Theatre: The struggle international artists face to stay and work in Scotland

Tyler Collins, second right, in Last Dream (On Earth), is back in the USA and reapplying for a visa. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Tyler Collins, second right, in Last Dream (On Earth), is back in the USA and reapplying for a visa. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
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International artists enrich our cultural life, but proving it to the Home Office is easier said than done

This is a story about immigration. But wait! It’s not about Brexit. It’s about a class of people who, in theory at least, are officially welcomed into the country. They’re the foreign nationals who, in the words of the Home Office, are recognised leaders (those with “exceptional talent”) or emerging leaders (having “exceptional promise”).

They could be working in science, humanities, engineering, medicine, digital technology or the arts and, if they can jump through the right hoops, they’ll be regarded as assets. But in the case of theatre in Scotland, how does it work in practice? How easy is it for a foreign-born theatremaker to demonstrate their exceptional talent or promise – and who gets to decide if they make the grade?

These are questions that came to mind last month with the news that actor Tyler Collins could no longer remain in the UK. Born in Alaska but studying and working in Scotland for the best part of a decade, the 27-year-old had been forced to return to the USA after his visa application had been turned down by the Home Office. Having been on an Unmarried Partner Visa until his relationship ended, he had applied for an Exceptional Promise Visa only to be told his application had not fulfilled the criteria for media recognition and proof of appearances.

The irony did not escape the press. Among the actor’s recent accolades was a starring role in the stage version of The Broons. If appearing in that most iconic of Scottish institutions doesn’t count as making a contribution to the country’s cultural life, what does? “Hen Broon barred from Scotland,” ran one headline.

“I guess I made errors in my first application,” says Collins on the line from the USA, where he is reapplying for a visa and recalibrating what constitutes evidence of “international” media coverage now his country of residence has changed. “I just want to work in the UK. I trained there, I grew up there, pretty much, from 18. It’s been nearly ten years and I was just about to get my citizenship.”

In May, Collins will fly to Taiwan to perform in Last Dream (On Earth), a show created by Kai Fischer who himself arrived here in 1989 fleeing from East German communism. Focusing on the perilous journeys taken by refugees, the show was staged in association with the National Theatre of Scotland and revived as part of the Scottish government-funded Made in Scotland programme.

In other words, Collins will be representing a country he is currently not allowed to enter, performing in a play about the plight of exiles. Ironic isn’t the word. The actor, who stars in Where Do We Go From Here?, a romantic comedy on the cusp of a distribution deal, just wants to get back to work. “I’ve had a really lucky couple of years,” he says. “Everything’s just now starting to amp up for me and I’m not there to do it.”

One anomaly of the visa process is that wherever an artist intends to work in the UK, their application needs the consent of Arts Council England (ACE), the “appropriate industry body”, rather than, say, Creative Scotland. There’s a good reason for this: although arts funding is devolved to Scotland, immigration is not.

In cases such as this one, ACE is expected to consult Creative Scotland, but it is reasonable to wonder how efficiently that consultation works and whether someone who has made their reputation north of the Border would be assessed with the appropriate level of expertise. “Creative Scotland understands the significant value that international artists bring to our creative community and audiences in Scotland,” said a spokesperson for the funding body. “We recognise the increasing challenges faced by artists and creative people wanting to work in the UK and welcome a broader debate on this issue.”

Alex Fthenakis, a Californian actor and producer based in Glasgow who, after a two-year setback, successfully navigated the visa system, suggests that Creative Scotland’s role could be enhanced. “Why couldn’t Creative Scotland be given a quota not to grant but to pre-endorse a handful of people?” he says. In such a system, the funding body’s stamp of approval could be the equivalent of one of the three letters of recommendation an applicant needs.

Fthenakis is a prime example of the way foreign artists can enrich Scotland’s cultural scene. As an actor, he is on stage this month in Peter Arnott’s His Final Bow. As a producer, he has commissioned Scottish dramatists to write for American theatre students and initiated meetings between Scottish and American theatremakers. “The cultural exchange that comes out of getting those practitioners together is pretty amazing,” he says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Flavia D’Avila, a theatremaker with long experience of Home Office bureaucracy. Now studying for a PhD at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), the Brazilian director has specialised in international projects such as Fronteiras Explorers, a three-week residency on the Brazil-Uruguay border involving six Scottish-based performers. “We did a ceilidh in a folk-dance centre and to this day they have a saltire hanging next to the Brazilian and Uruguayan flags,” she says.

She too has had the perplexing experience of receiving funding from Creative Scotland at the same time as being turned down for an Exceptional Talent Visa. “Exceptional Talent is a good idea but the criteria need to be revised,” she says. “It’s too geared towards big, grand work and more towards actors, directors and writers. If you work at small-to-medium scale, you don’t have that profile, but does it mean that you’re not talented?”

His Final Bow, Oran Mor, Glasgow, 10-15 April; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 18-22 April.