For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.
TCG: When was the moment that you decided to take on an executive leadership role in the field?
Snehal: While in grad school, I took a class titled Founding Visions. The course covered the founding visions of a variety of theaters around the country and inspired me to further investigate the history of theaters of color in this country; particularly Asian-American theater companies. It was in doing so that I saw how many of our theaters, particularly those of color, still have their founders at the helm: Tisa Chang at Pan Asian Rep, Woodie King Jr. at New Federal Theatre, Lou Bellamy at Penumbra, and, at that time Ellen Stewart at La Mama Theatre. I also recognized at that point that leaders who have helmed their companies for twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years were ready, willing, and wanting to have the discussion of what the future of their companies would look like when they decided to move on.
Action, courage and tenacity, combined with vision, are key qualities that, for me, comprise good leadership; and traits that these founders all have in common. In the end, it was what one of these leaders with a founding vision said that inspired me to take on an executive leadership role: “All this that I have done, is so that artists such as you can have a stage to speak from and an audience for your voice. I don’t have any children myself but you are my legacy.” At that moment, my voice did not make much of a sound in response. However, since that conversation, I have come to recognize that the greatest thing that a legacy can do is lead on.
TCG: What issues in the field do you hope to address?
Snehal: In a recent New York Times article it was stated that by 2042, people of color will make up a majority of the United States population. As an artist, I seek to be a mirror that both reflects our world and society back to us in new ways and also a periscope that we can see into, and through which we can visit vast new worlds. However, in order to be a mirror that reflects the world we live in back to us, our stages need to be populated by artists and stories that resemble the world we live in— and this requires action on all our parts.
The other issue that concerns me as a theatermaker who is both an artist and an arts administrator, is finding a sustainable way for theater artists to make a living in the theater. These short-term, project-by-project transactional relationships between theatres and artists that seem to be emerging as the norm, instead of long term investments that nurture and support mutual growth and a larger artistic voice, leave me wondering what the future of American theater will look like in twenty to thirty years. Will a life in the theater simply become a side hobby for playwrights, designers, actors, and directors after they have made the money to live elsewhere? I would couple all of this with further dialogue of what comprises our classical canon of work. I believe it is time we examine what is deemed a “classic” and who determines that attribution and why.
TCG: What can you attribute as a ‘game changing’ moment in your career?
Snehal: I don’t think I have had one gigantic game changing moment but have had many small ones that have shaped who I am and the journey I have had. Each of those moments has come exactly at the right moment, though it may not have felt like it at the time—and there are certainly people whose wisdom and guidance have helped pave the road. I am grateful for Vinnie Murphy for pointing the fledgling actor in me towards directing. To Liz Diamond for making a professional director out of me. To Robert O’Hara, Tisa Chang, Jennifer Conley Darling, and Roger Danforth for stretching me beyond my comfort zone to create the work that I wanted to see on our stages but have not found yet, and finally to Tim Dang for pushing me to never accept, “because that is the way things have been done in the past.” as an answer. Tim and other theater leaders such as Sheldon Epps, Seema Sueko, and Bill Rauch have taught me that being a responsible leader is about speaking the hard truths and that sometimes what is necessary to shake things up is a good mic drop. Often times when the term “game change” is used it is from the perspective of what someone has done for you to shake things up. What Tim, East West Players, and the Los Angeles theater community have taught me over the past year and a half is that you can wait for someone to change things for you or you can empower yourself to change the game.
Snehal Desai is currently the Literary Manager/Artistic Associate at East West Players (EWP) in Los Angeles. At EWP, he recently directed the rock musical The Who’s Tommy and the world premiere of A Nice Indian Boy. Snehal was the inaugural recipient of the Drama League’s Classical Directing Fellowship and part of the inaugural class for the TCG Spark Fellowship. As a director, Snehal has worked at: the Old Globe, La Mama, the Old Vic, Ars Nova, the Lark, and PS122. He is a former resident director with Theater Emory and Ensemble Studio Theatre. Snehal is a recipient of a Doris Duke Grant, the Tanne Award, a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship. He was a literary fellow with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a member of the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab. Snehal has toured his solo show, Finding Ways to Prove You’re Not an Al-Qaeda Terrorist When You’re Brown, across the United States. He holds a MFA from the Yale School of Drama. www.snehaldesai.com