Performers from more than 70 countries have appeared at New York City’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club since it began in 1961, but one could be excused for seeing this season as the perfect storm for performances from abroad. This is the year the downtown playhouse presented three separate productions (count ’em, three!) of The Tempest by companies from three different nations.
As with almost any show performed in the U.S. by international artists, though, La MaMa’s Tempest series faced formidable hurdles—the project’s logistical storms began gathering well before the fictional ones were depicted onstage. Just getting troupes to America can cost many months, thousands of dollars and a fair amount of headaches—and that proved all too true in La MaMa’s case.
“There has to be a way that artists can move more freely,” says artistic director Mia Yoo, who inherited her leadership post from the theatre’s late founder Ellen Stewart. Stewart made international cultural exchange part of La MaMa’s basic mission, and Yoo owes her very existence to the relative ease with which artists from abroad were once able to work in the United States: Her Korean father, a director, met her mother, an American employed in children’s theatre, while studying and working at the Dallas Theater Center.
Now, at a time when many arts advocates see visits by international artists as increasingly important, it can be maddeningly difficult to make such ventures happen. That was one of the clear messages that emerged from the Cultural Mobility Symposium (CMS) held at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center of the City University of New York Graduate Center in January. Some 300 gathered to share complaints and learn what resources are available to overcome the many obstacles. The “Cultural Mobility Funding Guide for the U.S.A.: Theatre, Dance and the Performing Arts” was launched online on the day of the conference, listing more than 150 potential funders for U.S. artists who want to go abroad to perform, study or train, and for U.S. venues that want to bring foreign artists here.
“The U.S. artistic community is mostly unaware of what’s going on around the world, and U.S. artists are better informed than the general American community,” said David Diamond, an organizer of the CMS as a member of Theatre Without Borders, an 11-year-old network of individuals and organizations who work to connect artists globally.
“We’re living in a tumultuous but really exciting moment. It’s important for Americans to be more aware of it,” echoed Mahnaz Fancy, the executive director of ArteEast, whose mission includes helping to bring artists from the Middle East and North Africa to U.S. audiences. Fancy was one of some two dozen speakers at the all-day conference, many of them representing foundations and other institutions focused on cultural exchange with specific regions of the world.
Many foreign funders have a global focus that U.S. funders lack. Other countries have funds to send their artists abroad, said Olga Garay-English, the former head of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, but “there is little of that in the United States. This lack of reciprocity means that artists who are subsidized by their governments tend to go to countries other than the U.S.”
Although the conference was organized around the release of the funding guide, everybody seemed to agree that money is not the only challenge. “It’s getting better economically since the crash in 2008, although I don’t want to give the impression that it’s turned the corner,” said Adam Bernstein, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. “But it’s actually getting harder to get visas.”
The League of American Orchestras and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters commissioned a website called “Artists from Abroad,” described as a “complete guide to immigration and tax requirements,” written by tax expert Robyn Guilliams and immigration attorney Jonathan Ginsburg. The guide is the result of the orchestra league and APAP’s consultations with nationally recognized experts, and it includes forms and web links needed to steer through the process of engaging guest artists reliably, efficiently and lawfully.
The site is especially helpful in informing about various taxation requirements for guests artists, and in distinguishing among kinds of visas (the “O” visas, which are for “a singular artist of extraordinary ability” and their support personnel, and “P” visas, which tend to cover internationally renowned groups of artists, culturally unique groups and individuals, and reciprocal artist exchanges).
This kind of information is more necessary than ever, said guide co-author Ginsburg, because “the situation is deteriorating.” He admitted that he couldn’t say exactly why: “I don’t think there’s a single cause, though I suppose one could surmise that the problem is attributable to a combination of growing fear and lack of political leadership. All the agencies involved—the Department of State, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of Labor—seem increasingly prone to challenging anyone who approaches, even when they present no obvious vulnerabilities or threats.”
Some 1,000 artists were denied visas in 2013. Such rejections periodically make the news: In 2014, Georgetown University had to cancel its presentation of Syria: The Trojan Women, an adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy performed by a dozen Syrian refugee women living in Jordan, who wove their own stories into the narrative. The State Department was reportedly concerned that the refugees would try to stay in the United States.
The total number of visas rejected by the U.S. State Department yearly actually represents just about four percent of the artists who applied for them. But those in the know say those statistics don’t fully reflect the scope of the problem. There are many de facto “rejections” not counted in the statistics that are the result of bureaucratic issues and delays. After the Arab Spring, there was much demand for a version of One Thousand and One Nights directed by the U.K.’s Tim Supple, with a 40-member cast from many Arab nations. Canada and Great Britain were quickly forthcoming with visas, but planned performances at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater had to be canceled after the U.S. insisted it needed more time to assess nine of the performers.
Also in 2014, Deaf West Theatre invited Teater Manu of Norway, a company of deaf performers, for a show at its home in Los Angeles, only to have the visa office reject their application “at the 11th hour,” said Deaf West artistic director David J. Kurs. The lawyer they had hired was successful in getting the rejection repealed, “but we had to cancel the first weekend of our performances.”
Many times, artists are simply too intimidated by the complex process even to apply, said Garay-English, and U.S. venues are more selective. “For every foreign artist on an American stage, 20 were turned down. It now takes a lot of human resources, a lot of financial resources. And then you might not get it.” Garay-English, who has been involved in artist exchanges for 30 years, said the current climate is the most challenging she’s seen. “After 9/11, there was a shutting down of our borders,” she noted.
The problems don’t all originate with the U.S. government. In 2014, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company canceled “The Russians are Coming! A Festival of Radical New Theatre from Moscow” when it learned that, after an escalation of Russian-U.S. tensions, Moscow arts officials would not be coming through on their promise to provide the needed funding for many of the troupes. The Serbian National Theatre had to cancel its planned six-hour production The Seagull this season at La MaMa because massive flooding in the Balkans resulted in the Serbian government redirecting the promised funding toward rebuilding efforts.
“They were already in our brochure,” Yoo lamented.
Even when everything goes without a newsworthy hitch, putting together a production involving foreign artists is far from a smooth process.
The idea for the Tempest 3 series at La MaMa came shortly after Hurricane Sandy, when Yoo says she got three telephone calls: one from Karin Coonrod, who had workshopped an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play with composer Elizabeth Swados while both were at La MaMa’s summer cultural center near Spoleto, Italy; one from the MOTUS company of Italy, which had created Nella Tempesta, incorporating the play Une Tempête by Aimé Césaire and infusing the work with contemporary political commentary; and a third from the Mokwha Repertory Company of Korea, which set the play in 5th-century Korea and incorporated one of the oldest existing Korean texts, Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms.
It struck Yoo as more than a coincidence that they were all exploring Shakespeare’s text at the same time. “I feel there was probably an unconscious connection that all these artists were making. The Korean peninsula, for example, has gotten a lot more flooding lately.”
The idea of grouping these three productions into a series interested Yoo in part because it would make them easier to market, thus helping to address LaMaMa’s No. 1 problem with presenting international productions: getting an audience for them. “We are not bringing in artists who are well known,” Yoo explained.
Once they decided on a series, La MaMa aimed to present it two years later—which they actually considered something of a rush job, knowing as they did all the steps involved.
“The first step is the visa,” pointed out Denise Greber, the La MaMa staff member in charge of helping foreign companies with the visa application process, which is long and expensive, costing as much as $6,000 “if nothing goes wrong.” Before she even began the application, Greber was in communication for months, via Skype and e-mail, trying to bridge the language barrier, gathering the necessary information and material to describe the planned program in detail and make the case that the companies are “culturally unique.” After filling out the forms, adding a packet of press clips, a half dozen or so letters of recommendation (“from other artistic directors, the minister of culture, etc.”), the companies needed a letter of approval from an American union, either Actors’ Equity or the American Guild of Musical Artists.
Noted Greber, “They have to attest the artists are not taking any jobs away from Americans. It’s a little bizarre, but we have to do it.” This requirement can be waived for some positions that have no direct input into the creative content of a show, or for artists for whom there is no applicable union.
Once the applications were completed, La MaMa sent them to the Vermont Service Center of the Citizenship and Immigration Services—and waited. Once approved, the next step involved personal interviews with each member of the company at a designated U.S. embassy. Since the Korean Tempest had 20 actors, that meant 20 appointments, at a cost of $190 apiece.
“It seems to me a lot of work for artists who are just going to be performing in the U.S. for two weeks,” Greber allowed.
That was the observation as well of attendees at “Visas, Taxation, Practical Challenges,” surely the most perplexing of the seven breakout sessions at the Cultural Mobility Symposium.
“There are a lot of rules, and there are a lot of exceptions,” said panelist Matthew Covey of Tamizdat, a for-profit service agency that has created a free hotline (718-541-3641, www.tamizdat.org/avail) funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to provide “urgent legal assistance” to artists who are experiencing problems during the visa application process. “The process was meant to be user-friendly for employers such as theatre festivals. That’s eroded over the last 25 years,” Covey said.
For those seeking to navigate their way through this complicated process, the aforementioned guide, “Artists from Aboard,” is a crucial resource, as are such organizations as Theatre Communications Group (publisher of this magazine), which is a prominent advocate for improving the visa process for foreign guest artists and is involved in a hands-on way in advising on O and P visa petitions for countless international artists and companies.
Kevin Bitterman, TCG’s associate director of artistic and international programs, says that many visa problems arise because applicants don’t fully understand the timeline or the process as fully as they might. “Entering the visa process with blinders on will likely lead to frustration, requests for evidence and possible visa denials,” said Bitterman, who places particular emphasis on investing time well in advance so that all potential wrinkles can be worked out, as well as on understanding the distinctions between O and P visa classifications.
For a relatively small cultural institution like La MaMa, which presents as many as 20 productions by international artists each year, the necessary steps can feel overwhelming—but never prohibitive. “It has been challenging,” Yoo concedes, “but we’re going to do it whether it’s difficult or not. We’re going to find a way.”
Jonathan Mandell writes frequently for this magazine and tweets as @NewYorkTheater.