Wednesday, October 1, was supposed to be the day UCLA Live’s seventh annual International Theatre Festival launched, with the U.S. premiere of adapter-director Barry Kosky’s staging of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” — a one-man performance featuring Austrian actor Martin Niedermair. It’s not happening because Niedermair isn’t coming. He would like to come, but the Department of Homeland Security has denied his visa — at the behest of Actors Equity, which has determined that the role, being recited in English, could conceivably be played by an American. Homeland Security routinely checks in with the appropriate labor union in order to make a determination of whether to grant a work-related visa.
Actors Equity spokesperson Maria Somma told L.A.Weekly that Traffic Control Group, the organization subcontracted by UCLA Live to petition for artists’ visas, submitted paperwork calling the performance culturally unique. “We rejected that because we didn’t find anything that was culturally unique about it,” she said. “We believed an American could do this role.”
David Sefton, director of UCLA Live, sees it quite differently: “This is a default position that has absolutely no basis in logic,” he says, adding that the work was written specifically for Niedermair. The production was invited for five performances at UCLA as its U.S. premiere. An international theater festival is not in the same category as a Broadway or off-Broadway run, for which Equity’s “protectionist” policies are intended.
“Every case is individual,” Somma replies. “We look at the totality and the specific situation.”
But Sefton argues that Equity failed to comprehend the totality of the situation. “We’re not in the business of recasting shows and re-rehearsing shows,” he explains. “That’s never been what our festival is supposed to be about,” which is showcasing the most intriguing productions from other cities and nations. Furthermore, Sefton adds, “What gives [Equity] the right to determine what’s culturally unique for a curated festival that has achieved international recognition?”
Sefton says it’s his job to select works for the festival on the basis of exactly that criterion. Since when did Equity become his supervisor, with veto power? “The whole thing has a kind of Soviet labor-union mentality to it,” he says.
Somma counters that Traffic Control Group then, on appeal, suggested that Niedermair’s performance “supports the director,” and that Equity was having none of it.
“Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Sefton notes, adding that Equity’s logic denies even the right to appeal. “If your petition has been denied, of course any appeal is going to be based on a new argument.”
What if Mabou Mines were a German company performing in English? And what if they did A Doll’s House in English, which everybody does, but with dwarfs and what have you — which they actually did? If they were from Düsseldorf, would Equity have denied them the right to perform here because American dwarfs were being denied employment?
The “totality of the situation” is that with the denial of Niedermair’s visa, no American actor is being denied employment, and never would be; the show is simply not being performed here, and that’s our loss. UCLA’s attorneys are appealing the decision to both Equity and the Department of Homeland Security, with the hopes of presenting “The Tell-Tale Heart” later in the season.
A few years ago, reflecting on The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, presented early at his then-new Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson remarked on the death of the docudrama, saying that theater couldn’t compete with the ability of the video camera to capture the microscopic physical detail and subtext of people being interviewed, and what they reveal behind and beneath their words and gestures. This Beautiful City co-writers Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, working with songwriter-lyricist Michael Friedman and New York–based theater company the Civilians, demonstrate that one creative solution to this puzzle is to use musical theater to inflate the scale of the presentation rather than try to put it under the microscope of video-cam naturalism.
This Beautiful City, an ode to Colorado Springs, follows multiple views from all of the local political and theological angles, as pastor Ted Haggard rolls into town, sets up his megachurch and takes a dive when he’s outed and finally confesses to using meth. The six-actor company (Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Herberlee, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller, Cosson and Lewis) depicts a range of residents whom the actors interviewed, from resident atheists and religious zealots to one transgender “girl.” Mercifully, these are not parodies that load the argument in order to spoon-feed what a lefty audience in Culver City wants to hear. (For that, see Bill Maher’s documentary, Religulous.) Rather, these are interpretations reaching for the deepest and most sincere comprehension of the characters, of how life’s agonies turn into religious conversions, how God and Jesus become substitutes for a kind of unqualified love and compassion that simply doesn’t exist in Colorado Springs, or anywhere else on Earth.
Some of the interviews are sung in styles ranging from rockabilly to gospel — a four-piece band sits perched high stage-left, while sermons by evangelists and Baptist preachers have their own, innate brand of musicality and choreography. The piece is too long — the rise and fall of Haggard defines its rhythm, but it keeps going for another 20 minutes, as though it’s caught between its commitment to be a musical, docudramatic portrait of a city and the almost classical Greek study of one megachurch leader’s hubris. Right now, it’s trying to be both. Still, if you want to understand this country, and why the good citizens of Silver Lake and Soho are so perplexed by the way things unfold here, Colorado Springs is a pretty good place to start. And if you want to understand Colorado Springs, the Civilians have brought it to life through such an earnest investigation, it’ll inspire you and scare the crap out of you, sometimes in the same breath.
THIS BEAUTIFUL CITY | By STEVEN COSSON and JIM LEWIS | Presented by THE CIVILIANS and the VINEYARD THEATRE, New York City | Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | (213) 628-2772 | Through Oct. 26