Performers from more than 70 countries have had gigs at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Company 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 East Village playhouse presented three separate productions of The Tempest, by companies from different nations.
As with almost any shows by foreign artists in America, though, the storms began way before they were depicted on stage. Just getting the troupes here can cost many months, thousands of dollars, much headache.
In my article for American Theatre Magazine, Bringing Foreign Companies to the U.S., One Visa Application at a Time, I talk about the general problem of getting foreign artists to America, and offer as the main example, the experience of La MaMa.
“There has to be a way that artists can move more freely,” says artistic director Mia Yoo, who took over the leadership post from the theater’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.
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 KoreanTempest 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.
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.”