jakub | October 28, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Immigrant Theatre Artists Join to Fight Xenophobia, Provide Resources

NATIONWIDE: A group of immigrant artists, including producer Jody Doo from Singapore, director Danilo Gambini from Brazil, playwright Francisco Mendoza from Argentina, and dramaturg Salma Zohdi form Egypt, have announced the creation of the Immigrant Theatermakers Advocates (ITA) initiative, which seeks to engage institutions to combat xenophobia in the theatre industry and to provide resources and community for immigrant artists. The initiative, which has been operating informally since the pandemic shutdown of 2020, represents the culmination of the individual efforts of its members in creating a field that is more open to those who don’t have the privileges associated with U.S. citizenship.

ITA plans to build community for immigrant theatremakers through a mailing group that opens communication among artists, and hopes to provide a resource for immigrant theatremakers with questions can hear from others who’ve navigated the system. The initiative will also work with institutions to create space for immigrants and program their work, as well as to revamp their policies and generate their own resources for helping up-and-coming immigrant artists. The initiative is also working on making available a list of immigration lawyers who have worked with ITA members and are willing to offer discounted services or free consultations to artists referred to them through the group. Among its core goals for the future is the creation of a fund to cover legal and government fees for theatre artists applying for visas.

The group’s advisory council of immigrant artists includes director Saheem Ali (Kenya), associate artistic director/resident director at the Public Theater; director Sarah Benson (England); director and playwright Moisés Kaufman (Venezuela), artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project; dancer-choreographer, actress, and director-producer Olga Levina (Ukraine), co-founder and executive producer of the Jersey City Theater Center; producer Roberta Pereira (Brazil), executive director at the Playwrights Realm and incoming executive director of the New York Library for the Performing Arts; and director, playwright, and producer Chay Yew (Singapore).

The seeds of ITA were planted in two different institutions. The Playwrights Realm, where Mendoza acts as marketing manager—created the International Theatermakers Award in 2020, which for two years selected five theatremakers applying for O-1 Extraordinary Abilities visas and covered all their legal expenses and government fees (the award has now been discontinued), and Rattlestick Theater—where Doo, Gambini, and Zohdi acted as Producer, Associate Artistic Director, and Literary Associate, respectively—started the Global Forms Theater Festival, which presents works by immigrant artists, and produced Global Gab, a monthly digital series that was geared toward that community. Members from each group decided to combine forces and create an initiative not housed in any particular institution but instead free to operate in its primary purpose of creating a more welcoming industry for immigrants.

“Regardless of where each of us is from, the obstacles we have faced in our journey are very similar,” said Zohdi, now the literary manager at New York Theatre Workshop and director of development and communications at Noor Theatre, in a statement. “We not only have to navigate the labyrinthine American immigration system, which has been designed to exclude us, but also the entrenched xenophobia in our industry, which continues to put the burden on us to constantly prove ourselves and advocate for our right to be treated equally.”

“Americans tend not to realize what a huge issue this is, so they don’t feel any urgency around it,” said Mendoza in statement. Mendoza was the first visa holder to win the Princess Grace Awards Playwriting Fellowship in 2022, which had previously been open only to U.S. citizens and permanent residents—a rule changed upon Mendoza’s engagement with the awards’ administration. Pointing at the recent change in the Pulitzer Prize, whose board similarly announced this year that they’d be expanding eligibility for the awards to authors, playwrights, and composers who are not U.S. citizens, Mendoza continued, “The Pulitzer is one of the most prestigious awards a playwright can aspire to, and it ran for over a hundred years without admitting non-citizens. It has a big effect on your psyche to enter this country, and this field, and be told, ‘This is not for you, you can’t play, you only get to watch.’” Mendoza is now in talks with the Dramatists Guild of America to find ways to amplify ITA’s message to all the Guild’s current—and more importantly, prospective—members.

“The gatekeeping is very real, and it sometimes comes from the most unexpected places,” said Gambini, currently associate artistic director at DC’s Studio Theatre, in a statement. “The feeling that you need to prove yourself, and have evidence of how ‘extraordinary’ you are, takes a toll on your mental health. It is a very intense extra layer of anxiety, on top of the struggle that we ordinarily go through as we try to make a life as working artists in the US.”

“You’re usually fighting alone,” added Doo, now global assistant producer at the Moth, in a statement. “The thing we found is that places that are welcoming of immigrants tend to be the ones that already have immigrants in them. We realized if we work only from within, our reach is limited; creating an initiative that is not associated with any particular institution allows us to engage with places that may not even be aware of their need for change, let alone have the tools to enact it.” Doo has forged a new partnership with the executive producer of Jersey City Theater Center (JCTC), Olga Levina, a fellow immigrant and member of ITA’s Advisory Council, who is committed to making JCTC a welcoming space for immigrant artists. The company held an Immigrant Artist Meet-Up on Sept. 30, produced by Doo. “ITA is just as much about providing support to our community as it is about engaging with institutions.”

The group is embracing an emergent strategy, open to opportunities to collaborate by sharing knowledge about how the system works (and how it can be navigated by both artists and institutions), making connections between those seeking help and those who can provide it, and uplifting examples of initiatives and projects that model a more inclusive industry. While the initiative is not currently accepting donations from individuals, the group is open to conversations with funders about crafting programs that financially support immigrant artists.

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