Matthew Westwood, The Australian, reports
The show must go on, but given the angst over bringing foreign artists to these shores, you sometimes wonder that the curtain ever goes up. Jersey Boys, the hit musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, with a great Australian cast, almost came to grief during its Sydney run when five actors left the company or went on leave.
To avoid running the show without a prudent number of leads and covers, producer Rodney Rigby attempted to cast Australian actors in the roles. When that wasn't possible, he approached Equity - the actors' union, part of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance - about importing two foreign actors. "The union simply rejected our proposal," Rigby says.
As the song goes, Rigby decided to walk like a man. He applied to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship - which requires productions with foreign artists to have a net employment benefit - to bring in two actors who had worked on Jersey Boys in North America.
His frustration is palpable: "The choice of artists, to maintain the standard of our production for our audience, is paramount," he says. "We won't compromise on those issues, nor do we want any union or outside party determining artistic merit."
Here's another dimension to the foreign artists debate. Noni Hazlehurst won an AFI award for her role as Cate Blanchett's mum, Janelle, in Rowan Woods's gritty drama Little Fish about drug addiction in Sydney. But she could have missed out on the role and the award because, she says, the producers wanted a big-name foreign actress. "It would have been nonsensical to have had someone American or British," Hazlehurst says. "If Australian actors are only relegated to moths around a flame, we're losing cultural exactitude ... It doesn't have that authenticity."
The vexed issue of foreigners in the performing arts is similar to the bigger debate around protection for local industry. The MEAA wants to secure jobs for Australian actors, singers, dancers and musicians and build a sustainable talent pool. Producers want to go about their business unimpeded and employ foreign artists as they see fit.
During the past two decades the entertainment sector has boomed and the use of foreign performers has been managed through an agreement between industry body Live Performance Australia and the MEAA.
Something has broken. Last month LPA - representing subsidised and commercial producers - tore up its agreement with the MEAA. From June 25, says LPA president Andrew Kay, the union will no longer have veto over casting decisions.
The MEAA has since had shop floor meetings with actors across the country, from the cast of Under Milk Wood, in rehearsal at Sydney Theatre Company, to the Mary Poppins company now in Perth. The union says it will oppose unrestricted use of overseas artists.
The standoff comes at a critical juncture as officials grapple with guidelines on foreign actors, musicians and performers. In the film and television sector, discussions about updating the Foreign Performers Certification Scheme - in place since the early 1990s - appear to have stalled amid protests by actors last year.
In the music world, a plan floated by former arts minister Peter Garrett called the Foreign Music Acts Certification Scheme - requiring tour promoters to hire Australian support acts for international bands - went nowhere.
And Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini told The Australian's Opera 2012 roundtable discussion last month that he wanted to end the quota of 10 foreign singers a year, and hire up to 20.
In the subsidised not-for-profit sector - which includes the national opera and ballet companies - it makes sense that artists developed to maturity with support from the public purse have opportunities to perform, and that taxpayers get to see them.
In this way, OA and the Australian Ballet have become vital companies with strong ensembles of local artists. Open the floodgates to foreigners, the argument goes, and there is no incentive for Australians to stay.
"It is impossible to run an international career from Australia," artist manager Patrick Togher says. "The imported artists' agreement protects the livelihoods of singers who make their homes here. Drop the quota and they will all have to pack suitcases."
The discussion is not only about protecting jobs. Audiences want to see international stars. The ballet periodically invites international guests to Australia - often with the blessing of its dancers - and says the foreign glamour and experience they bring is good for the company.
And OA would not be able to cast its Ring cycle next year without some foreign singers, so rare are experienced Wagnerians in those difficult roles.
The industry agreements on foreign artists date back to the early 90s and some well-publicised instances of foreign casting, including a production of South Pacific.
In recent years, though, it has become rare to see foreigners on the musical stage. We're likelier to find terrific local talent, such as Amanda Harrison and Ben Mingay, the leads in An Officer and a Gentleman opening in Sydney this month.
Indeed, LPA figures show that during the past five years, almost every musical - from Billy Elliot to Wicked and Love Never Dies - has been cast entirely with Australian actors, apart from short-term replacements.
Rigby, who is producing the Australian premiere of The Addams Family in Sydney next year, says he intends to cast Australian actors wherever possible.
"It's an old-fashioned notion," he says, "but Australians like seeing Australians on stage, and when they get an opportunity they like seeing an international star on stage as well."
Part of the frustration with the LPA-MEAA agreement, for commercial producers, was the restriction on them touring foreign shows. Festivals and art centres were not party to the agreement, and this allowed the Sydney Opera House, for example, to program the Broadway drama This is Our Youth, with Michael Cera. Commercial producers want a bigger piece of the action.
It's clear that 20-year-old agreements need to keep pace with the needs of modern show business. But despite LPA assurances that nothing will change - the industry remains bound by the migration regulations, which require union consultation - the accord between producers and performers has ended badly. In a business that thrives on a spirit of collaboration, it points to a breakdown of trust.