When Lincoln Center Festival director Nigel Redden saw the world premiere of While I Was Waiting at the Festival d'Avignon in 2016, he was struck by the timeliness and intensity of the piece. Written by playwright Mohammad Al Attar and directed by Omar Abusaada, both Syrians, it tells the story of 30-year-old filmmaker Taim, who lies in a coma after being beaten unconscious at a Damascus checkpoint. In Al Attar's theatrical concept, Taim is represented both by a body on the bed and by an observer who watches from an upper level as his mother, sister, girlfriend, and a childhood friend visit him.
Director Abusaada has described the coma as a deliberate symbol for Syria's war-torn, purgatorial state. "Yes, the country is neither alive nor dead, but the metaphor works on different levels," Abusaada says. "From that point of view, what I observe in While I Was Waiting is that the young people who were active during the revolution are now absent or are subjected to a situation they can no longer influence."
Earlier this year, two White House executive orders targeting several majority-Muslim countries threatened to scuttle plans for While I Was Waiting's highly anticipated North American debut. Last month, the United States Supreme Court allowed parts of the second executive order to go into effect, and will hear oral arguments on the case this fall. In the meantime, thanks to the bravery and tenacity of the artists, and the efforts of several people, the show will go on. (The story was also recently detailed in the New York Times.)
The process began in March and has involved nearly daily efforts by many, including outside counsel Wildes & Weinberg as well as United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's office and U.S. State Department Field Office personnel. "We anticipated there would be more time needed for additional vetting," says Erica Zielinski, Lincoln Center Festival's general manager and producer. "Given that some company members were refugees from countries included in the executive order, we would need a multitude of legal and strategic assistance."
Much of that key legal assistance, at least stateside, came from Lincoln Center's general counsel Lesley Rosenthal, who outlined a multi-step process: "First we filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – USCIS," Rosenthal explains. "In that document, we have to state the case of who Lincoln Center is, what the festival is, what the piece is, who the performers are, and the bona fides of why artist visas should be granted under these circumstances."
Once that petition is granted, the artists must travel to the U.S. Embassy or consulate nearest to where they live and subject themselves to a detailed interview and background investigation. Rosenthal explains that the artists must prove, among other things, that they're not a threat to U.S. security and that they have no intention to immigrate to America. "Complicating that process were several factors," Rosenthal adds. "One is that the Syrian artists are a mini diaspora; several of them are still living in Damascus, but others are living in Germany, France, Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon." Another was that the U.S. Embassy in Syria suspended operations in 2012, and visas cannot be issued there, so the Damascus-based artists had to cross the border, with many checkpoints, into Lebanon to get to the embassy in Beirut. That took them several hours, each way, and included significant personal risk.
"It was a terribly tense time," Zielinski recalls. "We worked with the artists to develop additional proof and prepped with them after a couple of artists were denied initially. Given the time difference, there were a lot of very early morning communications back and forth, and a few nights of interrupted sleep and great worry knowing that these brave artists were taking on some risk to cross unsecured borders in order to bring their work to the festival."
Each step of the process was delicate and uncertain. Rosenthal notes that U.S. border security now requests links to the social media feeds of performers. "There's heightened scrutiny because of the countries they're coming from," Rosenthal says. "And there's now more visibility into the individuals: their ties, their social groups, their family networks, their travel plans, ongoing gigs. Any one could trigger a concern by a reviewing official. For example, somebody might have a friend on Facebook with the same first and last name as somebody on a watchlist. That could hold things up."
"Because of the Senator's belief that culture is so important to New York's economy and identity, they made this project a priority."
One element that Rosenthal and Zielinski say tipped the balance was the active involvement of Senator Gillibrand's office. "She has a dedicated Constituent Liaison team for immigration and foreign affairs," Rosenthal says. "They really extended themselves. They sweated out each one of these individual artist's processes, one by one, until the artists had their visas stamped into their passports. Because of the Senator's belief that culture is so important to New York's economy and identity, they made this project a priority."
The third and final step for visiting artists happens on American soil. When the artist arrives at the airport, they have to pass through the same scrutiny as at embassies in their own countries, proving the two negatives: not a threat, not going to immigrate. "Until the first lead actor actually passed through immigration at JFK we were still thinking something might go awry," Zielinski admits. "We wanted to demonstrate to the artists that we were 110% committed to making this engagement happen. Now we just have to make sure New Yorkers prove their sacrifices were worth it."
For tickets and information, visit LincolnCenterFestival.org.
David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright, and opera librettist based in New York.