Aliens and the green ceiling

17 Jun

If you grew up here and have an American passport, you might not know this. But there are many, many people (such as me) living and working legally in the US on all kinds of visas, sometimes for decades, for whom the green card remains an elusive and arduous long term goal–especially since 9/11. The country isn’t just populated by “illegals” (a chilling word that turns an adjective into a noun/ person) and citizens / permanent residents. There’s a big gray zone out there teaching, practicing medicine, serving tacos, running businesses, repairing bicycles, writing plays and films…

In the theater, some of us write plays, have them produced in American theaters, and entertain/ engage American audiences. These plays are, arguably, part of the American theater. They are produced with American actors & directors & audiences. They are certainly part of a conversation between the writer and the country that stages their work. But the writers, without the elusive green card, cannot receive NEA money for “American” plays, or many other opportunities besides (Playwrights Horizons and many, many, new play development venues are for “American writers”). There is no “alien” minority slot.

Arena Stage has just announced a wonderful new commissioning and development program for “outstanding new American plays”. What makes these plays “American” however, is not their production, their collaborators, or their AUDIENCE–but the stamp in the passport of their writer.
This is not a criticism of Arena, who are to be applauded for picking up the ball from the NEA /TCG as overseer and promoter of a commissioning program. But perhaps along with the change of umbrella, it might also be a good time to re-examine the guidelines. My argument: If a playwright is working in the US on a valid working visa, has a partner theater that wants to commission them, and will be writing a play to be produced in the “American theater”, why should they be ineligible for this development or commission funding? Their work has clearly found an American audience and earned a place on this country’s stage.

Now, I understand why Canada is so protectionist about its arts, given the sheer size of (and cultural flooding from) the adjoining U.S. But does the U.S. really need this kind of protection? Isn’t this more of a problem for OTHER countries–to deal with the aggressive exporting of all aspects of U.S. culture and commerce? Might not outside perspectives actually ADD something to the American theater? The houses that have done my work seem to think so. Is it really the writer’s nationality that makes a play “American”, or the places, audiences and theaters that engage it (and the writer)?

And finally–why in this country is there a such an obsession with “national” stories? Scratch the mission statement of almost any mid to large size US theater, and it’s got something about “American stories” or “reflecting the diversity of America”. It’s also not the case in theater in the U.K, Australia, much of Europe… why are patriotism, nationalism and the theater so entwined in this country? (OK, I guess that really does tag me as an “alien”!)

A bit more seriously (and less polemically–moving on from the admitted self-interest of the above)–isn’t this “American” obsession in the theater another part of the “dinosaur” problem of theater and arts? Everything else it seems—internet, communications, science, economics, warfare, technology, even weather–is hurtling towards an interconnectedness that flows very fast across political and geographic borders. The American theater–in steering and funding, if not always in rhetoric and practice–is hurtling just as stubbornly the other way.

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5 Responses to “Aliens and the green ceiling”

  1. David Dower June 18, 2008 at 12:38 am #

    Christine– Did we miss something here? In response to your post on the New Play Development blog (npdp.arenastage.org) Project Coordinator Vijay Mathew checked with the NEA eligibility requirements and writers with valid green cards ARE welcome to apply. Perhaps I’m missing the difference between this post and your question at the NPDP blog. In any event, here’s what I’d suggest if there’s still a question or an exclusion that seems unintended or unnecessary–call the NEA and speak to either Bill O’Brien or Carol Ann Lanoux in the Theater Program. From my experience they are very interested in hearing about any obstacles like this. Do it fast! If you can still get it done by Friday you can get in the mix of this first round of the new program!

  2. xtine3 June 18, 2008 at 1:16 am #

    David–I replied to you by email but in case any other little green folk are following along, here’s what I wrote:

    Hello David,
    Thanks so much for your reply and your suggestions–much appreciated. And it’s great that Arena will consider green-card holders. My post (& doldrums about “American” plays) are to do with NOT having a green card but still having a visa that allows me to live and work here. There are many, many folks in this situation who are here legally but for various reasons, need to take a long and tortuous road to “permanent residence” (ie. green card). (I bought a house here and have a U.S. drivers’ license and SS number and a 5 year teaching position and still the road to “permanent residence” will be at least several more years, if it materializes.)

    Anyway, I do hope you don’t feel I’m sniping at Arena–I do truly think it’s wonderful that you’re supporting new work and writers. It’s just that this (and other such) programs open a larger question about how to enter (or not) into these opportunities as an “alien”.

    Christine

  3. David Dower June 18, 2008 at 5:13 pm #

    Christine-

    I’ve been talking with Bill O’Brien at the NEA about this very topic this morning. He’s running it up the discussion chain at the NEA to make sure there’s still a current eligibility hurdle here. He may be writing you here to keep the conversation moving.

  4. xtine3 June 18, 2008 at 6:19 pm #

    David, you are a champ for following up on this so quickly and seriously! I very much appreciate it. I’ll be out of reception range for a few days so (whatever the outcome) won’t be ready for Friday’s deadline but I so appreciate your response to this. (There are many of us in this “legal but not yet permanent” category working in the US theatre, including artistic directors, actors, musicians and playwrights– however, commissions/ development programs with exclusion clauses mostly affect the writers.)

  5. insoncomivy August 3, 2008 at 8:18 am #

    Thanks !

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