By Jonathan Mandell
Performers from more than 70 countries have appeared at New York City’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club 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 downtown playhouse presented three separate productions (count ’em, three!) of The Tempest by companies from three different nations.
As with almost any show performed in the U.S. by international artists, though, La MaMa’s Tempest series faced formidable hurdles—the project’s logistical storms began gathering well before the fictional ones were depicted onstage. Just getting troupes to America can cost many months, thousands of dollars and a fair amount of headaches—and that proved all too true in La MaMa’s case.
“There has to be a way that artists can move more freely,” says artistic director Mia Yoo, who inherited her leadership post from the theatre’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.
Now, at a time when many arts advocates see visits by international artists as increasingly important, it can be maddeningly difficult to make such ventures happen. That was one of the clear messages that emerged from the Cultural Mobility Symposium (CMS) held at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center of the City University of New York Graduate Center in January. Some 300 gathered to share complaints and learn what resources are available to overcome the many obstacles. The “Cultural Mobility Funding Guide for the U.S.A.: Theatre, Dance and the Performing Arts” was launched online on the day of the conference, listing more than 150 potential funders for U.S. artists who want to go abroad to perform, study or train, and for U.S. venues that want to bring foreign artists here.
“The U.S. artistic community is mostly unaware of what’s going on around the world, and U.S. artists are better informed than the general American community,” said David Diamond, an organizer of the CMS as a member of Theatre Without Borders, an 11-year-old network of individuals and organizations who work to connect artists globally.
By Jonathan Mandell