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Rising cost of ‘antiquated’ digs poses risk to touring, warn theatre stars

Performers including Cynthia Erivo, Michael Xavier and Emma Williams (pictured performing in Mrs Henderson Presents in 2016) have expressed concerns over the quality and affordability of theatre digs. Photos: Darren Bell, Greg Goodale and Nobby Clark Performers including Cynthia Erivo, Michael Xavier and Emma Williams (pictured performing in Mrs Henderson Presents in 2016) have expressed concerns over the quality and affordability of theatre digs. Photos: Darren Bell, Greg Goodale and Nobby Clark
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The theatre digs system in the UK has become “antiquated and unsustainable”, theatre workers have warned, amid growing fears that the health of the touring sector could be damaged as a result.

High-profile theatre performers including Cynthia Erivo, Michael Xavier and Emma Williams have expressed concerns over issues such as rising costs, accommodation shortages and a lack of regulation.

Xavier said the cost and standard of digs directly affected his decision whether or not to tour, while Williams described the present situation as a “very real problem”.

“In most other industries, if you were working away from home you would be put up in a hotel,” she said, adding: “Many digs will set their lowest rates at the same as your touring allowance, which makes it tricky.”

Erivo said choice could be limited when multiple tours were running at once, adding that there was a risk that landlords cancel at the last minute, something she had experienced.

Actors, stage managers and backstage staff rely on a touring allowance – part of their relevant union’s agreement – to pay for accommodation and food while touring with a production.

Helen Ryan, assistant national secretary for entertainment union BECTU, said some backstage and technical staff struggled to secure accommodation within their touring allowance, and in more expensive locations had been known to subsidise the cost of digs from their own pocket.

At present, Equity’s touring allowance for actors and stage managers working in commercial theatre is £240 per week, and £226 per week for subsidised theatre. Subsistence allowance, for individuals living away from home but working in one venue rather than touring, is significantly less than this – £140 per week for commercial tours.

Theatre professionals including actors, backstage and technical staff told The Stage that touring digs ranged from around £120 per week to £180, with some charging £200 or more, but that they varied significantly by region. Locations such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bath were identified as being particularly expensive.

Equity said that it had been working to reduce the gap between subsistence and touring allowance and had made some progress but confirmed it would be making “ambitious claims” when it renegotiates its commercial theatre agreement with UK Theatre later this year.

The union said it would try to push up allowances in a bid to “keep pace” with increasing costs, but said the rising price of quality digs “outstrips the rise in the cost of living in the rest of the economy”.

“The reality is that the digs system is an antiquated and unsustainable way of accommodating artists away from home. If the government, Arts Councils and employers are serious about high-quality work reaching all areas of the country, a real collective effort to think of a new way of providing quality accommodation for our members has to be made,” a spokesman said.

Equity added that the problem was compounded by a shortage of digs offering facilities for artists with families.

“Finding affordable digs with space for partners or children to stay is a rarity. It’s stifling the talent who can afford to tour,” the union said.

Actor Sandy Batchelor, who is performing in the UK tour of Strangers on a Train, said he had managed to make touring viable financially, but would have “no idea” how he would afford it if he had a family.

He also raised concerns over the regulation and vetting of digs.

“There is no outside body that can regulate prices. And if there are any problems [with landlords], how do you sort them out? The fundamental problem is that there is not anyone saying what is okay or not.

“It comes back to the situation of actors desperately wanting work. I think actors are constantly exploited and in a position of feeling like they have to go cap in hand and be hugely grateful for any job that comes their way,” he said.

Equity confirmed it would be looking at the digs information it provides, and would challenge individual theatres to make sure they offer up-to-date, adequate information.

Some theatre staff told The Stage that they used holiday rental site Airbnb to book properties with fellow cast members or crew as an alternative to digs, while others said the advent of online booking services such as Theatre Digs Booker and popular Facebook page Theatre Digs Lists had eased the organisational burden.

Meanwhile, some theatres already scrutinise accommodation before offering them to visiting staff. For example, Salisbury Playhouse interviews new hosts and visits properties before adding them to its digs list.

In response to the concerns over costs, several landlords offering digs argued that their prices reflected the cost of living in their areas, and a number of hosts said they had not increased their prices in several years to minimise financial strain on cast and crew. Others claimed the advent of online services such as Theatre Digs Booker meant the market was now more transparent.

Editor’s View: Dodgy digs – a symptom of flawed funding priorities

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