A petition signed by some of the biggest names in British theatre, led by Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ian Holm and Paul Scofield, will later this week be presented to the Arts Council, demanding an urgent investigation into a problem they believe could threaten the future of theatre in the provinces.
Scores of actors who have responded to a survey by the actors' union Equity claim that a combination of low wages and escalating accommodation costs make it impossible for them to accept parts in the theatre outside London.
The Equity survey has shown that the average cost of digs is pounds 75 a week and average spending on food is pounds 65.58. But the living away from home allowance in subsidised repertory theatre is a total of pounds 79 and the allowance for those on tour is pounds 120.
The actress Prunella Scales, who with her husband Timothy West and son, Samuel, are stalwarts of touring theatre, said the work nearly always meant a financial sacrifice. Her work in Tesco's advertisements had subsidised their work in Henry IV, parts one and two.
"Touring theatre is partially financed by the actors themselves. Timothy, Samuel and I are lucky - we're usually busy and manage to pay for the work we want to do on stage by work elsewhere. But young actors can't afford to do more than one production."
Brian Murphy, recently seen in Mrs Merton and Malcolm, said: "I can afford to do regional theatre if I want to and the part is sufficiently enticing, but if I were a young man starting out I would find it difficult. Yet regional theatre was paramount to one's development."
Jessica Lloyd, aged 31, an actress who has just won a regional theatre award for her performance in Ibsen's A Doll's House gave up her London flat, put her belongings in storage at her parents and bought a camper van to be able to act in the regions.
"Accommodation is a huge nightmare when you're trying to get ready for the job, especially when you're touring and you have to work something out every week," she said.
The survey found that many actors had the expense of a mortgage or rent at home while they were away. Some had to pay for their children or pets to be looked after or travel costs to get home at weekends.
Among the actors who admitted turning down regional theatre work in recent months were Paul Bradley, who played Nigel in EastEnders; Peter Polycarpou from Birds of a Feather; and experienced theatre hands including Terence Rigby and David Horovitch.
Nearly half of those questioned had recently turned down work in regional theatre because of the low level of allowances. The weekly minimum pay for subsidised repertory theatre is pounds 260.25 and pounds 233.10 for commercial provincial theatre.
Martin Brown, an Equity spokesman, said: "We think this is a serious issue. Regional theatre is the bedrock and training ground of the performing profession.
"The reason we have a substantial presence in Hollywood is because the actors have worked in regional theatre. There will be a general downgrading of quality if the director's first choice of actor says, `Thanks but no thanks'."
An Arts Council spokesman said its senior drama members would meet Equity this week. The council itself began investigating the problem of performers and companies undertaking tours and regions, but the work was not completed due to the restructuring of the Arts Council.Reuse content