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.