Theatre wars break out as London and New York try to stop incoming actors

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The Independent Online
THE SIMMERING dispute between British and American actors has erupted again because both sides say they lose work to transatlantic performers.

More than 370 actors from the London West End, including Maureen Lipman, have signed a petition demanding their union, Equity, gets tougher over American actors coming to Britain. American Equity believes British actors, writers and directors are dominating New York theatreland.

British actors wishing to work in the US have to apply to the American Immigration and Naturalisation Service: it will give a work permit only with American Equity's approval. Many British actors say their applications are refused because American Equity pressures immigration authorities.

Jonathan Pryce and Michael Gambon have been turned down by the American system. British Equity claims a more liberal arrangement, based on a one-for-one exchange of Brits to Broadway and Americans to the West End. A British Council attacked the influence of American Equity on their immigration authorities as a "restraint of trade".

The Equity petition follows this year's blocking of the National Theatre's Oklahoma! cast to transfer to New York. Maureen Lipman is appearing in Oklahoma! at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

Joseph Noble, who helped to organise the petition, cited a recent advertisement in the American trade newspaper Backstage, which sought African-American actors to appear in the now-aborted London premiere of Dreamgirls.

"What is to stop similar attempts in the future?" he said. "It is an especially pressing matter for Afro and Asian artists, some of whom have had audition processes for these shows that lasted a year."

In America there has been consternation at the number of British productions and actors on Broadway. Last week Dame Judi Dench won a best actress Tony award for her performance in Amy's View. Actors such as Natasha Richardson, Anna Friel and Rupert Graves are on Broadway, as are Tim Pigott- Smith, James Hazel-dene and Patrick Godfrey.

Traffic in the other direction is becoming heavier. Hollywood actors enjoying recent success on the London stage include Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh, Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room and Richard Dreyfuss in The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

Alan Eisenberg, executive director of American Equity, said his agreements with the immigration services protect American jobs. "The American actor is underpaid and under-employed," he said. "Frequently, when a production comes in it takes away a job and a career opportunity from an American actor."

British Equity is seeking talks with American Equity to equalise the procedures for "unit transfers", when an entire production is moved from Britain to the US. But the union denies there is a particular problem for British actors wanting to get on to Broadway.

Martin Brown, a spokesman for British Equity, said: "If someone is of international standing, a Dustin Hoffman or a Judi Dench, they can work where they like. For those with less than international standing we operate an exchange scheme so when one goes there, we hold a place open for an American to come here.

"The system works very well and last year more than 50 British actors worked on Broadway. Usually, more Brits are working on Broadway than Americans are here."