Written by Paul Pryce
So, you want to be an actor. You want to explore the meaning of life, express ideas and philosophies. Damn it! You want to create something freaking awesome! Your mind is made up. You’ve been bitten by the proverbial acting bug, so you went against your parents’ advice and ditched a bright future in medicine, to be an Artist. You know you have what it takes; you’ve got the dream and the courage to go after it. You also want to pursue that dream in New York or Los Angeles.
Well, before taking the plunge, there are a number of things to consider – like money, a place to live, and a supportive network. While these are all necessary, I’m going to zero in on one very important issue. It is not terribly critical in the beginning, but becomes crucial later on – the O1 Visa or the “Artist Visa of Extraordinary Ability.”
What is an O1 Visa? What does it mean to be an artist of “Extraordinary Ability”? By definition, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) defines the O1 as a nonimmigrant visa for “the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” It goes on to mention “…the beneficiary must demonstrate extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim and must be coming temporarily to the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability.”
This is a competitive visa category. However, if you want to ultimately work and live in the U.S. on a long-term basis as a professional and you’re not married to a U.S. citizen or don’t have a green card, you will have to apply for this visa or one similar to it. While it can sound daunting, especially if you don’t have many credits, not to worry, it’s possible, if you plan in advance.
Here is a common scenario. Say you don’t have a ton of experience in your chosen artistic field; you’ve only done a couple things here or there, but you’ve gotten accepted to a great academic program where you can really get the training you need to start your career. You go away study, graduate and get your degree. You work a little for a year on O.P.T. (Optional Practical Training, more on that at another time). Then you need to apply for a work permit, but immigration wants you to demonstrate you are an artist of particular note in your home country. Trouble is you left your home country before establishing any sort of local honor for your work – the catch 22. For most people this means going back home. Often times halting their dreams in the process.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to create work in your home country and to get it reviewed and documented before going away to pursue your dream. Press clippings, reviews, published articles on you and your work, quality images and videos of your work and an up to date database of your professional network are keys to your success as a professional in the U.S.
You see, U.S. Immigration wants you to demonstrate you are not a student but a professional. So the work you do at school would rarely qualify you, unless it won a national award or prize. What you really need to do is create a story of yourself through your work. Without getting too much into the specifics of how many people attended or how much you were paid, you can use simple instances, for example, the lead in a play at your local community theatre, to craft a story about your value as a professional artist in your home country. Hopefully, the play got an article or two in the local newspaper before the opening and maybe even you got mentioned in it. Keep a copy of the program and ask the photographer to email you images from the show. While it might not seem like much now this counts as a professional credit.
If someone asks you to do a show or to perform, ask them if they are printing a program, or what their plan is, for marketing and publicity and if there will be a photographer on hand. If they do not have a those things maybe you can arrange some press coverage or have a friend take some pictures of you in action. If not, don’t do it. It’s a waste of time with respect to you creating your story. If you have no visual evidence you performed in the show, it’s like that never happened and the experience would be of no value in helping you to qualify for for the visa. You may still want to do it as an opportunity to grow as an artist – in that case go for it, but know you will not be able to use the experience for much else.
The advantage of being from a smaller region like the Caribbean, as compared to Europe or Canada, is that in the eyes of U.S. Immigration, there are fewer artists of extraordinary ability in the Caribbean, to compare you to. Therefore, establishing you are an artist of prominence in St Lucia, for example, is in many ways much easier than for an artist from Britain attempting to establish their prominence as an artist in Britain.
So, even before applying for the scholarship or to study in schools in the U.S., begin by immersing yourself in your local art scene. Audition for plays and films at home, join theatre companies and get cast in local plays, get to know the industry people in your home town. Eventually, you will be cast in shows and you will be able to start building your resume. If you aren’t getting hired don’t wait for permission to perform, create your own show and get people to come see you. Make your own program, send out a press release, call the media; do whatever it takes to get it out there and build your resume. Do not underestimate the power of your name in print. It communicates to everyone, your work is important and of value.
Here’s the thing, positioning yourself as much a professional as possible, is as much an exercise in branding, as it is in obtaining the credits themselves. So, I encourage you to think long-term and to chart out your transition to the big markets two or three years in advance. This will give you the time needed to build sustained acclaim nationally. I promise you, it’ll pay off in the long run.