Brazilian director Danilo Gambini was facing a unique hardship in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic that only other global artists would understand. Having just graduated Yale, the theatre artist needed work—and fast—in order to meet the requirements of his visa.
As with all stranded international artists, there were significant obstacles stacked against Gambini. The first was that his visa only allowed him to work in his industry, which was shut down. Without an income, the director faced an economic hardship that would prevent him from transitioning between a student and professional visas to remain in the U.S.
That’s when Playwrights Realm stepped in with the International Theatre Makers Award, which covers the O-1 visa fees and provides free legal assistance. The prize, which is awarded to five winners annually, is designed to recognize global artists making contributions to the American theatre. The ITA is a partnership between The Playwrights Realm and Dyer Harris LLP, a New York law firm whose focus is immigration for creative artists and professionals.
"As an immigrant theatermaker, this is the kind of program I wish had been around earlier in my career, and I'm so proud and excited to be able to offer it now at The Realm,” says Roberta Pereira, producing director. “The inaugural winners (including Gambini) are an incredible cohort, as evidenced by the fact that all of their artist visa petitions were approved, and I can't wait to award five new international theatermakers with this support!"
Learn more about Gambini’s experience below. To learn more and apply, click here.
Having begun your career in Brazil, what made you decide to come to the U.S.?
I moved to the United States four years ago to go to Yale School of Drama. I have a BFA in film directing, and then I went to an acting training course, both from University of São Paulo. I had a career there in Brazil for about seven years, directing operas and musical theatre.
And then in 2015, Brazil hit a huge economic and political crisis. And there was no more theatre. I think I had four things lined up and they got all canceled. All of the sudden I had no job and nothing to do. It was very complicated for me. The intersection of music and theater is my happy place, you know, and this was a moment of, "Okay, what do I do? If I want to direct musical theater, I really need to have a complete understanding of all the elements of theater, all the designs, everything is to its full potential." And in Brazil, of course, we don't always have all the resources to have all the elements to make that happen. So I said, "Okay, I will go to the United States." It wasn’t an easy decision, though. I had a career and a life and everything in Brazil. I was 30 and I didn’t think I could just leave it all behind. Then, I was in a crisis, and one night at 4 AM, I said, "Okay, let me just Google my favorite people. Where did Meryl Streep go to school? Yale School of Drama." I was like, "Huh, what about this Yale School of Drama? "
Had you heard of it before then?
I had heard of Yale...through Gilmore Girls...but honestly, I didn't know the reputation and all of the people that went through there. Yale or Harvard are names that you just know in culturally colonized countries, such as Brazil, but when I started doing research, I saw all these amazing people that graduated from there and I was like, “Oh shit, this is where I need to go.” I applied three times. The directing program has only three people per year—it is highly competitive. So, I said, "Okay, I'm going to keep applying until I get in or until it stops making sense."
What were you doing during that time while you tried to get in?
I kept working. As a director, you start assisting, and then you start directing your own small things. Then there was this one opportunity with Fernando Meirelles, who is the director of the City of God and The Constant Gardener, et cetera. He was going to direct an opera in a theatre in the Amazon. This was right before he was directing the opening of the Olympic Games in Rio. He had never directed theater before nor anything live. And I think for him it was exciting to experiment a little bit before he had to direct that huge event.
That was a shift in everything in my career, and actually in my interview for Yale, that's all I talked about. How that completely shifted my understanding of the work. Eventually, I got here in 2017. I met so many incredible, amazing people. And in fact, this play Ni Mi Madre that's opening at Rattlestick Playwrights August 14 was the very first play I directed in the United States.
How did that happen?
I think it happened three or four months after I had arrived because Arturo Luís Soria, the playwright and actor asked me, “Are you the Brazilian director? I have this play. Did you want to direct it?”...Getting into Yale, right? I am the first Brazilian director that ever went through the program. And then people hear about you. Yale has a community. Then I heard about Roberta Pereira, who is the managing director of Playwrights Realm. I finally saw her, so I said, “Hi, Roberta, I'm Danilo.” And she said, “I know who you are. Everyone has talked about you.” It was the opposite of what I thought would happen—so many people had been telling me about her, I didn't really know people were talking to her about me. We had this wonderful conversation. She was super warm and welcoming. She told me to reach out to me once I graduated. So I said of course I would.
How did you end up connecting?
Then my graduation was approaching and COVID hit, yay! So then there was kind of desperation. Of course we all went through it, but there is a specificity to the immigrant story, because I was at Yale with the student visa. Once you graduate, you have an extension of one year that's called optional practical training. So you can stay in the United States and work full-time in your area. I could only work as a director or in director-related gigs. You have to be hired for nine months out of those 12 months or else your visa is canceled.
And it has to be directly connected to the thing that you came here to study. It's decided by the immigration agents whether you go back to your home country or you can apply for another visa—the O-1, which is the alien of extraordinary abilities visa.
What is that?
So it’s very complicated. First, you have to prove that you're extraordinary. People have to write letters for you saying that you’ll do essential work for the American arts sector, and you have to prove that you're going to be working constantly over those three next years. How can I, as a director, prove that I'm going to be working constantly for the next three years? And the thing is you have to be extraordinary, according to the description. But how can you win a Tony or a Pulitzer after one year of graduating? Lupita Nyong’o did it. But who else? Not even Meryl did it.
It puts you in a very vulnerable situation that you have to ask those very complicated things from people that you just want to be working with, or people that you just want to have a relationship with, one that might not come to fruition until five years from now, but you have to call them and ask them to sign a paper in your behalf...It's a terrible conversation. It's actually a conversation that might actually result in you not getting hired.
It sounds like the ultimate network building challenge.
You depend a lot on the community and people that love you. There are so many important people that I will be forever grateful for. And Roberta was definitely one of them. And Laurie Woolery from the Public Theater was one of them and then Daniela Topol. All those people that you meet through your journey and my journey was only through school. That's the thing, theatre is family. For me, it's very personal. I think most immigrants can relate to this: our main goal is having a home.
We lose our home and then you create these new bonds with people. I have been really blessed with so many people that I have met through my path here. But then there was the thing: COVID hit. And it was like, okay, I'm fucked, that's it. So, what I can do? There's no moving back, there's only moving forward. So I will just have Zoom meetings with everyone I can, and just do what I can. Then there were a couple of blessings that happened to be also in that period. One of them was that I interviewed with Daniella Topol and I became the directing fellow at Rattlestick and the whole year was an online year. So that kind of solved my staying here for the student visa.
Then I called Roberta. “I graduated, let's chat.” We started talking about how my career was going and the visa process. She went through this whole process and I was so worried about how I'm going to just get money because I was expecting to work on something like an Off-Broadway show. And now I don't have it. So then Roberta told me about the International Theatermakers Award, which literally covers the O-1 fees. I has never heard anyone doing this before. It was emotional, first of all, because, oh, yes, there are now immigrants in power that can help us.
What are the fees?
That's the thing—you have to pay for the lawyers. It's a lot of money. A lot. It depends on the lawyer, but I will say it's around $8-10,000. You have to have this money around eight months after you graduate. I didn't have it. And also COVID, I was having to work to pay my rent and food. You can ask money from family in Brazil, but with the crisis, the dollar is so expensive now in Brazil, it just something absurd, it's five times more.
Even if you do have a lawyer and pay the fees, it doesn't guarantee that you will get the visa. Going through Yale School of Drama is not exceptional in their book. It is just school. Everything that you've done in school doesn't matter. It doesn’t matter if you went to Yale or Juilliard.
So what happened with the award?
Thank god I was one of the five selected and this covered the fees. I got the visa approved and then things started falling into place from that. I was able to move to New York. And it has been the ideal situation for me, because it's moving here with an off-Broadway show to direct. And I had a meeting with the actual law firm that comes with the award. They’re famous in the community because they are really great, honestly.
What are you working on now?
Well, I’ll be the directing fellow at Rattlestick until mid-next year. I'm directing Ni Mi Madre, which begins previews August 14. I'm teaching at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. I'm going to co-direct with Daniela Topol a new musical at Portland Stage. And there's this one huge thing that's also happening in my life. I started a group Midnight Oil Collective with eight friends. We say it's an artist-led investment group. We want to create structures so that the money that comes from art is reinvested in artists. It's our thesis. And the more we are working on it, the more we’re saying, “oh, this actually might really work.” We have been in three business accelerators already. So then, inside of Midnight Oil Collective, I have two projects being developed.