American theater has long been a lively forum for political activism and consciousness-raising, and in these turbulent times its role is as sharp-elbowed as ever. It's the perfect moment, in other words, for an artist like Snehal Desai.
"There's always been a strongly political part of me," says Desai, 38, who in July 2016 was appointed artistic director of East West Players, one of the country's most important Asian-American theater companies. A recent production was Allegiance, George Takei's musical about his Japanese-American family's experiences in an internment camp when he was a child during WWII.
"Theater excels at making performers and audiences imagine what it's like to be in someone else's shoes," Desai says.
He learned early on what it was like to be an outsider. "I grew up in a very rural town in Pennsylvania, a place where people looked at me differently and I stood out. Theater became an escape for me."
He pursued acting through middle school and high school. "When I was 16 I did my first project outside of school. It was a play called Into the Black Hole, inspired by a true story about a woman who had suffered from spousal abuse at the hands of two men. Early on in our run, we performed the play for a domestic violence shelter. I saw the impact of what theater can do and how it can affect lives and speak to social changes."
When college beckoned, Desai's parents — immigrants from India — persuaded him to pursue something more serious. Ironically, it was honoring his parents' wish that honed Desai's theatrical sensibilities. He enrolled at Emory University as a political science major but continued to study theater.
In his junior year, he took a directing class. "That's when things clicked for me, and I found my place and learned how to bring a vision to life."
Desai went to Yale University to pursue a master's degree in theater. It was a period of creative fervor. "I was frustrated by the white Western canon and didn't see myself reflected in it." So he wrote and premiered a one-man play at Yale Cabaret, then toured with it for two years. Its title was an eyebrow-raiser: Finding Ways to Prove You're Not an Al-Qaeda Terrorist When You're Brown (and other stories of the Indian).
After graduating from Yale, Desai started his career in New York. A directing fellowship at San Diego's Old Globe brought him to Southern California in 2013. During his busy six-month stay, Desai came to L.A. to attend a theater conference. That's where he met Tim Dang, then producing artistic director of East West Players.
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A conversation led to an invitation to attend an Asian-American theater conference at EWP. Desai returned the following year to work on a solo play he had written; in the spring of 2014 he directed his first production at EWP, A Nice Indian Boy.
Dang stepped down in 2016, at the end of EWP's 50th season, and gave Desai complete control of EWP after a two-month transition period.
Desai points to a common shortcoming of larger theater companies: Their boards don't fully reflect the demographic complexion of their communities. "Our board includes people of color and women and someone who's under 30, because they're all important parts of our community."
He doesn't want to wall his theater behind a thick veil of exclusivity. "I want to create an inclusive theater where people can be fully who they are. In order for us to do that, we need to create a space where all communities are welcome."