The pay's the thing ...

Theatre's reservoir of talent is drying up because of low wages, says Paul McCann
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Britain's supply of world-class acting talent is under threat because poor pay and prospects are driving young actors away from the traditional training grounds of the regional repertory theatres.

While 100 well-known actors, from Neil Pearson to Donald Sinden, met at the National Theatre yesterday to publicise Equity's campaign to raise the minimum pay in rep from pounds 190 a week to pounds 250, those at the coal face told of a generation of actors and their agents who are turning their back on the UK's network of regional theatres.

Ian Kelly, an actor who has appeared in Arsenic and Old Lace in Salisbury and toured with Theatr Clwyd, said an actor's way of life has changed: "People used to get their training in rep, someone like Derek Jacobi or Tom Courtenay would have spent eight years in rep. Rep would stretch you artistically and strengthen you as an actor. You just cannot have careers like that anymore." Chris Garner, 32, who has just finished five months at the New Vic, in Stoke, claims he was better off before he went to Stoke than afterwards. He needs part-time jobs and parental help to survive in rep.

Young actors increasingly prefer to stay in London where they may have a better chance of being spotted in fringe productions above pubs.

"Casting people are very, very lazy," said Celia Robertson, a 29-year- old actress who has never done regional rep. "So there's no chance of being spotted out of London. You would only go to regional rep if the part were great." While the Equity minimum is pounds 190, fringe productions in London often pay less than pounds 100. "Sometimes all you get is a travelcard," said Ms Robertson.

Many young actors are now discouraged from taking parts in regional rep productions by their agents because the money is so poor. "The attitude of many London agents is to keep you unemployed in London on the off-chance that you will make an ad every few months or pick up some TV work," said one actor who didn't wish to be named. "They try not to put you up for parts that essentially involve a pay cut for them too."

Equity is arguing to see rates in rep increased to pounds 250, a week but it is possible for inexperienced actors to earn pounds 300 a day acting in a TV commercial. If they are lucky and the ad is repeated for years their earnings from a few days' work could eventually reach pounds 10,000.

Neil Pearson believes that the rep system is an investment for the future:"I started in regional theatre and it is the only reason that I can now pay the big fat tax bill that I do," he said. "It is not outrageous to ask pounds 250 for a week's work."

The problem for Equity is that the Theatre Managers' Association, which has so far offered a pounds 200 a week minimum agrees that actors are poorly paid - the average income of Equity's 37,000 members is between pounds 3,000 and pounds 5,000 a year.

The TMA is dependant on subsidies from local councils and the Arts Council which have fallen by 4 per cent in real terms over the last 10 years, so there is very little new money for the actors.

Equity argues that this means its members are the ones who are actually subsidising the regional reps.