Britain’s Clown Shortage: Visa Rules Hit the Circus

Circus performers can twist themselves into pretzels and somersault through rings of fire, but even they are struggling to jump through new hoops set up by the U.K. immigration authorities. In November, the British Home Office introduced a points-based system to crack down on illegal immigration and create what its website describes as “a significantly more straightforward and transparent structure.” It’s easy enough for foreign trapeze artists and acrobats to secure the requisite points for entry into Britain based on their unique skills. But ringmasters say various problems with the new system — including faulty computer software and poorly trained embassy staff — are preventing international talent from reaching Britain’s big tops.

“My season started in February,” says Martin Lacey, owner of the Great British Circus, “and I’ve got comedy acrobats stranded in the Ukraine and Mongolian horse riders who were refused their visas in Ulaanbaatar.” The holes in his lineup have forced Lacey to draft last-minute substitutes. “Our Mexican clown is stuck in Mexico, so we’ve got a trapeze artist pretending to be a stooge just to get everybody out of trouble,” he says. “It’s a mess.”

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And it’s totally incompatible with the needs of Britain’s circus sector. According to Malcolm Clay, secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain, British circus schools don’t produce artists at an acceptable standard, largely because their students refine skills like tightrope-walking or fire-breathing as a hobby, not as part of a lifelong career. As a result, British circuses rely on artists from countries with long-established histories of state-sponsored circus schools: they call on Argentina and Colombia for their renowned high-wire acts, China and North Korea for acrobats, and Mongolia and Russia for horse riders. (Interestingly, they don’t need to import bearded ladies.) About 500 circus performers enter the U.K. annually, and roughly half of them must obtain short-term visas because they come from outside the European Union.

“It’s a pity, but this problem is all over Europe,” says Arie Oudenes, managing director of the European Circus Association, a trade group that represents the interests of 120 circuses. But British proprietors believe that Britain’s red tape has made their challenge more acute. The website through which foreign applicants must now register has reportedly crashed multiple times. Plus, there’s a more general question of access. “A lot of families in Mongolia don’t have computers,” Lacey says. “These are genuine riders who tend to their horses and work with their flocks when they’re not working in the circus. To ask them to go online and fill out a form is just crazy. They can get to the nearest town and post a letter, and that’s about it.”

Performers must also leave their passports with British embassies for up to two weeks, a regulation that doesn’t suit the itinerant lifestyle of circus stars, whose contracts may see them tumbling or clowning in several countries within the span of a month.

But circuses know that the show must go on, and they’re already taking action. On March 3, Clay testified before the House of Commons’ Home Affairs Select Committee about the need to bring embassy workers up to speed on the rules and to rework technicalities. Recently, Clay says, dancers, musicians and tumblers from Zimbabwe who have performed at British festivals every year since 1998 were rejected because embassy staff felt the troupe could not prove it had sufficient funds to support itself in the U.K., despite having contracts and a spotless track record. “How can they [show sufficient funds], with Zimbabwe’s appalling rate of inflation?” he asks.

Despite its hiccups, the new system does improve upon its predecessor. Previously, a Venezuelan juggler would have to fly back to Caracas to apply for an extension, and by the time he made it back to England, his troupe may have moved on to Italy; now he can apply while working in the U.K. The old system also gave British embassies too much discretion in determining whether performers deserved their visas. Clay remembers a particularly troublesome ordeal last year involving a Chinese trapeze act, in which two boys swinging on distant lines would throw a somersaulting female performer between them. “The embassy gave visas to the two boys because they had previously worked in the West,” he recalls, “but they refused the girl simply because she hadn’t.”

Now host circuses can vouch for a performer’s suitability using their own criteria — a way of passing the responsibility for compliance from the Home Office to the employer. “If an artist doesn’t behave, then it’s going to reflect on us,” Clay says. Of course, in an industry where men and women can twirl machetes blindfolded while standing on wild horses, it’s a risk they’re happy to take.