Equity developing new agreement for indie theatre

Richard Watts

The unique challenges of the independent sector are driving the development of a new agreement by the actors' union.
Equity developing new agreement for indie theatre

Independent company 15 Minutes from Anywhere's The Yellow Wave plays La Mama Theatre from 10-21 May 2017.

Australia’s independent theatre sector faces a number of unique challenges, including the fact that actors performing in indie productions do not receive an award wage, as opposed to when working in the subsidised sector.

Consequently, existing workplace agreements such as the Performer’s Collective Agreement (used in the subsidised theatre and commercial theatre sectors) and Equity’s Co-Operative Agreement are not applicable for actors who donate their time to perform in indie productions.


Previously, independent theatre was often staged using the co-op model, in which all participants share equal authority and equal risk. But as the sector has evolved, independent companies and productions increasingly operate in a manner more akin to the subsidised theatre sector, where actors work on a project in the short term and do not have financial or creative authority over it.

Consequently, Equity’s Independent Theatre Committee is developing a new Independent Theatre Agreement that recognises the sector’s current needs and concerns.

Read: The pros and cons of profit share

The work-in-progress Independent Theatre Agreement has been presented and discussed at two open meetings to date, in Sydney in November 2016 and in Melbourne last Friday.

Speaking at the Melbourne meeting, actor and Equity organiser Erica Lovell was at pains to stress that the development of an Independent Theatre Agreement was not about Equity swooping in ‘and getting rid of unpaid work’.

‘Actors need the independent sector. We need it to keep our skills sharp, we need it to be seen, because we all know that there’s no auditions, and we need it to create [professional] relationships. This project is about making sure the independent sector is fair and rewarding and sustainable and that the actors who need it can engage with it,’ she said.

Key to the development of the Independent Theatre Agreement is the recognition that legally, actors in an independent production are neither employees or contractors, but volunteers.  

Lovell pointed to the definition of formal volunteering provided by Volunteering Australia, which notes, ‘Formal volunteering is an activity which takes place through not for profit organisations or projects and is undertaken:

  • To be of benefit to the community and the volunteer;
  • Of the volunteer’s own free will and without coercion;
  • For no financial payment; and
  • In dedicated volunteer positions only’

Importantly, she also noted that volunteers can be and are often paid for their work by means of an honorarium – a fee for professional services voluntarily performed.

The Independent Theatre Agreement also outlines expectations around hours of work, social media policy, and safety and wellbeing – including requirements around nudity and simulated sex scenes.

Read: Naked theatre: impact versus exploitation

Another key aspect of the draft Agreement is financial transparency, which has regularly been identified as a concern for creatives in the independent theatre sector – who may not know what their co-workers are being paid, let alone the real costs of venue hire, publicity and other expenditure on a given production.

‘The key things people are constantly saying [about working in the independent sector] are I want financial transparency and I don’t want to have to go broke to do it,’ said Lovell.

‘I want to be treated like and respected as a professional who is donating their time and I want the value of my contribution to be recognised in the way I’m treated and the way my work is spoken about.’

The Independent Theatre Agreement has not yet been endorsed, nor is it in use. Once finalised, the Agreement will be rolled out by Equity as a two-year trial.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts