International theater festivals have become a staple of summer, yet foreign artists wishing to perform in the U.S. have never had a tougher time entering the country. Score another point for Bush’s war on terrorism. No doubt our citizenry is sleeping better now that British actor Steven Berkoff, set to perform his one-man show Shakespeare’s Villains in Ann Arbor, was deported last month for overstaying his visa by one day. (Is there a Voice theater critic at INS?) Yet while the current bureaucratic thicket may have made our borders tougher to cross, festival producers have only intensified their commitment to presenting international work in these turbulent, post-9-11 days.
Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival, understands the current imperatives and challenges as well as anyone. Having invited an Iranian troupe of 28 to perform Ta’ziyeh, a multipart traditional music drama, he’s had to contend with visa denial for 10 members. One of those turned down was Mohammad Berekatipoor, the Iranian star of Qusem (the second play of the cycle), which necessitated that the festival substitute another segment, The Children of Moslem, and reduce the total performances of the cycle from 12 to nine.
Redden says that the invitation to the Iranian troupe was partly a response to the Islam bashing that ensued after the terrorist attacks and partly a reaction to his own ignorance. “I felt troubled by the fact that, as a reasonably literate man, I had not heard of the Battle of Kerbala,” he explains, speaking of the central event memorialized in Ta’ziyeh, a conflict that culminates in the founding of the Shiite branch of Islam. “Since we communicate through metaphor, it’s vital for us to share some commonality of reference. Cultural and historic icons are prerequisites to understanding each other.”
The visa trouble, which Redden sees as an unavoidable part of the post-9-11 landscape, is something that simply has to be factored into the planning—preferably as early as possible. “We called the State Department and received encouragement about the Iranian troupe,” he says. “Though they told us that there were likely to be difficulties. I suppose I’d like it to be easier for people to cross borders. But I also recognize the very real dilemma facing immigration authorities. Beyond the issue of terrorism, there are a great number of people who would like to come to this country and find work.”
The INS’s criteria for artistic visas hinge largely on whether a given individual, based on his or her employment history, is likely to become an economic refugee. Discriminatory as this dollars-and-cents standard of judgment may be to artists, who rarely exemplify financial stability, the more urgent problem may be the INS’s backlog, which requires upward of seven months to process a simple visa request. Understandable as this may be given the heat the INS has recently faced, it’s made programming especially challenging for less wealthy organizations working without the support of the State Department or the sponsorship of a foreign government.
“I have a troupe in Istanbul called the Fifth Street Theatre that had to cancel last year because they couldn’t get visas,” said La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart, whose venue has been historically one of the most hospitable in the city for international artists. “We’re working to get them here next season, but it hasn’t been easy. For another company we got the visa only two weeks before the show was set to perform, which left little time for rehearsal. The process normally takes three months, but because of the overload they’re three to four months behind reading applications.”
Elena Holy, producing director of the New York International Fringe Festival, has had to enlist the aid of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts to help navigate the increasingly frustrating immigration system. Still, this year FringeNYC has boasted applications from “every inhabited continent,” with artists being drawn to New York in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy. “Producing the festival this year is almost an act of defiance. Yes, there are mounting difficulties related to immigration and the bruised downtown economy. But that’s only more reason for us to move forward. What better place and time to bring together the emerging artists of the world?”
“A new sensibility has emerged both practically and philosophically,” says Joe Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, which has become New York’s premier showcase for the international performing arts. “There are not only new budgetary implications with visas and security, but there’s also anxiety on the part of some foreign companies about their safety. Reassuring them that they will be looked after has become part of the job.”
But more important for Melillo is the way theater as a collaborative art form can magisterially demonstrate multiculturalism by example. Rather than dwell on the fact that BAM had to install metal detectors when the Israeli dance company Batsheva performed last spring, he would rather talk about artistic director Ohad Naharin’s decision to use music by Arab Israeli composer Habib Alla Jamal in his production of Naharin’s Virus—a dance adaptation of Peter Handke’s play Offending the Audience, originally envisioned with klezmer music.
“We invited an equal measure of Jewish and Arab high school students to this 70-minute performance and held a post-performance dialogue to discuss the way opposing communities can come together artistically,” Melillo says breathlessly into the phone from his Barcelona hotel room. “Theater may not have the cultural influence of film or TV, but it has the capacity to uniquely embody the potential of individuals to creatively transcend difference.”
But theater as peripheral discourse also has the ability, perhaps even responsibility, to communicate points of view that may be unpopular, dissenting, or even downright dangerous. Cynthia Hedstrom, programming director of the ambitious International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, recently found herself in a maelstrom of controversy for presenting Alive From Palestine: Stories Under Occupation, by the Ramallah-based Al-Kasaba Theatre. “At the time of the intifada, the company felt that they needed to make theater that reflected the situation in their country,” she explains. “But there was a reaction here among some Jewish groups that there should have been a more balanced viewpoint. This is somewhat problematic for me because art often has a strong perspective, and what we’re seeking is diversity and complexity over a broad spectrum of productions and additional programs that can foster communal debate.
“If you don’t know the stories of the world, you’re handicapped,” says Hedstrom. “Confronting these narratives builds better citizenship. This has to be our collective mission.”
For Lincoln Center’s Redden, it comes down to understanding your place in the wider swath of history: “For many, the end of the Cold War signaled America’s break from the brutality of the past. But as recent events show, we can neither close ourselves off nor retreat into survivalist mode, raising vegetables in Montana.”