Global Influences: Enriching Local Theatre with International Artists in the Age of Nationalism

In May 2019, Seattle theatre company On the Boards was on the cusp of presenting its long-awaited and carefully prepared production of choreographer and performer Ligia Lewis’s Sorrow Swag and minor matter. As Artistic Director Rachel Cook said in a letter to the community, “Ligia Lewis uses the core elements of performance – lights, sounds, the theater space, and the body – to explore race, abstraction, and the politics of embodiment. The performers she selects to be included in her works are a crucial element of the pieces themselves.” There was just one “i” still undotted, though:  the visa  application to bring the dancer Ligia Lewis chose for the role was, inexplicably, still awaiting US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) approval. It was a week before the performance.

Then the notice came. USCIS denied the O-1 visa for lack of sufficient showing by the artist of outstanding artistic achievement, according to the company’s news release about the denial and the last-minute substitution of another dancer for the role. What chaos! As a playwright, Artistic Director for the Salon, and a producer, as well as an immigration attorney, I know the months of preparation put in by many artists and theatre professionals for each show, and the scramble that broken links cause, especially at the last minute.  On the Boards and Ligia Lewis rallied heroically from this reverse, but the lesson learned for other theatre companies and theatre artists may be a perverse one:  stay away from international artists.  This administration’s militant isolationism can’t be cracked.

No!

I’m writing urgently to counsel the opposite. Don’t let the administration’s fear of the foreign shut off our artistic wellsprings, or we die of suffocation. This is a call to action. I know this is true:  if we fight back, arguing the law and precedent, and in some cases choose a different strategy, our chances of winning go up from zero with the denial, to nearly 90% with the appeal or change in strategy. Theatre community, we have the law on our side!  The law has not changed in more than two decades: the standard for granting artistic visas remains the same. Practice, though, has tightened dramatically under Trump’s administration, and forces us to up our practice too.

I hear what you may be thinking:  who has time and money for this? Especially theatre companies, with budgets stretched to the limit, and USCIS processing times ballooning to double the wait since 2016. I hear you!  So few of us have the resources and time to dream big, and bring in the international artists that enrich our theatre community with their ideas, their cultural foundations, their practices, and their differing understandings of theatre.

I don’t know the details of the application USCIS denied for On the Boards. The company is keeping the artist’s identity private, as they should. I do know from the news release that On The Boards applied for an O-1 visa;  that means they would have had to prove that the artist possessed “extraordinary ability.”  This is the highest standard of artistic achievement, and almost certainly would have to include having received awards at the top of the profession, equivalent in the home country of our Tony awards. I don’t know why On The Boards chose this visa, so I can’t second-guess them or their attorney on this.  I do know that the standard for applying for a P-3 visa for artists is much lower – it does not include a showing of ability at all, although it is usually included – and allows for up to one year in the US. 

I know it’s too late to start again for this particular performer and telling a theatre which visa they should apply for is not my point. I can’t know that without knowing the details, and the performance is over.  The company invested many hours and dollars in this attempt, and plans are likely in the making for next year’s performances  The company, and many other local companies watching in sympathy and anger, may feel burned by this experience, and may shy away from trying again.

Therefore, a proposal. There are experienced attorneys in town who care deeply about the arts. A number of them volunteer through Washington Lawyers for the Arts, and they have made a lasting impact in the lives of individual artists of all kinds, and the organizations that support them. But the practice of immigration law is highly specialized, and those who don’t practice in this area are rightly cautious about taking on a set of sometimes arcane and often byzantine administrative statutes, and the court precedents and agency decisions that have grown up around them. I propose a group of immigration attorneys who volunteer their time in annual training sessions for theatres, and regular problem-solving individual consultations, as well as take on pro bono cases to bring in international artists, and solve the immigration problems of those artists already in the US. Why we’ll volunteer: many of us find that artists are fun to work with and we value cultural diversity, as a bedrock reason for choosing immigration law as our profession.

Giving up is not an option when the issue is as important as our access to global theatre influences:  teaching artists, performers, playwrights, directors, and the whole panoply of theatre artists. Artists world-wide have much to give and teach each other, in person, and not just on a screen. Theatre is a physical art in three-dimensions, with human bodies required. A group of volunteer immigration attorneys, perhaps enough to ask Washington Lawyers for the Arts (WLA)  to add us as a panel and handle the administration, won’t work magic in every situation.  But we can do our best, and insist that the laws are applied fairly. And with our minds set on fairness, armed with the power of informed, strategic resistance, we can keep our cultural channels open. 

Theatre companies,  use your regular communication channels to ask theatre-loving immigration attorneys to contact me at modonnell@globallawadvocates.com.  With at least five attorneys, I can ask WLA to consider administering a panel of pro bono immigration attorneys for theatre.  I also pledge, if theatre companies request it, to put together experienced attorneys for a training on the visa process, so that more companies start the process early and know the options to bringing and also keeping international artists among us.  Onward!

Written by Margaret O’Donnell, a long-time Seattle immigration attorney, located in the Georgetown neighborhood.

Reading Opportunities for Local Playwrights: More Things in Heaven and Earth Than Are Dreamt Of, Horacio…

Until Kate Danley, Seattle representative for the Dramatist Guild (DG), brought together a group of six theatre companies/organizations on May 19th for a panel presentation on opportunities to develop our scripts through readings, I bet most of us didn’t have a clue about how many ways there are in the Puget Sound region to get our work in development out of the data bank and into the hands of readers and actors. I didn’t and developmental readings are a main focus of Seattle Playwrights Salon.

Here’s a brief recap of the opportunities available, with a list of more options DG members provided at the May 19th meeting in Theatre Puget Sound’s Studio C.

Seattle Playwrights Salon: Submit scripts any time for consideration for monthly open, staged readings in Georgetown, Seattle, with directors and actors provided and paid a stipend; occasional closed readings with actors and director provided; writers’ groups, and a weekend boot camp coming in November. More classes, intensives, writing events, play bake-offs, and playwrights’ gatherings are in the works.

Matcha Theatre Works: Inquire about new scripts by women for regularly-scheduled staged readings.

Albatross Theatre Laboratory: Playwrights, directors, and other theatre artists can submit scripts, resumes, and proposals to: albatross.theatre.lab@gmail.com

Parley Productions: Open staged readings, preceded by discussion, development, and production for a group of up to 13 playwrights. Inquire about group membership.

Seattle Playwrights Circle: Contact the group and inquire about the next meeting, and then show up at the Driftwood Theatre in Edmonds. Ask first about protocol for readings.

The Umbrella Project: Dramaturg services to get you ready for the next stage of development.

Rain City Projects: From the website: “We ignite solidarity in the Seattle-area playwriting community with lively brunches, salons, readings, writing retreats, and speed dating between writers and directors.” See the site for event information, and attend! Inquire at raincityprojectsinfo@gmail.com.

DG members also mentioned:

Seattle Playwrights Studio, closed readings with playwrights to discuss in Burien Actors Theatre. Meeting when they have a script to read. Contact Steve Feldman to inquire: stephanfeldman@gmail.com

Drunken Owl Theatre, reading mostly short scripts monthly at Parliament Tavern in West Seattle. Inquire at: ksfinns@comcast.net

There may be more! Let us know if we’ve missed anyone, and we’ll add them into the list. Also, there may be more services each of these groups offers to playwrights. Contact them! Don’t forget: you can always create your own kitchen-table reads, bake-offs, and social events for playwrights. Email us at seattleplaywrightssalon@gmail.com to see if we can help.

Fall Playwriting Workshop

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Mark your calendars for November 8-10 for an intensive playwriting workshop! The Salon is thrilled to bring nationally renowned instructor Andrea Stolowitz to Seattle this fall for a weekend full of inspired playwriting. Andrea is the Lacroute Playwright-in-Residence at Artists Repertory Theater where she has just received a new play commission. She is a member of New Dramatists class of 2024 and a core member at The Playwrights’ Center. Her plays have been developed and presented nationally and internationally at theaters such as The Long Wharf, The Old Globe, The Cherry Lane, and New York Stage and Film. Stay tuned for more details about early registration.

Salon Playwright Hits it out of the Park with First Play

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When James Eychaner of Olympia made his first-ever submission of his first play, the ten-minute One Fine All Hallow’s Eve, to Seattle Playwrights Salon in July 2017, he and the play began a journey that revolutionized his thinking about his art, the theatre world, and the possibilities for him as a “late artist” (informally defined as one who begins making art in middle age or afterwards). Here’s his take on writing plays, submitting one’s work, and expanding one’s horizons.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): What happened as a result of submitting your first play to the Salon?

James Eychaner (JE): The opportunity at Seattle Playwrights Salon was a Godsend. Not only was it my first real encouragement (Hey, maybe I can write!), but it turned out to be an important practicum in theater. I had to really step it up to find actors, work with them on the script, gather props, etc., and finally get everything together for the staging. [Editor’s note: The Salon now engages directors for our plays, who do the work James did himself in 2016.] I then submitted the play to the Smith and Kraus competition in 2018. First place plays, including mine, received the "Standing Ovation Award," meaning publication in the book Best Ten Minute Plays of 2019. To me, the big deal is national exposure and the right to call myself an award-winning, published playwright. I submitted "All Hallows' Eve" thinking it must have some redeeming qualities. It turns out my play was among a handful selected from over 1,000 submissions.

MOD: Why did you start writing plays?

JE: I made a living with my writing skills before retiring from state government. I started writing plays about three years ago, after taking a theater course offered by playwright Bryan Willis. I had some early, terrible scripts read locally. I then went on to take playwriting classes from South Puget Sound Community College. "One Fine All Hallows' Eve" grew out of a class writing exercise and was read by college acting students at the end of the course.

MOD: What are you working on now?

JE: We'll see what happens with "All Hallows'." Since then, I have written a number of ten-minute, one act, and three act plays. Some of them are on New Play Exchange. I am currently in the planning/outline/scheming stage of what I think will be a 90-minute script on the theme of betrayal, especially how older people experience the betrayal of their bodies.

MOD: What’s your advice to other new playwrights?

JE: Write because you have to write. There is little or no money in playwriting. Submit work to appropriate venues and keep track of what you submit. A 1% or 2% response/success rate of submissions to acceptance would be outstanding. And it's not how good you are, it's really who you know. So, work to meet theater people.

My own strategy is to write the best I can, submit to contests, and hope for the best. If my dream were to come true, publication in Best Ten Minute Plays of 2019 would bring me to the attention of an agent or theatre that wants to know more about me, wants to produce my work, or commission a play.

Short and Sweet: Tips for Newer Playwrights, by Anonymous

An award-winning Seattle playwright whose work has been produced throughout the US, Canada, and the UK (and who prefers to remain anonymous) has some smart leads for newer playwrights. Ready? Take a deep breath and plunge in!

Join the Dramatists Guild, and attend local meetings. The group meets every other month and is having a panel discussion on play readings on May 19. No need to be a member to attend. Four area producers will speak about how play readings work, how to get involved, and how to produce them yourself. The Seattle theater scene is small in comparison to the giants, and the Dramatists Guild meetings are a great place to get hooked in.

If you're on Facebook, there's a group called "The Official Playwrights of Facebook". There's a couple of crazy people, but ignoring them, it is a great resource. And if those short plays you have are ready to go, one of my favorite sites is Play Submission Helper. Once a month, they put out a spreadsheet with all of the theaters who are looking for scripts (it's an $8 a month subscription, but totally worth it). You submit your script to the theaters and if they like it, they produce it. It is how almost all of my plays get done. The general rule of thumb is to avoid opportunities that charge a production fee (the playwright shouldn't pay a producer/theater unless the playwright is self-producing.) Also, a good site for submission opportunities is playwright Aurin Squires’s monthly blog, and the Dramatists Guild’s listings.

Another great resource is the BBC Writers Room. They have a page with all of the writing formats, as well as a ton of helpful writing videos so you can figure out what your script should look like before you send it out. And be sure to check out information on playwrights’ rights and submission best practices.

Seattle doesn't have playwright training programs as such. A class or two will pop up every now and again, such as the weekend intensive offered by the Salon in November. The good news is that the Salon may be offering more classes in 2020. And Salvo, “a tiny studio for dramatic art”, the brainchild of Rebecca Tourino Collingswood, offers classes. But don’t let the paucity of local training programs stop you!

Explore the world of on-line classes at the Dramatists Guild Institute, and occasional writing workshop weekend intensives in cities throughout the country. Attend Dramatists Guild conferences, offered every other year or so in interesting cities, read voraciously (I love Working on a New Play by Edward Cohen), see tons of excellent local theatre (our theatre scene is SO good!), and form or join a playwrights’ group. The Salon has a writer’s group now, and is keeping a waiting list for the next group. Write to the Salon’s Managing Director Ashley Arai at seattleplaywrightssalon@gmail.com, to get on the list.

Got it? Now go for it!