In a colourful press release, theatre workers union Equity is requesting that we should all “Stand Up For 17%”, to allow West End workers a decent standard of living. Oddly, given that nothing of the kind has been suggested in the release, a number of people have expressed concern that this could lead to strikes.

Nobody under about 70 will remember, but Peter Hall’s Diaries describe the pain that all involved suffered when staff at the National Theatre took such action almost half a century ago.

Clearly, strike action will be in nobody’s best interests and therefore we must all hope that a compromise can be reached between West End managers and the union in the very near future.

Equity has already achieved a great deal by improving the Ethical Manager Agreement with the Independent Theatre Council, giving workers across the country a 10% uplift in basic salary plus 20% in daily fees.

The good news is that, unlike in so many ongoing disputes at the moment, HM Government can honestly say that it has no influence, unless you bring in the (under-) funding of Arts Council England. This means that sensible negotiations should be possible.

17% sounds like a very high number and, as with the nurses, might possibly be an initial union stance with a view to settling perhaps at a halfway point?

However, Equity does a pretty good job of justifying the need for very hefty increments, particularly for those at the bottom of the pile. Some readers may be surprised to see how little stage folk earn in central London, especially given the fact that they will often face long periods of inactivity or, as it is known in the trade, resting.

Current minimum rates for peformers and stage management working on the west end agreement

Category A (1,100+ seats)

Assistant Stage Manager / Performer


Deputy Stage Manager


Stage Manager


Category B (800–1,099 seats)

Assistant Stage Manager / Performer


Deputy Stage Manager


Stage Manager


Category C (up to 799 seats)

Assistant Stage Manager / Performer


Deputy Stage Manager


Stage Manager


The figures above relate to contracts for 8 shows a week—comprising the large majority of West End contracts.

53% of respondents to Equity’s West End Pay Audit report being paid less than £780 per week, roughly the Category A Assistant Manager / Performer minimum plus Sunday payment at the time of survey. The most common response was £712, the Category A Assistant Manager / Performer minimum at the time, while the median was £765. The average was £900, skewed by a tiny handful of respondents who earn £2–5k a week.

To put this into perspective, the average London salary last year was £41,866. Assuming no other sources of income, this would be earned by a Stage Manager in a Category A theatre working 46.5 weeks and could not be achieved by anyone else on the list. To make life worse, and agent will take around 12% of the gross pay of many in these categories.

It is therefore no surprise that almost half of West End Equity members have a second job in order to make ends meet. This is hardly the best way to guarantee optimum performance.

In this context, Equity has put forward the following proposal:

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 those 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, six-day rehearsal and performance weeks are the norm.

  • An increase to holiday entitlement on the basis that Equity members work a six-day week for the performance period and the current entitlement is calculated assuming a five-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.

As everyone at the Union and more widely must recognise, while producers might feel sympathetic to such a request, they have their own problems.

Theatres were closed for a considerable proportion of the last three years, while audiences are still only slowly returning to the West End. This inevitably means that many shows are uneconomic and there must be a serious risk that if staff costs go up by a double-digit figure, more shows will close earlier or never make it to the stage.

Producers therefore need to find ways of increasing income and funding. Their own resources are likely to have been severely depleted since the start of the pandemic. One option might be to find money from corporate or individual angels, many of whom will have their own financial difficulties.

The alternative is to tax the paying public by increasing ticket prices even further, although once again, this might have the opposite effect to that intended, persuading people of the inexpensive joys of spending a night at home rather than investing several hundred pounds on a family theatre trip.

In reality, a deal should be struck that balances the needs of all parties. We must hope that this is achieved swiftly and amicably, since the alternative of drawn-out negotiations, possibly leading to strikes, hardly bears thinking about.