Snehal Desai

Producing Artistic Director of East West Players
Headshot of a man.

Photo courtesy of East West Players

Music Credit:  “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Snehal Desai: Why I love East West Players and as an artist I found it as a home is that it sits at the intersection of social justice and art.  And those two things are inextricably linked in our founding and in our mission in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion, if you will, for API artists but artists of color.

Jo Reed: That is the producing artistic director of East West Players Snehal Desai and this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

For over half a century East West Players has been raising the visibility of Asian-American experiences through theater. One of the longest running theaters of color, East West Players is now the nation’s leading Asian-American theater company. Since 2016, it’s been led by Snehal Desai who first joined East West as a literary manager in 2013. Desai quickly became EWP’s associate artistic director, with directorial credits ranging from A Nice Indian Boy to The Who's Tommy. Born in Pennsylvania to parents who emigrated from India, Desai has been a champion of socially conscious and new Asian American work since his time at the Yale Drama School where he founded the South Asian Theater Collective. His goals and the mission of East West Players align perfectly-- to inspire and advocate for a world free of racism and discrimination through transformative theater.

I spoke with Snehal Desai recently about East West Players and his theatrical journey—here’s our conversation

Jo Reed: East West Players has been around for 55 years which is extraordinary. Let’s begin at the beginning. What is its origin story?

Snehal Desai: East West Players was started in 1965 by a group of nine artists, you know, and they were actors and writers and directors here in LA. And they, you know, working in TV and film and having a passion for theater, and really, the founding of East West Players came out of two things. One was the opportunity to play roles that Asian-American actors are traditionally excluded from. So to cast themselves in Shakespeare and to be in Brecht plays and to be in leading roles where oftentimes in Hollywood they're relegated to kind of sidekick roles. And then the second was the opportunity for Asian-American artists to tell Asian-American stories.

Jo Reed:  Before we talk more about East West Players, I want to know a bit more about you. How did you first become interested in theater?

Snehal Desai: That's a great question. You know, it's just something that I have always been drawn to, and I think again it's the impact of storytelling. I also think it was early on when I was growing up this opportunity. I was, you know, one of the only people of color that I remember in my elementary and middle school. And I think there was such a want to escape who I was and my identity and things like that and theater allowed me to do that, right. It allowed me to take on other roles and to put on a different name and to be someone else for a little period of time just because it was so challenging growing up in terms of being from an immigrant household, being one of the only Indian families and not having that support, you know, and also being a young, gay Indian-American at that time, there were just so many issues that I was dealing with that theater really allowed me to escape and also to find other folks who were kind of like-minded artists who also were outsiders in different ways.

Jo Reed: And what about directing? That is to me always a very interesting thing, to be drawn to; I mean, typically people want to be on the stage.

Snehal Desai: Yeah. I think like many folks I did start as an actor and then I think there were two things. One, I realized I'm not a really good actor. <laughs> So I think there are other people who are much better <laughs> at being in touch with their emotions and that process.

<laughter>

Snehal Desai:, I think I also realized that I have to show up every night and do this. I'm not done <laughs> after opening was the other thing. But for me, a lot of it was, when I went in as an actor and I auditioned, I looked very young and so oftentimes folks would give me feedback like, "Oh, you know, we loved you. You were great. If we hire you as this kid, though, then we have to hire, then the family has to be Indian. And then we have to find Indian-American parents and things like that, so we can't cast you in these roles." And so for me, there was just this frustration that I was seeing that the things that are going to be offered to me were either stereotypical or they were going to just be barriers. And, you know, while I was in college at Emory, it was a liberal arts program and it was theater studies so everyone had to take a design class at some point and you had to take a writing class. And it was when I took a directing class that I was, like, "Oh, I can create the world that I want, right. I can build this vision and populate it however I see it. And it's an opportunity for me to change and shift that narrative that I've been told.

Jo Reed: And you went to Yale and you founded the South Asian Theater Collective. Tell me what prompted it. I’m assuming it had something to do with the stereotypical roles you found yourself being offered.

Snehal Desai:  Well, when I was in grad school there were not many South Asians at the School of Drama at the time and I was very frustrated with, you know, what I called the white western canon. In undergrad I had studied Brecht and Beckett and Chekhov and Shakespeare and they are masters at what they do, but they are also <laughs> white European men and I in grad school was hoping that I would be exposed to a larger canon of work. And I wasn't and I wasn't finding the stories that I wanted being told. And so while I was there, folks were like, "You know, you should start writing things if you don't see what you want out there." And so I started to write and then they were like, "This is great. But there are no South Asian actors <laughs> at the School of Drama. So if you want to do this, you will also have to perform it." And so I wrote and performed a solo show at the cabaret that, you know, eventually toured, but it was, you know, again, realizing that I am not interested as much in being a performer as I am being a director or a writer and seeing other like-minded folks. And so, at Yale, the interesting thing was I was, like, "Well, where are <laughs> the other South Asians?" And they were at the Medical School and they were in the college and, you know, they all grew up doing theater and that was still a passion of theirs. And so we all came together and our first show was called "Fresh Off the Boeing." And it was kind of we basically devised a piece that told all of our journeys and experiences.

Jo Reed: I like that. "Fresh Off the Boeing." Very nice. <laughs>

Snehal Desai: Yes. It was FOB-ing. Yeah, exactly.

Jo Reed: Can you describe the feeling of coming and working at East West Players where suddenly you're not alone and there are the stories that you want to tell?

Snehal Desai: Yeah. It felt great. It felt like home and you know, the interesting thing was while I was in grad school, I was told that a lot of the ways you make it in this field are to find mentors, right, or to find folks who are going to give you opportunities, who are going to kind of support your journey. And I asked, "Great. Well, how do I find a mentor?" And they said, "Well, people tend to mentor people who look like them." And so I was like, "Okay. Let me look for some South Asian artistic directors." And I had trouble finding them. Now, you know, since then now there are folks. There are South Asian artistic directors around the country, but at that time I did not know anyone and no one around me knew anyone. So I looked to theaters in England and in London. I looked at Tara Arts and Jatinder Verma. And it's so interesting for me as a South Asian to go to or an Asian-American to go to England because there the Indian population is known as the Asian population and they're just acclimated into the population in a completely different way. And there it's all about your accent, right. So it's one of those things where I'm perceived a certain way but as soon as I open my mouth, I'm clocked as an American and I'm treated and looked at in a different way. And so for me, it just was a different way of being seen and then asking different questions for myself. And it was then that I realized also that to me, the audience matters. Who I am telling the story to matters. And that was what was so eye opening at East West Players is that as a storyteller, as an artist, I realized my work was different when I was telling it to a room of Asian-Americans than if I was telling it to a general audience that I did not know or a predominantly white audience.

Jo Reed: So, you’re the artistic director of East West Players, and it's your job to program a season and as you said in the beginning of this conversation. East West has two missions: telling Asian-American stories and also presenting more traditional theater with Asian-Americans actors assuming these classical roles. And I’m curious how you balance this.

Snehal Desai: You know, it's definitely a balancing act. And I think more and more we are leaning towards or tipping the scale, if you will, towards Asian-American stories by Asian-American artists. So as great as it is to program those classics or, you know, or well-known kind of mainstream plays and cast them with Asian-American actors, you know, it still is lifting up the Western canon. And the Western canon has traditionally been a colonial canon as we know and been exclusionary to Asian-American stories. And so I think more and more that is where the push has been but, you know, when we do musicals, that is where we have been, you know, we've done everything from "Mamma Mia!" to "Next to Normal" to, you know, we're hoping to bring back a production of "Assassins" by Sondheim, which closed at the beginning of the pandemic. And so, you know, we balance it with things that are recognizable and known in those ways, but we can provide a new fresh light on with new stories by Asian-Americans. And particularly what's interesting is now as Asian-American households become multigenerational and as Asian-American families have been here for generations-- the stories are changing and evolving, and so I think that's what's very interesting and that's what I want to makes sure we continue to program.

Jo Reed: Right. It's not just your immigrant story anymore, as interesting as that is, it's much more complex than that now.

Snehal Desai: Exactly, exactly. So many of the stories initially had been kind of first generation stories, right. And I say this jokingly, but they've been, often been about immigrant households where, you know, there's a fracturing among the generations and then there's a ghost.

<laughter>

Snehal Desai: And that's become a little bit of a trope. But we've been able to move beyond that and I think tell other stories.

Jo Reed: <laughs> Before we move on with that, there are other defining characteristics to East West. You have your own theater.

Snehal Desai: Exactly. So we are one of the longest running theaters of color and then, you know, it's both something we're very proud of and also something that I think, you know, is very telling about the theatrical scene is that we're the only Asian-American theater in the whole country with its own dedicated space.

Jo Reed: And that is a very big deal. And many, many congratulations for that.

Snehal Desai: I just want to tell you a small little thing about our space, which is in Little Tokyo and it's a church that's been renovated . And it's called the Union Center for the Arts and it was actually part of the, it was an abandoned building that was damaged in the Northridge Earthquake and FEMA funds allowed it to be kind of renovated and brought back. And the thing about it, it's also a historic building because it's a church where Japanese-Americans were able to come and bring their things and their things were stored before they were taken to the internment camps during World War II. So it's a building with a lot of history and legacy in that way.

Jo Reed:  It sure does.  It's not unusual for East West Players to work with other theaters throughout the country to do co-productions, for example.

Snehal Desai: Yeah, very much so. It allows us to play with the canvas, if you will, that we paint on, that our artists paint on. So we're through partnerships, we're able to work in smaller and larger venues. So we worked with the Center Theater Group on the world premiere of "Soft Power," which was by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori and that was done in the beautiful Ahmanson, which is a 2,000-plus seat theater. And then we have done the Los Angeles premiere of "Allegiance" with George Takei, which was with the Japanese American Cultural Community Center. And then we've done site-specific stuff. And I think it's both about helping to connect these companies and their audiences and communities with Asian-American stories, but it also allows us to branch out from our home and location in Little Tokyo to other parts of the city.

Jo Reed: And you also partner with social justice organizations when you present work.

Snehal Desai: Exactly. Why I love East West Players and as an artist I found it as a home is that it sits at the intersection of social justice and art, you know. And those two things are inextricably linked in our founding and in our mission in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion, if you will, for API artists but artists of color. And so we have along the way partnered with other social justice organizations, whether they be the LGBT Center, Los Angeles LGBT Center or Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, just because, you know, storytelling is such a powerful vehicle for change and a powerful vehicle for being able to shed light, particularly on things that are not talked about within the API community. So things like mental health. Things like sexual orientation. Disability is one that we're working on. And so we're partnering with organizations that work with those communities so that we can lift up their stories and experiences.

Jo Reed: You know, when we talk about Asian-Americans, this just takes in so many different peoples and cultures. Tell me about the challenges of how your organization works on being truly representative for all of these many groups.

Snehal Desai: You’re exactly right. Asian-American is such a massive monolith, right. It's covering, you know, dozens of countries, many, many countries, billions of people <laughs> and so many cultures and heritages and traditions. And I think when you earlier asked about season planning, what's different for me when I'm season planning is also breaking apart the monolith so that we are looking at not only the types of stories we're telling, I'm also looking at the cultural tradition, so is it a Filipino-American story? You know, and if we program that, do we have a Japanese-American story? And then whose story haven't we told or heard from in the diaspora? So whether it's a Hmong story or a story about the Micronesian community, you know, those are all factors that we try to take into account when programming because there's just so many different cultures and heritages that fit under that umbrella and I think the big thing is for folks to be able to see us, outside of that monolith.

Jo Reed: I agree. I agree. And I wonder if working your time at East West Players, whether it's really broadened your own appreciation for both the depth and the scope of Asian-American cultural contributions and possibilities that can happen on a stage?

Snehal Desai: You know, very, very much so. I mean, I think the history and the legacy of the Asian-American community and their contribution to this country is something that we are not taught. You know, it's not a part of the curriculum in schools, particularly in public, you know, K-12 education and that is something we're trying to change. Because I think by understanding our contribution and folks learning about it, it just establishes that we have much deeper roots, right. And helps with that sense of displacement many of us feel when you are from an immigrant household. And so I think that is something that a lot of that history I just did not know and that we have sought to excavate and to tell those stories has been very, very important. And then I think the other thing is the community of artists, the critical mass of Asian-American artists that is out there that are graduating from programs, but also finding their way and non-traditional path are not being given the opportunities. And East West Players is oftentimes that place: they're taking our classes for the first time or they're oftentimes getting their first professional break. They're getting their equity card through us. And I think we are still a very important pipeline that way.

Jo Reed: What frustrates you the most about the way Asian-American artists are typically represented in media, on the stage?

Snehal Desai:  I just saw a study that was released that said 50 percent of roles that Asian-Americans are cast in in Hollywood and TV and film tend to be either sidekick or stereotypical roles or roles where they're kind of the brunt of the jokes. And that's still happening today, and East West Players was founded to break outside of those molds. And the other statistic that really sits with me today and is tied I think also to the rise in hate-- heated rhetoric against the Asian-American community, is that 42 percent of Americans cannot name an Asian-American. So 42 percent of folks in this country just cannot name one Asian-American that comes to mind. And then next on the list is Jackie Chan and after that is Bruce Lee. So, you know, who Bruce Lee has a wonderful legacy, but he has also been gone for a few generations and folks can't think of a living Asian-American. So to me, that just shows how invisible we still are.

Jo Reed: I just need to take that in for a moment. I had no idea that that was true. That's just shocking. Well, as you mentioned, here you are, East West Players, dealing with not just a pandemic but also a time of violence against Asian-Americans. And it was a time where you couldn't gather. So how did East West Players respond to all this? What kind of programming were you able to do?

Snehal Desai: You know, I think the pandemic has, you know, shaken up our field in a number of ways that have been positive. I think one of the ways that it's really changed things is access, right. So now anyone with a computer and internet can access the programs of East West Players, our shows, as well as theaters throughout the country and other performing arts organizations. So I think the access has changed to us and it's allowed us to go from, you know, theater is such a local art form from having a, you know, a strong audience base here in Los Angeles in Southern California to now an international audience. So folks from the Philippines watch our crazy talented Asian episodes. And we have now a following in the Midwest and in the Northeast. And so I think the access aspect has changed things as has what our sense of time is for artistic works, right. So that online <laughs> as we know, sitting for an hour, it can be very, very challenging. But now we can tell stories in 15 minutes and in 30 minutes so that they're not in the traditional ways that we know of 2 hours with an intermission. So I think those things have been really, really great. And for us, it has been trying to bring our stories to life, you know, as best as possible through this digital medium. And I've been really interested in ways that the, you know, innovative storytelling could interact with the work that we do.

But in terms of everything that's been going on, you know, around the hate crimes against Asian-Americans, I really believe in empowerment through storytelling and I really believe it is really hard to deny someone once you've heard their story and seen their face and heard their name. And so, for us, it was just about that. It was just starting to we created a series of PSAs that were just Asian-American artists telling us their stories about times that they were bullied or they were attacked or kind of the things, the names that they have been called. And, you know, these are true experiences that they are sharing that we have been able to as an organization share nationally so no one can say that they haven't met an Asian-American or that there isn't an opportunity for them to hear about what the experiences are for an Asian-American in this day and age.

Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about some of the programming that's going on now at East West Players. You're doing a hybrid season?

Snehal Desai: Yeah, we are. We are. <laughs>

Jo Reed: As we all are these days. <laughs>

Snehal Desai: Exactly, exactly. I was, like, I move from being one <laughs> hyphenate into another. And We actually have hybrid, virtual and in-person things coming up in the fall. So one is a show called "The Sitayana," which is fully virtual, which is the story of the classical Indian text "The Ramayana" told from the perspective of Sita, Ram's wife. So it's similar to what Margaret Atwood did with "The Odyssey" in creating "The Penelopiad," which was "The Odyssey" told from Penelope's viewpoint. And the interesting thing we did there with this play is that we also wanted to shine a different light on the diversity within femininity within particularly South Asian culture. And so we shot the play with three different actresses and they're in the same play but three completely different versions. So one is kind of a graphic novel inspired version; one is inspired by what we call Mehndi or henna art; and then one is a kind of a teenager's version. And audiences basically will be able to choose which version they watch each night of the run. So we wanted to keep the story still interactive. And then we have this thing called the Kaidan Project, which is a sequel to an immersive site-specific experience we did. And this is an app where it's a ghost story and it's interactive, so it uses VR so you can be sitting in your house interacting and watching the app and the story and then suddenly it seems like it's snowing in your living room. And so it's a way to bring the technology to, you know, again, to make it immersive, to put you as the audience member at the center of the story and build it around you. And then the story culminates in what, you know, we hope folks will come to Little Tokyo and continue the last leg of the journey and that, if you keep the app open, has GPS triggered movements. So as you wander around Little Tokyo different things will be triggered in terms of the story and different things unlock. So it is, it's a whole new world of technology, of app building, of storytelling for us, but it's really, really exciting. And we're working with this company Rogue Artists Ensemble on that.

Jo Reed: We all know about the ongoing conversation for theater as well as other sectors and communities about the need to prioritize diversity, equity, access, inclusion in their internal practices as well as on the stage. And for East West Players, you're at a different starting point, but I think one thing we all know about this work is it's not one and done. It's ongoing work. And I'm just wondering some of the ways you continue to do this work.

Snehal Desai: Yeah. You know, and I think you nailed it. One of my <laughs> big red flags is if I go in for a conversation or a training around ED&I practices or any of that and you know, someone asks, "Well, when do we know we're done with the work?" or, "When do we know we have accomplished it?" And to me, because the work is never done and what it means for you to engage in this work is to create a system and apparatus where you are constantly reevaluating who is not at the table, whose voice has been marginalized, who has not been welcomed into your space? What does it mean to be an inclusive and safe space for those who have been marginalized? And so for us all of that is just baked into our mission as it has been for so many theaters of color and culturally-specific institutions. And for me, it just means two things. One, you know, if we are going to do this advocacy work, for us to model the behavior that we talk about, right, so that we practice those things that we are hoping our colleagues in other institutions will also incorporate into their organization. And so it's been very important that we make sure that we continue to expand the tent of who we are as an organization, that we are diverse. And I think that's the future, right? As we become multi-racial households, none of check off any one box in our life, right? I don't check off being Asian-American and prioritize that over being LGBT, right. Or gender or, you know, culture or heritage. And so for me, it's about creating a space that is inclusive of all aspects of who you are. And I think that is what we continue to try to do at East West Players. And a lot of that just means you have to create-- be ready for those hard conversations. You have to be open to feedback and listening from other folks. And you have to constantly be asking yourself, you know, as an organization, who is not here?  You know, who would we like to be with us and why aren't they here? What are the practices that have contributed to them or their community not coming to East West Players and what can we do about that?

Jo Reed: Okay, here's the self-serving question. <laughs> And that has, how has funding from the National Endowment for the Arts helped support the work of East West Players over the years?

Snehal Desai: The National Endowment for the Arts has been so generous and we are so grateful for the support. And the thing that I love about NEA support is two things. One is that we're able to apply for project-specific funding, which is actually hard to do in this day and age, right. So that we're able to apply for support for various productions or for development of a work is something that is really, really key. And, you know, and we are very grateful that during the pandemic, the NEA has been so open to plans shifting and changing and things like that. And then the other thing is I think the continuity of support, you're not guaranteed it, but, it is something that has been there for East West Players year in and year out and that has been very key during some really hard lean years that we've had.

Jo Reed: And I wonder finally, you know, what it's like for you to be the artistic director of East West Players right now at this particular moment in time? You're such a visible group with a long, wonderful history behind you and clearly moving forward into the future. But it seems that you're so well-positioned with the voices and the stories that we really need.

Snehal Desai: You know, I think for me as an individual, it's just even, just, you know, you'd say that and I was like, "Who is that person?" It's humbling, right, to be at an organization with such a rich history and legacy. And the other thing I really love about East West Players is the committed community of artists that are connected to our organization, you know, and how supporting they are of us, whether they are working here or not or whether they have gone on to other stages in their career. And we're just doing the work. And as an organization, sometimes we lean a little bit more heavily towards being a theater artist organization; sometimes more being a social justice organization. And to me, what is so important right now is visibility for our community and that our stories get out. That people see us, you know, that we are not diminished, that people see us as their friends and neighbors and family members and not as this other which can oftentimes happen through politics and all these other things. But it's also such an exciting moment to be, you know, to be here at East West Players. There is such a rich community, as I had mentioned, of artists and of audience and there's so much opportunity out there and possibility. And so we're really looking forward to what comes next, right. I think we're all looking forward to <laughs> what comes next after the last couple of years. But to me, I'm also looking at, you know, how can we retain these audiences that we have reached now digitally. How can we bring back our in-person audiences and how can we make sure that we as truthfully as possible are trying to talk about what the Asian-American experience is.

Jo Reed: Well, thank you so much, Snehal. I really, really appreciate you giving me your time. And everything you do, so thank you.

Snehal Desai: Thank you so much for this opportunity.

Jo Reed: That was Snehal Desai he’s the producing artistic director of East West Players—you can find more about them at eastwestplayers.org. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Keep with up with the NEA at arts.gov or follow us on twitter @neaarts I’m Josephine Reed –stay safe and thanks for listening

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Snehal Desai is the producing artistic director of East West Players (EWP). One of the longest running theaters of color, EWP is now the nation’s leading Asian American theater company. For half a century, EWP has been raising the visibility of Asian Americans and inspiring and advocating for a world free of racism and discrimination through transformative theater. In this podcast, Desai talks about programming with and for the diverse communities of Asian Americans, how EWP navigates the intersection of social justice and art, the importance of theater in combatting racist stereotypes, leading an Asian American theater company at this particular moment in time, and his own journey as an artist of color.

And be sure to check out our issue of American Artscape, Showing Strength through Creativity: Equity and Access in the Arts for Asian American/Pacific Islander Communities