Nicola Hawkins

“Actors have always been part of the gig economy”

Nicola Hawkins has been fighting for fairer conditions for performers since landing her first lucky break in the West End.

How did you get into performing arts?

I come from a very theatrical family: my mum is a dance teacher, my sister is now a musical producer and my brother was in West End shows as a kid. I grew up in Essex, close enough to London to see all the shows.

I studied musical theatre and my tuition fees were £11,000 a year. But my first job was in Mamma Mia in the West End, so luckily the training paid off!

When did you first get involved with the union?

Management at Mamma Mia were trying to change our terms and conditions. It was going to have a negative impact on my salary, so I started getting involved with Equity, the performing artists’ union, who worked with our agents to negotiate for us.

After that I became a rep – initially because no one else wanted to do it! But I found the meetings really interesting and realised if we all worked together we could achieve more.

I started giving talks in my old college, trying to recruit new Equity members. Young people don’t necessarily know unions exist or what they can do, yet they’re often the ones being exploited.

Why are unions needed?

As actors we have a bit of an identity crisis – partly because we’re not always acting. I’ve done event management, worked in the department store Selfridges, temped in offices. Performing artists have always been part of the gig economy.

But we deserve to be paid properly. So many actors start their career on low pay or even no pay. 80 per cent earn less than £20,000 a year.

When I was on the Equity young members’ committee, the union created the Professionally Made, Professionally Paid campaign, to push back against artists being expected to work for free. So far it has generated an estimated £1.5 million in wages that actors and stage managers wouldn’t have seen otherwise. We’re teaching employers that if they’re not paying the minimum wage, actors could walk out at any minute.

What else has the union changed for you and your peers?

I’m an actor-musician, so I play a lot of instruments. But producers often don’t pay us any extra, even though we’re essentially doing two people’s jobs.

In 2016 we started pushing to change that. Now, if you’re an actor-musician on an Equity contract, you get paid more for the additional instruments you’re playing.

We also launched a casting manifesto to challenge things like extremely last-minute call-ups for auditions, or inappropriate questions. Some employers seem to think they don’t have to comply with equality laws – friends of mine have been asked in castings if they are gay, or married, or have children. Actors are now reporting this and our equalities team follows up and challenges the employer.

What does the future hold for you?

My goal is to become a producer and employ the creative people who work for me on proper terms and conditions. I’d love to offer contracts – though that’s very difficult – and to pay more than the minimum. Currently even if you’re on an Equity rate, producers will rarely pay above the minimum negotiated rate.