Numbing flights of political oratory and meager attendance are related hallmarks of British Equity annual conclaves, and this year was no different. Except the droning rhetoric played to one of the slimmest houses yet: fewer than 200 of the union’s more than 45,000 members.
One of those missing was actor Nigel Davenport, Equity’s president. His proxy address to the April 21 and 22 annual general meeting here suggested the kindest thing would be to terminate the event for good and save the union some money.
Davenport, who appeared on Broadway in “A Taste Of Honey” and in such films as “Chariots Of Fire” and “A Man For All Seasons,” had a legitimate excuse for non-attendance – he was working out of town. But even union sources admit that the phenomenal number of absentees each year owes less to personal circumstance than the prospect of more of that old-time oratory that has been known to put on-lookers to sleep.
Complaints about activist speakers, including repeaters at the annual meetings like Vanessa Redgrave, usually stress their tendency to use the occasion to push pet political causes, though Redgrave uttered barely a word this time.
This year, more than 70 motions, par for the course, were on the agenda. One that carried called on the union to fight subsidy cuts to nonprofit theaters by whatever means necessary “up to and including all-out strike action.” Approval of the motion isn’t binding on Equity’s governing council, one of whose members afterward wondered, “Who would we strike against – the government?”
The speeches, said Davenport, a political moderate with another year to go as prexy, rarely seem to address pragmatic issues for the membership, such as “the pay and conditions of British performers both here and abroad.”
Davenport’s letter suggested “this could be the last fling. There can, I am sure, be something better, more worthy of what our founders envisaged, with hope, in 1932.” (Confusion persists over the date of Equity’s founding; other sources cite 1929 or 1930.)
As if on cue, Equity’s council has begun searching for alternatives to the expensive annual meeting, which can cost £ 30,000 ($50,700) or more in administrative, advertising and venue rental charges for the two-day conclaves. This year’s was staged at the Royal National Theater’s Lyttelton auditorium, which seats about 900. Only some 220 union members checked in, including most of the 60-odd council and general secretary Peter Plouviez. Even so, the final Monday session was delayed an hour until a quorum of 100 was in the house.
Annual meetings, Plouviez underlines, “do not make union policy, the council does.” He remembers when attendance was much higher in percentage terms, and when “debates used to be limited more to professional matters.” Things started to get out of hand in the early ’70s, when more militant members sought to mobilize opposition to government-backed anti-union legislation.
Active consideration of a replacement for the meeting has been spurred in part by the fact that more than half of Equity s members live outside London (a sizable number in Scotland), and Plouviez hints that it could take the form of a series of more convenient one-day meetings around the country. Like annual meetings, such gatherings would be two-way affairs: keeping the rank-and-file abreast of developments, and union hierarchs abreast of grassroot sentiment.
After 16 years in the job, and 31 all told with Equity, Plouviez is retiring at the end of July.