The idea that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague has become a tired trope on social media. And yet a reference to it resurfaces on my Twitter feed almost daily – a wry reminder that under normal circumstances, weeks of a free calendar could be the perfect time to create. But these aren’t normal circumstances, and free time during a pandemic just doesn’t feel as fruitful as the clear afternoon you always needed to start writing that play.
The theatre community has responded compassionately to the Covid-19 crisis, quickly creating hardship funds, Zoom check-ins and social media posts reassuring us that it’s okay to take a break. For me, however, the pressure to create has never been higher: I’m an immigrant. With the arts industry at a standstill, we risk losing a generation of emerging migrant artists like myself whose ability to live and work in the UK is predicated on their artistic productivity and financial standing.
Like many migrants who come to the UK to pursue the arts, I’ve held a hodgepodge of visas: a Tier 4 student visa for my master’s degree, the Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur visa (twice) to start my theatre company, and currently, a Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme visa thanks to my dual Canadian-American citizenship. When coronavirus hit the UK, I was on a mission to secure the holy grail of visas for an artist wishing to establish themselves in the UK: the Global Talent visa.
If the Home Office were the Louvre, the Global Talent visa would be the Mona Lisa
If the Home Office were the Louvre, the Global Talent visa (formerly Tier 1 Exceptional Talent) would be the Mona Lisa. It is prized for its length, flexibility and security, and in recent months, the annual cap of 2,000 successful applicants was removed. The visa has two routes: Exceptional Talent, awarded to people who have established themselves as trailblazers in their field, and Exceptional Promise, for emerging leaders.
Applicants must first apply to an industry-specific body (in my case, Arts Council England), which assesses the quality of a portfolio and make an endorsement decision, and then to the Home Office for the official visa. Unlike many work visas, Global Talent allows migrants to be self-employed without restriction, and unlike other shorter-term visas that offer no recourse to settle, this visa offers three to five years of leave to remain, culminating in the opportunity to apply for permanent residency.
I know I’m in good company when I share that all of my artistic projects have been postponed indefinitely. I’m a theatre director and a producer, and when the pandemic hit, I had spent the last six months planning a tour in May and an Edinburgh Fringe run in August.
Artistically, it’s frustrating not knowing when I’ll next be in a room with my creative teams. From an immigration perspective, I lie awake at night wondering how I will collate the required work samples, press clippings and recommendation letters needed to receive endorsement in the event that social distancing forbids theatre productions for months, or even years.
Aside from losing crucial opportunities to share their work and receive the required media attention to apply for the Global Talent visa, migrant artists face increased personal and financial challenges. Closed borders divide us from family members for an unknown length of time. While all immigrants are taxpayers, most visas do not allow ‘recourse to public funds’, meaning immigrants are not eligible for Universal Credit.
Many migrants are not eligible for relief funds from their home countries due to residency or tax absences. The NHS surcharge migrants pay is set to increase from £400 to £624 per year this autumn, and migrants must pay this surcharge for the full length of their visa up-front. This is all on top of the minimum funds migrants must demonstrate they have in their bank accounts, solicitors’ fees and the cost of the visa itself. With the financial precarity mass unemployment has caused, many migrants will likely be unable to afford the renewal of permits that allow them to live and work in the UK.
While all immigrants are taxpayers, most visas do not allow ‘recourse to public funds’, meaning immigrants are not eligible for Universal Credit
While the Home Office currently allows migrants whose visas expire during lockdown to remain in the country until May 31, I suspect there will be little flexibility with regards to visa end dates and endorsement conditions once the lockdown is over. The worldwide moratorium on theatrical performances is rendering my window to become someone the Arts Council deems to have ‘Exceptional Promise’ smaller and smaller.
Despite taking part in the overwhelming amount of new opportunities created by venues and companies in the hopes of gaining what I need for endorsement, albeit digitally, I worry about standing out among the deluge of content. Why would audiences or reviewers consider a monologue lovingly directed over a patchy Zoom connection when multi-camera National Theatre productions stream for free? Pivoting to work for the screen is an entirely new skill set – I admire the digital arts, but I am not a digital artist. As Canadian artist Ken Schwartz wrote: “I feel like a cobbler in a world of people who no longer wear shoes.”
To be an emerging artist, let alone one who relies on a mosaic of visas, is a difficult but worthy path. And despite migrant artists having sparser professional networks to rely on for hiring opportunities, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport reports that one in 10 creative jobs is held by a non-UK national.
There is a reason that thousands of us fight through the red tape to work in the UK arts industry – it is an innovative, artistically rich and diverse pool of people, and productions are made even richer and more diverse by immigrants. Without us, British artistic institutions would lack the international prestige they currently enjoy. I urge the proverbial ‘gatekeepers’ to seek our talent and drive, but also to consider our needs when making casting, funding, reviewing, programming and hiring decisions during lockdown and beyond.
After all, even Shakespeare had patrons supporting him while he wrote Lear.