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Regional growing pains and world politics influence local theater productions

Why focus on the things Triangle audiences won't be seeing on regional stages this year in a season preview? No disrespect intended to the myriad of live artists and presenters in the area, but the factors and forces keeping certain acts out of the spotlights this year are just as interesting--and as legitimate a subject of inquiry--as many of the spectacles we'll see.

Construction delays on Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill have prompted a Carolina Union Performing Arts Series without theater or dance this year. Meanwhile, the spot that fictional creature, Raleigh-Durham, occupies in the nation's demographics locks us firmly into the second string of national--and non-union--Broadway touring productions. But even if it didn't, would local promoters consider edgy shows like Hairspray or Wicked--Broadway smashes both, and both touring the country this year (but not stopping here)--still a little too risky for local tastes?

In the meantime, local theaters like Deep Dish soldier on, even though those holding the rights to that stunning death-penalty play, The Exonerated, still haven't told them if they can actually produce the show six months from now.

And all of that comes before the politics of cultural brinksmanship that will effectively keep all artists from Haiti, Colombia and Cuba off American stages for the foreseeable future. And the particularly twisted geopolitics this past week that yanked the Rotimi Foundation and Duke Performances' co-production of the National Troupe of Nigeria off the stage during the upcoming inauguration of Duke's new president, Richard Brodhead.

Combined, they constitute more than enough reason to keep an eye off stage this year in particular and to ask, "What are we missing--and why?"

One thing some patrons might not realize as they make the trek to Hill Hall and the UNC Student Union this fall: There almost wasn't a Carolina Union Performing Arts Series this year.

As marketing director Jennifer Smith describes it, the Union initially planned to delay their season until Memorial Hall's anticipated opening in January 2005. Then word came down that the building wouldn't be ready until late spring.

Not certain what to do, management polled individual ticket buyers and season subscribers. "They resoundingly said, 'We'll fit in the less than perfect conditions in Hill Hall for another year--just give us a series,'" Smith notes. "So we did--and we wait patiently for Memorial."

But the size of the temporary venues has significantly reduced the number of acts CUPAS has been able to choose from. "Normally we're used to choosing performances for 1,600 people," Smith says. "Now we can only seat 700 people, [so] the number of performers we could select from was narrowed."

In the process, theater and dance have been effectively removed from this year's menu. Though ballet has gone missing since Memorial Hall closed--"without wings in a theater you can't have ballet," Smith says--experiments with smaller companies like Taylor 2 and Pilobolus Too proved less than successful.

"We keep looking to the future," Smith concludes. "We'll have a big stage next year."

Paul Frellick, the artistic director for the Deep Dish Theater Company, wants the world to know he wants to do The Exonerated, the celebrated nonfiction play that chronicles the death-row experiences of people who have ultimately been proven innocent.

"It's one of those plays that's certainly demanding to be done right now, particularly in North Carolina," Frellick notes. "The issue is on a lot of folks' minds now and in the legislature."

He'd like to direct it this winter. Will he get to do it? Only Dramatists Play Service knows--and they're not saying.

They hold the performance rights to The Exonerated in the United States. They've granted rights to Charlotte Repertory Theater during the same time frame Deep Dish wants it, February 2005. A production of The Exonerated also played at Greensboro's Broach Theater last week.

But DPS has played things a lot closer to the vest with Deep Dish. "They said their instructions were that they were not able to license the production at this time--but to check back with them in a couple of months," says Frellick.

In the meantime, the drama at Deep Dish is no longer strictly limited to the stage. Stay tuned.

Kathy Silbiger at Duke Performances (the new name for the former Duke Institute of the Arts) was shocked to learn last week that a promising co-partnership with Durham's Rotimi Foundation to bring the National Troupe of Nigeria to America had collapsed on what appeared to be the verge of success. The troupe was scheduled to perform The Gods Are Not to Blame, a play by Ola Rotimi, at Duke Sept. 16-17--during the inaugural celebration for new Duke President Richard Brodhead.

It's certainly not the first time in recent years Silbiger has gambled--and lost--on an attempt to present international theater and dance in an age of heightened restrictions on travel into the United States. More on that in a moment.

But the circumstances surrounding this disaster fell outside the tricky timetables that have arguably advanced a form of cultural brinksmanship on the part of the Bush administration. When Nigerian cultural minister Ojo Madueke was politically ousted from his post several weeks ago, visa processing for artists in that country ground to a halt. "Even so, we kept getting assurances that things were going forward with the new guy," Silbiger says.

But visas must be granted before Nigerian airlines will even sell a plane ticket. And organizers there and here watched as delays--and subsequent increases in airfare prices--swiftly put the show out of business.

"Initially, we could have brought them over for $1,200 apiece," Silbiger notes. "But the closer you get to travel time, the more expensive the airfare gets. By the end it would have cost over $90,000 in airfare alone to bring them.

"All I can say is that it's risky to do international work these days in the best of circumstances. And these were not the best of circumstances," Silbiger says.

The news comes as a blow to Kole Heyward-Rotimi, the playwright's son who moved to the area over a year ago and who has attempted to further intercultural communication by producing his father's work. The comedy was to be by far the Foundation's largest project since its inception last year.

Duke Performances has taken more than its share of hits in recent years in their attempts to present international theater and dance. Adding to several cancelled musical shows, a concert by Odissi dancer Poushali Chatterjee was cancelled last year due to visa problems. Duke's attempts this season to invite Ballet Cutumba, an Afro-Cuban dance group, were rebuffed when the group cancelled their entire tour on the likelihood that they couldn't get the proper visas.

Other presenters have lost shows as well, at times from unlikely sources. Canada couldn't send Ontario-based Dulcinea Langfelder and Company in time for a scheduled 2001 production of Victoria, a show about aging, at Durham's Carolina Theatre.

The management at N.C. State's Center Stage series can only hope for a different outcome. They've scheduled Langfelder's show Nov. 20 at Stewart Theatre. "We've had one or two close calls over the past couple of years," notes impresario Mark Tulbert, who puts Arts International's film/theater fusion work El Automovil Gris on the recent endangered list.

"One of the things that has trained us to do," Tulbert says, "is to look where a performance date is landing on their tour. Sometimes you have to take a date whenever you can get it, but being on the front end of an international tour would be enough to make us stop and look at it."

Center Stage is presenting four international acts this fall, three of them in theater and dance. Besides Langfelder, London's Aquilla Theater presents The Invisible Man Oct. 14, before Aboriginal Australian modern dance company Bangarra brings Bush to Stewart Theatre Oct. 28.

Carolina Theatre takes its chances with school-day showings by Ballet Gran Folklorico de Mexico on Nov. 1.

But what makes international booking so difficult--and why?

According to Washington attorney Jonathan Ginsburg, author of the Web site www.artistsfromabroad.org, the answer involves security, politics and money.

Gaining entry to the country is a two-step process. The first part, making an application, goes through the Department of Homeland Security. The second part, the interview and fingerscan, is administered through the Department of State.

To say the least, the two do not always work in perfect harmony.

Four processing centers in the United States handle all applications for foreign visitors. On Aug. 30, the four were processing visa applications for artists--officially classified as I-129/O - Extraordinary ability & P - Athletes, artists and entertainers--filed between June 17 and June 25.

The Department now tracks the specific delays for each category and updates the results biweekly on the Internet. North Carolina is served by the Texas Service Center, on the Web at https//:egov.immigration.gov/cris/jsps/Processtimes.jsp?SeviceCenter=Texas.

Once an application has been approved, the foreign artist then has to schedule a visa interview at the embassy in their home country.

Further delay is par for the course. Once again, the government has begun to post on the Internet just how long prospective performers have to wait to be seen, on a country-by-country basis, at travel.state.gov/visa/tempvisitors_wait.php.

When we clicked on the scrollable menu at the bottom of the page on Aug. 30, we saw that artists in London had to wait 31 days for an interview appointment. Paris listed 41 days. Prague, only eight.

Bogota, Colombia, on the other hand, listed a 112-day delay. Port Au Prince, Haiti: 153 days. And applicants from Havana had to wait 184 days just to get an interview.

"But you have to put it all together now," cautions Ginsburg. "A presenter can't file more than six months in advance of the need for the artist's services."

Six months, minus 112 days for a visa interview, minus a seven-week delay for initial application approval, minus delays in transmitting this information overseas, minus the time after final approval to arrange transportation--scheduling flights, showing up and taking off. Add the numbers up and you don't expect to see Colombian, Haitian or Cuban artists on American stages any time soon.

Of course, you can cut the red tape on the application side--if you have an extra $1,000 to spend. That's what U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services charges to expedite applications. "I like to describe it as a very Republican program," Ginsburg chuckles. "It's the administration of what I believe to be essential governmental services based on your ability to pay. Where does that principle stop?"

Excluding those nations designated as political pariahs, Ginsburg estimates that the process of procuring international artists is "no more than 5 or 10 percent" more complex than it ever was.

"It's more intimidating, perhaps," he adds.

Melissa Schwartz, of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, respects the role the government has to take to ensure the nation's security, but adds, "There's got to be a way to strike a balance between caution and access to the arts for the public, and we haven't hit it yet. At a time when international cultural exchange is of the greatest value to the United States, this is not good."

Ginsburg believes there has been a chilling process in the degree to which presenters have become willing to gamble on international bookings. "It's only now that we're beginning to realize that our more militant conduct at the border has had a chilling effect. We're now starting to try to find ways to smooth things out. We can only hope that consular personnel have in mind their traditional mission to properly represent the United States to the world and encourage the cultural exchange."

Surveying regional presenters, one finds a mix of responses to the situation.

"From the outset, I am careful not to engage in an artist negotiation where the presenter is expected to file for visas and such," says Connie Campanaro at Carolina Theatre. "As a rule, as soon as I see that, I just beg off. That's before September 11; that's just always been my way of doing business."

On Nov. 20, Carolina Theatre will present Gregory Popovich, a Russian clown formerly with the Moscow Circus--and now a U.S. citizen. On May 4, Sones de Mexico will bring the huapango, gustos, chilenas, son jarocho and mariachi song forms of Mexico to regional audiences--from their home base in Chicago.

Other presenters admit to being tempted to book intercultural acts from transplant communities in large American cities.

While Stephen Barefoot, executive director of the North Carolina Presenters Consortium, admits "all of us have felt and experienced some frustrations," he notes members have tried to guard against becoming "less motivated" in booking foreign artists.

"Other than making me a little anxious at times, I don't think the difficulties have impacted our booking decisions," says Center Stage's Tulbert. "We haven't let it hinder us at all," notes Smith at Carolina Union.

The morning that Duke lost the Nigerian troupe, Silbiger still held her head up.

"You have to take a certain kind of risk," she said. "It's important to do that, and not just artistically. I just feel that international exchange is important to all of us understanding one another and tearing down the boundaries of misinformation and mistrust."

It's a bracing aesthetic.

One hopes we actually get to see it on regional stages this season.

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