One of our firm’s main practice areas is the O-1B nonimmigrant visa and EB-1 immigrant petition based on evidence of the beneficiary’s extraordinary ability in the arts. Many of our clients are international artists from all over the globe, seeking a means to expand their work into the United States, and specifically to move to and work in (either temporarily or permanently) one of the world’s great cultural capitals: New York City. One of the best ways to prepare for such a big move, in addition to speaking extensively to a qualified and experienced immigration attorney, is to read the accounts of those who have already gone through the process.
As DLG’s resident playwright-slash-paralegal, I decided to interview my friend and sometimes-collaborator, Australian-American playwright and theatre director Bryan Davidson Blue, about his move to New York City and his experience navigating the United States immigration process as a theatre-maker (notably without the help of DLG, as you’ll see below). Bryan has a very particular, exciting aesthetic informed by the visual and performance art styles Minimalism and Conceptualism. His projects have largely consisted of adapting existing texts for contemporary audiences, including recently Medea, Oedipus, Spring Awakening, and The Seagull.
First, some background. What was your career like in Australia? What sort of companies and collaborators did you work with?
I was a member of the St Martins Emerging Writer's Group in 2006, which was the launching point for my professional work. St Martins commissioned my first two plays, both of which were nominated for the Wal Cherry Play of the Year. One of those plays won the La Mama Playwrights Award, and was selected for PlayWriting Australia's National Script Workshop. It was produced in 2008 at St Martins (Melbourne) and in the Brisbane Festival: Under the Radar. La Mama produced my play Matilda's Waltz in 2009. That play was developed by the Malthouse Theatre (they awarded it the 3dFest Development Award in 2007), and received further support through Australia Theatre for Young People's National Script Workshop.
I worked as a freelance director and contributing artist for RealTV, St Martins, ClockTower Theatre, Melbourne International Fringe Festival, and the George Fairfax Festival.
How did you decide to move to New York?
I moved to New York in January 2011. In 2010 I had visited New York and began talking with companies and individuals about making work in the US. I had finished a series of shows in Melbourne, mostly focused on theatre for young people (Malthouse Education, St Martins, George Fairfax). I was looking at originating more projects and not working as “director for hire.”
What was your first nonimmigrant visa? What was that process like? Any major hiccups / struggles / delays / surprises?
I received an O-1 visa first. I didn't work with an attorney who specialized in applying for that kind of visa, so there were a lot of hiccups. She forgot to include support material, or made errors with processing fees. The visa came about six weeks after we expected it to arrive. It is a pretty nerve-wracking process, because you are asking non-theatre people and non-artistic people to validate the work you are doing as an artist. There is a lot of “boasting” you have to do, and that doesn't always sit well for me (some people love doing that sort of thing). You have to use very specific language, and it is not necessarily the language artists like to use: how do we define a successful show? How do we define excellence?
How has your theatrical career been in New York? What sort of work have you been able to do?
My first paid job in New York was directing a one-woman play at The Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village. The Cherry Lane is an historically important theatre and they still do interesting work. The playwright and performer of the play had specifically asked them to hire me; she had seen an independent production I did (Fewer Emergencies by Martin Crimp) and was excited to collaborate. It took some convincing—I had no real American credits, and no real American colleagues. In the end, they agreed.
The Cherry Lane have since hosted a reading of my version of The Seagull. That play has also been read at LAByrinth Theatre Company in the West Village. My theatre career in New York is by no means equivalent to the work I was doing in Australia. I am not making work at the speed I was, and I am not as financially reliant on my work as a theatre maker. This probably segues into the next question. As a non-permanent resident I have not been eligible for a lot of grant opportunities. I am also outside a lot of submission policies—I don’t write “new” plays, and my plays are not considered “American,” which is very important for American theatre companies.
How does the New York theatre scene and community compare to Melbourne's, in your experience?
In Australia the theatre scene is so small scale. There seems to only be so many artists and so many options. In New York, every other person is a playwright or an actor. Everyone has a commercial audition, or they are working on two shows at once, or there's a film or TV option. In Melbourne, from my experience, everyone is much more invested in the project at hand and securing strong working relationships that will result in more work. There is a grandness to what people in New York can achieve; there are so many good TV and film options, and there's Broadway too. I sometimes get the sense that everything is just a stepping stone until you get to that point, and that smaller scale work isn't as valid. There are many exceptions to this rule.
Do you have any American artistic heroes? Anyone whose work or career trajectory you'd like to emulate?
Richard Maxwell is great. I saw Maxwell's Eugene O'Neill Plays at St. Ann's Warehouse and was really blown away. People kept walking out and I couldn't help laughing; I really thought it was so terrific. My husband and I were the only people at the end to give it a standing ovation. I'd be happy to have a career like him. I like that a show like Isolde can end up at Theatre for a New Audience, in the same year that The Evening can be at The Kitchen. He's been given opportunities to find new audiences, and keep making work for his core audience.
I think Robert Wilson's work, especially the really early work (Einstein on the Beach) is incredibly influential and important. To emulate his career is impossible; it is just too big, and I don't think we are going to have a moment again when an independent production can land at the Metropolitan Opera.
What is your immigration status now, and how did that happen?
I am a permanent resident. I married my husband, an American, in 2013 and in 2014 I applied for a Green Card.
Any surprises in that process, good or bad?
I worked with an attorney who specializes in permanent residency applications for same-sex couples. It was a very easy process; he was a very good lawyer.
What has been the most difficult part of immigrating to New York, professionally speaking?
I didn't have a network. I think that the way the college system works is that a lot of people find their artistic associates and collaborators at school, and move forward with them. I also think that specific colleges on your resume will garner the attention of specific theatre companies. America takes great pride in its alumni. I don't know where else in the world this is true. I can't say it is for Australia.
What has been the best part of moving to New York for you professionally?
There's something very rewarding about having a clean slate, and being able to create a new body of work. The visual arts have become much more a part of my work, influencing not only the aesthetic but informing the process too. New York is very much the center of the visual arts world. So, there was something really exciting about trying many different things in Melbourne and then coming to New York and focusing on making a very particular type of theatre. It's like I got five more years of being a student and having the freedom to explore.
Are there other, more personal, bests and worsts of the immigration experience that you'd like to discuss?
Even though, through this whole interview, we keep referring to it as the “immigration experience,” I am most often referred to as an “ex-pat.” I think this is because I am a white immigrant. If I was Mexican, or from Pakistan, or wherever; if I was an artist of color, then the language slightly shifts. I am an immigrant, but I am not a minority, and my viewpoint is still that of a white person—which is the dominant viewpoint.
Assuming no personal ties to any country or city, are there other places you'd like to live and make theatre?
Germany. It makes complete sense for what I do. The arts funding is great and the audience are very receptive to bold choices (that is a comment on a regular theatre going community—they have a greater awareness of the plays/opera, and therefore want to see a new interpretation).
Would you ever consider moving back to Australia? Why or why not?
Do you mean if Trump were elected? Sure. But that's not going to happen, and I can't see any reason to leave New York at the moment. Australia is also an ugly country (politically speaking) and the Arts Council (our NEA) has had its funding ripped out by a nasty right-wing government. Australia doesn't have a history of philanthropy, unlike the US, so it may actually be in a worse-off position for making theatre in the next few years.
There has been a renewed interest in intelligent and ambitious theatre on the main stages of New York. We can look at Fun Home, Hamilton, and Ivo Von Hove's A View from the Bridge or Crucible (upcoming).
I do think Broadway is trying to expand what it will offer its audiences (Natasha Pierre is another “downtown” show). This will trickle down and we'll start seeing more interesting choices on smaller or mid-scale stages. Daniel Fish, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Andrew Ondrejcak are very much on the radar now; that's good for an artist like me who is very much interested in an auteur theatre. I think the “European” style of theatre, one I thought America was against, is finding its place. This isn't to say it is replacing the writer's theatre (definitely the dominant kind of theatre), but we're beginning to acknowledge room and necessity for both.