Last year, New Zealand Actors’ Equity rebranded itself as Equity New Zealand. After attracting many new performers, including dancers, models and stunt performers, the union adopted a new slogan – “making performers’ lives better” – to accommodate our growing and diverse membership, while still retaining a focus on professional actors. It has now been seven years since Equity joined the Australasian performers, journalists and film crew union, the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance as an autonomous branch. During that time our membership has grown significantly and we now represent over 80% of New Zealand’s professional actors.
Being a bigger union increases our responsibility to ensure that we improve working conditions for New Zealand’s performers. This year Equity has been working with child actor advocates to lobby producers and ensure better conditions for juvenile performers, and that children are at all times kept healthy and safe. We were delighted to get the endorsement of the Association of New Zealand Advertisers to our proposals. Similarly, Equity has been involved in a series of constructive meetings this year with the country’s casting directors and actors’ agents to draw up some industry wide casting guidelines that will apply to all auditions. At this stage, we have held three rounds of talks and have negotiated together a document that we all support. The final round of talks were held last week and the new, standard casting guidelines will be ratified by members of all three parties over the next few weeks before hopefully being released publicly in late October. Says Equity’s vice-president Todd Rippon: “all parties are in agreement that this is a positive collaboration that will benefit actors, casting directors, and the screen industry in general. New Zealand’s film industry is one of the most unregulated film industries in the western world and so does not always afford the same protections and safeguards that other countries have for individuals within the work place. The new casting guidelines will outline to performers what is expected of them when auditioning in a professional environment, and likewise, casting directors will share a universal code of conduct that has been agreed upon by their peers. Hopefully this will provide a safe and robust environment for Kiwi performers to really shine and land meaty roles in the future.”
Equity was also pleased to have partnered with Playmarket, the playwright’s association, and the New Zealand Writers Guild in the recent launch of an Inclusion Pledge. Playmarket will ask individual playwrights to sign the pledge, in which they acknowledge that we all have a role to play in creating stories that reflect the diversity of the world in which we live, and in encouraging performers from all communities. Playwrights will pledge that they will aim for inclusive writing and will include a statement alongside the character descriptions in their work to encourage diverse casting. This pledge complements the work of Equity’s Advocates for Inclusion, a group of active members and professional performers, who are devising campaigns and strategies to ensure that the actors we see on screen and stage truly reflect all the people living in our society.
Recognising and supporting our members in the pursuit of their craft is also at the top of our agenda. Our professional development arm, the Equity Foundation, continues to run free workshops and classes for members, which have proven to be very popular and are regularly oversubscribed. The Equity Foundation has also just established the inaugural New Zealand Equity Lifetime Achievement Award, which is to be presented by Ryman Healthcare. This award has been established to honour those New Zealand performers who not only inspire us with their illustrious and enduring careers but also with their kindness, leadership, good grace and generosity as mentors. We are sure we will have no shortage of incredibly worthy nominees and recipients. The awards ceremony will take place in November, right after our fantastic New Zealand Film Commission sponsored Casting Hothouse. This will be Equity’s third Hothouse, facilitated by casting directors from the USA, Australia and New Zealand. The hothouse is an intensive three day workshop where actors get the chance to hone their auditioning, acting and accent skills with top casting agents.
Mental Health Awareness Week takes place in October and Equity would particularly like to pay tribute to our members who are working tirelessly to support performers’ mental health. Actor and producer Sharu Delilkan has been producing ‘Black Dog Relief’, a tribute to Equity’s former vice-president, Robbie Tripe. Robbie was a talented member of the performing community who sadly left us last year after losing his battle with depression. Developed by Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Paul Barrett, the Auckland show starred a host of Equity members, including Colleen Davis, Andrew Laing, Rima Te Wiata, Borni Tukiwaho, Alistair Browning, Torum Heng, Keith Adams, Ryan Dulieu, Darien Takle, Cherie Moore, Grant Bridger and Ruby Lyon. Sharu recently produced the Wellington incarnation of Black Dog relief and between them, the shows raised thousands of dollars for the Mental Health Foundation.
Equity board member, Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho, has devised the Atawhai Festival for Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs at Te Pou theatre in New Lynn, Auckland from 5-10 October. The festival is one of education and celebration aimed at overcoming obstacles and negotiating challenges. According to Borni, “the creative world is a difficult, fickle animal. Recently we have had a spate of suicide and mental distress related incidences in our community. Mental health support is particularly relevant for performers and actors from both a storytelling and personal point of view.” In this light, Equity is currently working on an Actors’ Wellbeing Study in partnership with the University of Sydney and the University of Otago. To be an actor is to be open to ideas, to be an adventurer and a risk taker. The study aims to find out whether physical, emotional and mental damage is the price to be paid for the privilege of being a performing artist, or are there things that can be done to address these issues.