Open Arts, Closed Borders? The Struggle to Bring International Talent to Bay Area Stages.
Monday, April 15, 2019
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Nicole Gluckstern
This past March, Power Productions—a theatre company from Newfoundland, Canada, working at the intersection of queer and disability arts—was scheduled to perform their original play, Crippled, at EXIT Theatre, where I work as the publicist. But just a week after the performance’s press release went out to local media, EXIT received word from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that its visa application had been refused. Although the company filed an appeal, and still hopes to host the U.S. premiere of the show in 2020, this year’s scheduled run had to be cancelled.
What makes this situation especially egregious to EXIT Theatre, is the fact that artistic director Christina Augello will be touring her own show, Denial is a Wonderful Thing, across Canada this year on the Fringe Festival circuit. As an independent solo artist, Augello will not have to apply for a visa of any kind to perform her work. She merely needs to secure welcome letters from the festival producers and apply for a tax waiver online. The ease with which an American performer can tour in Canada is in stark contrast with the difficulty for Canadian artists, especially for those performers who don’t fall under the limited visa categories that currently exist.
Power Productions' Crippled. Photo by Chris Hibbs/Power Productions.
The categories for touring international companies are currently classed as P-1, P-2, and P-3, and while they do apply to a fairly broad spectrum of possible performance, what they fail to account for are self-producing companies, such as Power Productions, who operate on a small scale, don’t yet have an international reputation, and who are invited guests of a U.S.-based producer but not part of a reciprocal “cultural exchange”.
Confronted with deciding which category to apply under, EXIT Theatre chose to apply for a P-3 visa for “Artist(s) or Entertainer(s) Coming to Be Part of a Culturally Unique Program.” The company’s argument that the disability arts represented a “culturally unique” form of arts creation was not well-received by the USCIS, whose definition of “cultural” is much narrower than that of the broader zeitgeist.
This issue extends far beyond one theatre’s struggle to make sense of an unwieldy, one-size-fits-none system. Notably, just this March, legendary musician Peter Murphy played a long-delayed residency at The Chapel, which had been postponed several times in two years due first to medical reasons and later to visa issues. Such visa issues have affected numerous other organizations, from prominent New York City dance companies, who’ve had to cancel scheduled performances featuring dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet after their visas were denied, to festivals like the Milwaukee Irish Fest, which has recently seen its ranks of foreign performers dwindle due to onerous visa restrictions.
Of course depending on the financial resources available to a producer, and the amount of lead time before a scheduled performance, it’s not impossible to invite international artists to perform in the U.S., as evidenced by the immersive international collaboration The Jungle, currently playing at the Curran. Though, as reported in December 2018 by the New York Times, The Jungle did encounter its own set of visa struggles when it first came to the U.S., culminating in one of its cast members (Ammar Haj Ahmad, who plays Safi) procuring UK citizenship in order to avoid the so-called “travel ban” on visas for Syrians.
Bay Area audiences can still avail themselves of arts from abroad at Cal Performances in Berkeley and at the annual San Francisco International Arts Festival, currently held at the Fort Mason Center. What characterizes both is their penchant for booking acts as far as two years in advance, and utilizing the services of artist agents (Cal Performances) and a legal team (SFIAF). But for all parties concerned, the wheels of the “process” turn slowly and capriciously, even with expert assistance.
Too slowly, maintains the Performing Arts Visa Working Group, a collaboration between the executive directors and administrators of such arts associations as Dance/USA, the League of American Orchestras, The American Federation of Musicians, and Theatre Communications Group. As part of their advocacy work they’ve been championing the Arts Require Timely Service Act (ARTS), which aims to speed processing for artist visas, to Congress since 2006. According to Dance/USA, the Immigration and Nationality Act that created the P and O visa categories in 1990 stipulated that those petitions be processed within 14 days. Currently they take many months. The desire to hold the USCIS to this federally-mandated timeline seems non-controversial, but as immigration legislation is a particularly fraught area these days, the ARTS act has languished in limbo.
The fact that it has taken this many years for Congress to not pass the ARTS act permanently may account for the fact that none of the experts I spoke to on the subject had considered advocating for more sweeping legislation: that of eliminating the process for self-produced artists altogether, or at least creating a fourth category for P and O visas. Such a category could allow international participants of the close-to-thirty US-based Fringes—and other smaller scale festivals who gravitate towards emerging international talent—a less time-consuming and expensive process, and without having to prove a “world-class” status that many of them don’t yet have.
Neither Teresa Eyring nor Laurie Baskin (executive director and director of research, policy & collective action of Theatre Communications Group) were familiar with the Canadian model of accepting independent artists to perform without visas. A surprise, considering that it’s precisely this model that has made the Edmonton Fringe the largest arts festival in North America, attracting over 600,000 people from all over the world during an eleven-day span. The local job creation and international artist opportunities generated by Canada’s open door are frankly unmatched in the US, a situation that severely inhibits the ability of American arts producers to create a similarly robust, reciprocal exchange.
So what can companies who want to bring in international talent do right now? TCG and other members of the Performing Arts Visa Working Group do offer a variety of resources for intrepid producers who are determined to bring something new to their audiences. Laurie Baskin offers peer consultation letters to include with theatre artist visa applications. The League of American Orchestras and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters host the comprehensive Artists from Abroad website which includes up-to-date information about USCIS policy and procedure changes, a breakdown of required evidence, blank forms and timelines, and a page of “useful web links” to various government entities. And New York City’s TamizdatAVAIL (Artist Visa Assistance and Information Line) provides “pro bono legal assistance with U.S. visa problems to the international performing arts community.”
One thing all of the experts agreed on is the importance and transformative potential of engaging in these crucial international collaborations. Both Andrew Wood of SFIAF and Teresa Eyring of TCG refer to artists from abroad as their countries’ best “ambassadors,” a sentiment echoed by Rob Bailis, the Associate Director of Cal Performances, in his email on the subject.
“For the arts to be transformative, the robust inclusion of different cultures, points of view, aesthetics, races, identities, elements of the human condition and kinds of human accomplishment are required...There is no substitute for the compassion that human contact inspires and the deep knowledge it imparts, and this is why it is imperative for any arts organization that can, to bring artists from around the globe to local audiences.”
Nicole Gluckstern is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work in KQED Arts, or follow her on twitter at @enkohl