stage newspaper to launch the My Theatre Matters! campaign. The campaign’s objective is to persuade councils that arts funding is not an easy target for cuts. It is doing that by engaging with audiences in defending their theatres.

 

Why audiences? For a local Council leader an audience member is not only a Council tax payer, but also a voter.

 

A theatre in your town makes it a better place to live. Council members believe that. Audience members believe that. Owners of businesses know that theatres are part of what makes town centres vibrant.

 

The My Theatre Matters! Campaign is trying to tap intolocal pride of their theatres.

 

Never met a Council leader who wants less art in their town.

 

If we can engage Council leaders and Council members in that joyous celebration of that the arts brings then it may be harder for them to vote for cuts?

 

My Theatre Matters! not a finger pointing campaign. Not about attacking Councils for the budget decisions they are making. Must acknowledge that Councils are faced with appalling choices about what to cut.

 

Tell Council leaders that spending on the arts is not part of the problem – it is part of the solution. In Newcastle a consortium of arts organizations have commissioned year on year studies of what arts does for their local economy. This independent study, conducted by ERS Research and Consultancy, estimated that ten organizations in the consortium – which included Northern Stage, the Baltic Centre, the Theatre Royal and Tyneside cinema – make a significant contribution to the local economy which outweighs public investment in them.

 

Audience members are being encouraged to get involved in the campaign through curtain speeches by Equity members.

 

Audience reaction:

 

“Our lives are made richer by live performance. Theatres in the centre of the community are essential to break down the barriers, and make theatre and performance arts accessible to everyone. Local theatre is not a luxury it is as important as schools, doctors surgeries, supermarkets, etc., and just another facet of our lives.”

 

Famous Equity members not at the forefront of the campaign. Well-known members position the pubic eye extremely helpful, but this they should have a supporting role.

 

When it comes to really tough decisions about how to protect vital local services such as social care in the face of a Government onslaught on spending the last person many people want to hear is an apparently well-off actor telling you how your taxes should be spent. On top of that, never want to see another Daily Mail headline about whingeing luvvies.

 

Audiences at the front of this campaign, but well-known members very supportive. Articles in support of the campaign written by Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter, Clive Sift, Shobna Gulati and others and published in programmes.

 

My Theatre Matters! campaign was launched this spring and will run for the whole of 2013 and in to 2014and onwards. Thousands of audience members and nearly 200 theatres have signed up.

 

The database of supporters will be used to encourage signed up audience members to put pressure on their local Council and on Councils as cuts to arts start to be discussed.

 

Get your smart phone out and sign up to the campaigntoday.

 

If you are lucky enough to be working professionally in a theatre talk to your fellow Equity members about delivering a curtain speech at the end of your show.

 

We are aiming for nothing less than mobilising the theatre-going public of the United Kingdom.

 

Does theatre really matter in the pick-and-mix world of instant, 24 hour  entertainment?

 

The magic of the shared experience – the extraordinary thing that happens between actors and their audience – cannot be replicated by the individualized digital offer that is now the entertainment mainstream.

 

Audiences know that. It is claimed that more theatretickets are sold in a year than ticket to professional football matches. West End in its ninth record year for audience figures.

 

West End reflects health of theatre across the country. West Ends relies on subsidized theatre for productions – War Horse, Les Miserables, Jerry Springer the Opera, Five Guys Named Mo, The History Boys – all started in subsidized theatres.

 

It is our job to defend our theatres from short-term and short sighted austerity politics.

 

 

 

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