For Immigrant Arts Graduates, Chasing the Right to Stay in Ireland Can Mean Abandoning Dreams

On Thursday evening, Pai Rathaya sat on her knees on the ground between rows of theatre chairs, looking up at the set she had designed.

For Animals, a modern take on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, written and directed by Louise White, Rathaya’s vision was a practical mise-en-scéne in which every prop serves a purpose.

There are drums and a guitar on the ground level of a propped-up platform. Bicycle wheels and a plaid robe hang on the wall next to the music equipment.

A small desk and a few chairs are on the floor around grocery baskets stacked on top of each other.

The levels, Rathaya says, represent differences in class status.

“I’m not trying to build any pretend world; I tried to be very true to the script,” she whispered, as the rehearsal continued on stage.

A thin layer of fog hugged the stage inside Trinity College Dublin’s Samuel Beckett Theatre. An actor stood on a makeshift platform, blowing at a lit lighter to draw a larger flame.

After a while, Rathaya got to her feet. She climbed onto the stage to join Gavin Kennedy, a lighting technician, holding a takeaway cup.

“Do you want to say something nice about me? You were supposed to marry me,” says Rathaya, jokingly as she gently touches him on the shoulder.

Rathaya’s friends and colleagues know all about her immigration difficulties. One friend set up an online petition, calling on the government to let her stay.

But art graduates like Rathaya from outside of the European Union who are looking to stay and work as creatives face tall barriers.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said art graduates have time on Stamp 1Gs to find jobs, get work permits and move onto Stamp 1s.

Artists could also try to come and work in the country on short-term permissions by applying through the atypical working scheme, they said.

But most show-business jobs are freelance gigs. You can’t get a work permit if you’re working freelance, says Rathaya.

Technically, you can’t work freelance on the post-graduate Stamp 1G that she is on now either, she says. “I have to be a payee. I have to be on the payroll to work.”

Killian Coyle, Animals’ creative producer, says Rathaya brought much-needed diversity to the set and a different approach to set design because of her background.

“Representation benefits the work,” said Coyle. “If you present the society in theatre as a White image of itself, it’s not really accurate because that’s not what Ireland is today.”

Yet while more magazine spreads may show immigrant artists and government announcements stress the diversity of programming at events, little has been done to remove systemic barriers that some immigrant artists face when trying to stay in Ireland and build careers in the arts.

Rathaya says her colleagues often complain about the industry’s lack of international diversity and that it is too White. “I’m like, ‘Because the law doesn’t allow us to stay,’” she says, smiling.

Made to be Broken

Rathaya moved to Ireland from Thailand in August 2018, enrolling in an MA in stage design at the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin.

On her graduate immigration permit, she has worked on different projects.

But it’s unrealistic to expect drama graduates to get professional work experience without accepting freelance jobs, says Rathaya. “It’s just impossible.”

This year, she won an Irish Times Theatre Award for best set design alongside Alyson Cummins for the set of Volcano, a miniseries directed and choreographed by Luke Murphy.

Rathaya also designed the set of the stage adaptation of John B. Keane’s novella, Letters of a Country Postman, which ran this summer at Cork’s Everyman Theatre.

In total, she has designed sets for 17 productions and assisted in 10 shows, she says.

Pai Rathaya watches the stage of the Samuel Beckett Theatre. Photo by Shamim Malekmian.

In Thailand, Rathaya had studied architecture but hated the job’s hyperfocus on serving clients’ tastes, she said. “There is a very small gap for me to express myself.”

On Thursday, Killian Coyle, Animals’ creative producer, pulled up a chair behind a table in a meeting room above the stage of the Samuel Beckett Theatre, and put down a small bottle of fruit-infused water.

Coyle has a freelance career, like most other people in his industry, he says. “I’m self-employed. I’m always between jobs.”

Once Animals wraps up, he has other jobs to move on to, but there are often gaps, he says. “Which is the consequences of the way it works.”

It’s rare for creatives in the theatre industry to get hired on full-time contracts, he says.

A venue may sometimes decide to hire for in-house positions, he says. “But if you’re a director, if you’re a producer, if you’re a designer, and you’re not working inside these institutions, you’re not gonna get full-time employment.”

Projects are generally too short to justify long-term employment, he says.

No Compromise on Freedom

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment does offer a sports and cultural employment permit.

But jobs and employers are subjected to several terms and conditions. Besides, that permit isn’t for self-employed workers, although the department may issue some seasonal permits.

“Sport and Cultural Employment Permits may be issued for differing periods depending on whether the contract of employment is full-time up to a maximum of 2 years, or seasonal,” says the department’s website.

Between January and September 2022, the Department of Employment granted 243 work permits to workers in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector, according to its official figures. It’s not clear if those permits have gone to creatives and, if so, in which fields.

In the same window, it issued nearly 9,000 work permits for “information and communication activities”, the figures show.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t say if it would consider granting long-term residency to a number of art graduates each year to live and work here without employment permits.

Rathaya’s extension on a 1G stamp runs out in February next year.

She says she can probably get a job in architecture, which is on the Department of Employment list of jobs with a shortage of Irish and European workers and so more likely to get a permit.

That would get Rathaya the right to stay to do what she loves on the side. Everyone has told her that, she says, but going back and backwards isn’t easy.

“I quit that job already to move on to the theatre to do what I love here. I don’t want to return to that,” she says.

Even outside the arts, immigrant graduates have said they have accepted any job that sponsored a work permit and the right to stay, even if they felt unfulfilled or unhappy.

A 2021 joint report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission pointed to the dearth of research in gauging things like job satisfaction and job control among migrants.

Coyle, the creative director, says telling Rathaya to get a job as an architect and presenting that as a solution is wrong. “That’s not an answer.”

If someone in the government thinks it is, he says, they fail to empathise with the situation.

“Why don’t you get an architecture job? Because you don’t have to because you’re doing what you’re meant to do,” he says.

Coyle says if the government let Rathaya stay, she wouldn’t remain jobless for long stretches.

“She has continuously worked since she’d been here,” says Coyle. “She hasn’t had a period of longer than a few weeks of unemployment.”

If he knew she was able to stay, he would book her for next year’s jobs, he says.

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Author:

Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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