Tiffany Jenkins: Red tape hampers Festival artists

We should be throwing open our borders, not denying talented artists a chance to shine on our stages, writes Tiffany Jenkins

All at sea: Clout Theatre is having to prepare for its festival show by Skyping director Mine Cerci, who was refused a visa to enter the country
All at sea: Clout Theatre is having to prepare for its festival show by Skyping director Mine Cerci, who was refused a visa to enter the country

One of the most exciting aspects of the Edinburgh festivals is that thousands of people from all over the globe descend on one city for the whole of August.

I have met actors, writers and performers from places that are new to me. All come with fresh ideas. It is the diversity of experience and outlook focused on one city that makes Edinburgh the place to be in the summer. Individual perspectives and experiences connect with others during this time, usually bearing the fruit of understanding and insight into the state of the world, other people and ourselves.

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And yet, this picture is not quite as it seems or as it should be. The doors to the UK, and thus for now to Scotland, are only open to a chosen few. Take the case of the talented director Mine Cerci, whose current work, The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity, with the Clout Theatre group, is on show at Summerhall. Clout is an international ensemble that formed at the prestigious Jacques Lecoq school in Paris, which had a hit at the Festival Fringe last year with How a Man Crumbled, also directed by Cerci, which successfully toured nationally and internationally.

Its latest production has just been nominated in the emerging company category in the Total Theatre Awards. The group’s members are ones to watch, but their working lives and creative output have been severely hampered by the UK Border Agency – as has our experience as their audience.

Despite being nominated for awards and despite directing work at this Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Cerci has not been allowed to enter the country. The troupe in Edinburgh has had to rehearse while apart, speaking regularly and performing via Skype for the director of the show, who is in Istanbul, which is far from ideal.

This situation is due to the restrictions on international artists and academics visiting the UK for performances, talks, exhibitions, concerts or artists’ residencies, which were introduced by the Home Office in 2008. Anyone outside the European Union wanting to come for a short period of time, even for a particular purpose such as a lecture or a performance, has had to submit to a series of arduous and expensive procedures to get a visa, and further bureaucratic controls when they are here.

It has made it difficult for artists and academics to travel and work. Children’s festivals, salsa and tango dance clubs, Gregorian choirs, jazz ensembles, students, thinkers and community theatres have all experienced difficulties. The Chinese artist Huang Xu was even refused a visa to attend an exhibition of his own work. Numerous concerts, residencies, lectures and talks have been cancelled. A number of organisations no longer try to book artists that do not come from the EU because it so difficult to get them visas.

Manick Govinda, a producer at Arts Admin, a laboratory for artists, is at the forefront of a popular campaign to change the visa system. It has had some success, but not enough. Earlier this year, the Border Agency refused visas to visit Britain to one of the curators of the Shubbak festival, a celebration of modern Arab arts in London. The Border Agency also vetoed visas for two authors from Gaza. In July, it refused a visa to a woman invited to attend an annual symposium on food and cookery at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. She was going to discuss “Food and Material Culture”. How a talk about food could be a threat to our economy and security is beyond my understanding.

In April, Cerci, a Turkish national, applied for an “entertainer’s visa” to come and work here in preparation for the Edinburgh show. She chose to apply for this kind of visa because, as a reasonably new company, Clout Theatre is unable to sponsor Cerci for the other possible permit – a tier-5 visa – as it cannot guarantee her payment.

This is not unusual in these cash-strapped times, especially in the arts. The troupe does not know if the show will be a success or if the group will make money, but like many will take the risk for art.

The entertainer’s visa was refused because Clout cannot prove that Cerci will not be paid – one of the requirements to qualify for this kind of permit, despite submitting extensive evidence of its struggling bank balance to the Border Agency.

If this sounds onerous, complicated and odd, that’s because it is. The whole application is laborious and takes a great deal of time. Cerci worked hard on the document since December, thus a great deal of creative energy and attention was spent on paperwork rather than the performance.

Manick Govinda, who assists artists with such applications, observes of the refusal to grant Cerci a visa that “the UKBA comes up with absurd reasons for refusing invited artists to the UK, making arbitrary distinctions between amateur and unpaid professional artists”.

And while Clout rose to the occasion and succeeded against the odds, its work has been impeded; Skype is not a satisfactory way to work. As Govinda points out: “The physical energy and social conviviality between director and performers in real same time and space can never be replaced by technology.”

It has to be said that the Scottish Government position on immigration is more enlightened. External affairs minister Humza Yousaf has criticised the UK government for its immigration policy in the past, arguing that, “there’s no doubt that the UK government’s restrictive immigration policies are damaging Scotland’s economy”.

The artists that make up Clout met as students in Paris and come from all over the globe. They gelled, decided to work together and have so far toured Australia, Germany and Russia – but they are not all allowed into Britain.

These policies have a damaging effect on us all. The restrictions reflect a destructive climate of fear surrounding immigration and this is preventing cross cultural-collaboration. We should open the borders and bin the red tape.