A London Evening Standard reviewer wrote of a play with American actors, "Something must be done about this American refuse being dumped on our shore." That attitude, and British Equity's 1997 decision to disband its North American Artists Committee (citing it as "redundant"), led to bitter disappointment about lack of representation among North American members of the union.

There are approximately 650 North American actors in the UK. Small though the number may be, they're determined to have a voice and have formed the North American Actors Association (NAAA). According to association chief executive Laurence Bouvard, "our agenda is to promote the work of North American Equity members and to combat and eliminate the prejudice which has victimized many of us."

Christine Payne, BE's assistant secretary for theater and variety, reported that "Our North American members feel there should be a committee to represent their interests. Having looked at the committee's work, the council felt it concentrated on issues covered by other committees and didn't warrant a separate committee and staff time."
Ms. Bouvard stated that of the 60 committees reevaluated by Equity, "the North American Artists Committee was the only one recommended for dissolution. At meetings, when we've brought the issue up, we're shouted down with comments such as 'If you don't like it, go home!' But this is home!"

Veteran actor William Hootkins tells of an American actress who complained to her agent about the lack of work. "She wondered what changes she should make to get her career back in gear. The agent replied, 'What career? You have no career. You should go home.'"

Hootkins noted that the general consensus is "that, in spite of our training, the only thing we're fit for is playing Americans, and they don't give us the opportunity to do that. Into the 70s, British films and TV shows needed American leads for licensing at home. There were limitless opportunities and, to be honest, the Brits weren't too good at American accents."

Ms. Bouvard agreed. "UK casting directors and directors are so poisoned against North American actors that when I was cast as Cathy in a production of `Wuthering Heights,' I kept my Canadian identity secret. If anyone knew, I wouldn't have worked. I told them on the last day, after three months, and they were shocked, and not happily shocked."

Morgan Deare is another veteran American actor in the UK because of family. Until about five years ago, like Hootkins, he found lucrative employment onstage, in film and TV. "Now it's tough," he states.

Deare, in the ensemble of Whistle Down The Wind, is one of two Americans in a show set in Louisiana. "They think if you have an American accent, it makes the Brits look bad. It's a Catch-22. Years ago I decided not to go up for English roles. British actors would sayl, 'What's the Yank doing trying to take our jobs!' I figured no one could resent me being an American in an American play. But I don't even get the briefings. There are good British actors doing American accents, but also some pretty dreadful ones."

He's a NAAA member "because Equity refuses to acknowledge there's a problem. Too many British directors and casting agents refuse to see or consider you if you're North American because their attitude is that if you were good, you'd be working at home. But we are here for many reasons."

Walter Reynolds, the other Whistle American, is a hulking African-American former Virginia school teacher who made his mark in American musicals in Germany. He came to London for Five Guys Named Moe. "I've been lucky," he admits. "I've established Germany residency, so that makes me European. I hear the gripes, but I can't always agree. Unless Americans have a strong reason to be here, I don't know what they expect."

Van Hinman, a Yank trained at RADA and other British theatrical institutions who was featured in the Palladium run of Barnum starring Michael Crawford, "found securing jobs, even those calling for an authentic American, so difficult, I eventually left the business. I love England and married a Brit. England's our home, but I have a family. I had to face the reality that it would be an uphill battle to win roles."

Ron Fernee, in the UK since 1974, says "often I'm the only American in the cast. We don't get calls to audition. Casting is very insular, with few open calls. They call who they know."
Of Equity's action disbanding the North American Artists Committee, he said, "They weren't happy with a pressure group telling them American roles should be played by Americans. It's their turf and, if we want to compete, we have to hang in there." Ms. Payne stressed that Equity has a group that consults with North American artists and on work permit issues. "We have open meetings," she said, "where they can voice their concerns."

A spokesman for RADA noted explained that the school "attempts to make it clear that if Americans want to work in the UK, they're going to have problems."

According to Hootkins, "We believe in Equity, but there's real discrimination in their lack of support."
"If it were Irish, Welsh or Asian actors being discriminated against," says Ms. Bouvard, "Equity would go berserk [against directors and casting agents], but, because we're North American, they don't care."



Key Subjects: 
British Equity; Actors' Equity; North American Actors Association
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).