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Global Stage Fright 

Is the U.S. government lowering the curtain on international performers?

Published September 8, 2004 at 6:18 p.m.

The announcement was like a cruel April Fool's joke on the arts and entertainment industry. On April 1, the FBI issued a warning to law enforcement officials that terrorists may be trying to use P-visas -- the kind used by foreign musicians, entertainers and athletes -- to sneak into the United States. Arts organizations were advised to carefully document the credentials of foreign artists during their visa-application process and be mindful of suspicious activities while those performers are here.

It was a bizarre alert, considering there was no evidence whatsoever that terrorists had tried to enter this country under the guise of cultural exchange. Nevertheless, the announcement came as another blow to an arts industry that had been jumping through more bureaucratic hoops since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Ironically, at a time when American interest in world music, theater and dance is exploding -- and resentment and anger towards the United States abroad make cultural exchanges even more important -- the U.S. government is erecting barriers that make those exchanges even more costly, time-consuming and unpredictable.

The viewing public is by and large unaware of the many difficulties involved in bringing performers from overseas to the local stage, perhaps because the roster of international acts playing Vermont seems as diverse as ever. For example, 13 of the 41 performances scheduled this season at Burlington's Flynn Center involve international artists. At Middlebury College's Center for the Arts, seven of the 15 engagements booked for the 2004-05 season feature performers from overseas. And UVM's Lane Series, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, features eight international groups on its calendar of 26 performances.

What audiences don't see are the legal acrobatics going on behind the scenes. Before international performers can be booked in the United States, they have to line up an American sponsor who will pay their visa-application fees and compile the paperwork and supporting documents that must be submitted to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the INS). Usually, though not always, those sponsors are booking agents with sufficient resources -- staff, experience and money -- to handle the job.

However, many newer or more obscure foreign artists aren't represented by American agents, and that can make it very hard for them to enter the country. Lane Series Manager Natalie Neuert says that in the past, the Lane tried to showcase lesser-known talents from Europe and elsewhere. But since the INS was reorganized as CIS and incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security, the organization has shied away from booking self-managed foreign artists. Why? Neuert explains that she simply doesn't have the staff or resources to shepherd foreign performers through the labyrinthine visa-application process.

One factor in that decision is the cost of securing visas in a timely manner. Under normal circumstances, processing a visa application takes between six months to a year. Several years ago, the U.S. government adopted a speedier procedure known as "premium processing." If a sponsor pays a $1000 expediting fee on top of the normal fees, the application will be reviewed within 15 days -- assuming all the paperwork is in order. Typically, the sponsor gets an answer from CIS within 30 days.

However, premium processing isn't available to all foreign artists -- only those the government determines to be "culturally unique" and/or possessing "extraordinary ability." For example, an aboriginal didgeridoo player from Australia would likely qualify as a "culturally unique" performer; a punk band from Sydney would not. Similarly, a string quartet from China may qualify as "extraordinary-ability performers," assuming they can demonstrate they're among the top 5 percent of musicians in their field.


Today, with the heightened terrorist concerns and added homeland-security measures, many U.S. presenters take on the added expense of hiring an immigration lawyer to guide them through the process. Leslie Holman of Holman Immigration Law in Burlington specializes in working with international artists. She says premium processing has become all but mandatory these days. "They have implemented name checks and security checks that make it close to impossible, on many occasions, to get artists here in a timely fashion," Holman says.

Sometimes, several venues will share the cost of sponsoring foreign performers who lack American representation. For example, next year the Flynn and the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College are putting on the first-ever North American tour of ethnic-minority performers from China. Margaret Lawrence, the Hop's programming director, explains that they'll not only have to pay the lawyers' fees, which can run to more than a grand, but also the $1000 premium processing fee twice -- once for the performers and again for their support team of stage managers, translators, lighting technicians and other crew members.

But even when an American presenter shells out for first-class service, it doesn't guarantee that U.S. officials will allow the performers into the country. As Holman explains, when CIS approves an artist's application, he or she still must apply for a visa at the American consulate in his or her home country and go through a rigorous security check. That process can take months. For example, if an Arabic artist has a last name that's fairly common in a Middle Eastern country, or lives in a nation with a large Muslim population, he or she can get trapped in the system for a year or more.

Even more absurd, visas have been denied to some of Holman's clients who have been traveling back and forth to the United States for years with no problems. Moreover, shows are often booked 18 months in advance, but CIS won't accept a visa application more than six months ahead of time. Holman likens the entire process to a visit to Disney-world. "You pay an entry fee at the gate. However, that doesn't get you on Space Mountain," she says. "If you're not tall enough, you're not riding the ride."

Needless to say, shelling out several thousand dollars for attorneys and application fees can take a serious bite out of the presenter's profits. While that may not be a major concern for large corporate sponsors, for a small, cash-strapped music venue or mom-and-pop arts festival, it can mean the difference between turning a profit and taking a bath. Lawrence, who also serves on the national board of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, says all these added expenses are having a chilling effect on the number of aesthetic risks arts organizations can take.

Perhaps the most noticeable impact has been the nearly complete absence of Cuban performers. Virtually no presenters in the United States are booking artists from Cuba anymore because of the unpredictability of securing their visas. Inside Arts, an industry trade publication, reported in its July/August issue that no Cuban music group has been allowed to enter the United States since November 2003. "Cuban artists are screwed entirely," Holman confirms. "We've gone back to Reagan-era policies where Cuban artists are considered to be 'agents of the government.'"

Similar concerns arose when the Flynn and Hop booked "Ensemble Al-Kindi and the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus," a Sufi group scheduled to perform this fall as part of a larger presentation on Islamic spirituality. Though the Syria-based artists have performed in the United States several times, they have been denied visas in the past. "We're all waiting on pins and needles, including Carnegie Hall, to see if this really happens," Law-rence says. "But we have to go on faith that it is, because how else can you publicize a show?"

Performers from countries that were once cold-war enemies or are now on the State Department's "state sponsors of terrorism" list aren't the only ones being subjected to long delays. In July, the Champlain Valley Folk Festival hit a snag when it tried to bring in two French-Canadian musical groups, Les Charbonniers de L'Enfer and Tuq. In previous years, Canadian performers were granted a different kind of visa because they were performing within 50 miles of the border. This year, their visa applications were rejected. As a nonprofit group, the festival wasn't charged the $1000 premium-processing fee to expedite their P-visas. But the festival didn't get final approval for the Canadians to enter the country until just a week before the groups were to perform.

The folk festival was also hit up with another visa-related expense -- paying for three "letters of support" from the unions. Typically, CIS will not approve a visa application unless its American sponsor can get letters of support from trade unions such as Actors Equity or the International Association of Stage and Theatrical Workers confirming that the performances will not displace American workers. Some unions now charge as much as $250 to write those letters.

What does all this mean for the viewing public? Possible higher ticket prices, for one thing. "I would say consistently, artists' fees are up 20 percent across the board," says Neuert at UVM. "A really high-level, yet not super-famous string quartet that we used to pay $3000 to $5000 for is now $5000 to $7000... and if you work with classical music, you're dealing with foreign artists."

That said, arts groups know they can only go so far in passing along these added expenses to ticket buyers. Jack up ticket prices too high, Lawrence says, and you lose your audience. The sad truth, she admits, is that in order to fulfill their educational mission of promoting better intercultural understanding, sometimes an arts organization has to take a huge loss on one performance and try to make it up on another. "Hopefully, the ticket buyer has no idea," Lawrence says with a laugh. "We just want them to come in and enjoy the show."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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