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desai: That's kind of you to say. It means doing the best I can do at what I do so that I set a proper example; giving the next generation an opportunity; finding the bright young minds; giving them a chance to launch their careers; doing what I can for the community, since ICT is the city's resident professional theatre company. But ICT is also a regional theatre. We couldn't just depend on Long Beach. Our audiences come from Orange County all the way to the Valley. A lot of our programs are for Long Beach because that's the community in which we reside. But if we weren't a regional theatre, at this level, we couldn't provide that outreach or that education.
LBBJ: You mentioned ICT is the resident professional theatre company for the City of Long Beach. What does that designation entail?
desai: It means that the city council unanimously voted for that and wrote a proclamation. We are proud to be the city's resident professional theatre company. I love Long Beach; it's a beautiful city.
LBBJ: So you don't get any funding as the resident professional theatre company?
desai: Only through the Arts Council like every other arts organization that's applying. But I'm not complaining. The city does what it can. This is a tough time.
LBBJ: It's been about a year and a half since you took on the role of artistic director at International City Theatre. What was it like for you to take on that role? Were there any surprises, or was it what you expected?
desai: I've worked for the company for over 20 years, and worked closely with Shashin. I would say that, between the two of us, we were a well-oiled machine. Losing him meant big shoes to fill, and lots more on my shoulders that I had to be totally responsible for. I relish the challenge. It's hard work, but I love what I do and I think it is so important. The plays we try to bring to our community are new experiences, and it is a theatre's responsibility to reflect the ideas and thoughts and issues and concerns of society. It's always been that way. That's why theatre is such a vital platform for freedom of speech. It's our responsibility to not just entertain, but to make people think, too.
LBBJ: Tell us about this season's productions, including the last two of the season – "Ghost Writer" and "Ain't Misbehavin.'" How did you select these pieces?
desai: Our theme this year has been adults behaving badly, which got a roaring start with "God of Carnage." Adults were definitely behaving badly. We did very well with that. Then we did a West Coast premiere of a new rock musical, "The Fix." I liked it a lot. I can't say we broke box office records. I'm not sure people wanted to see a show about politics in this political climate. But it really makes you think about how we groom a politician, and how important it is to do your due diligence and your reading and research about a candidate. What a vital role we play. Then we did a real fun one, "Leading Ladies," followed by "Ghost Writer" and "Ain't Misbehavin'." I'm more excited to tell you about the 28th year, next year's season.
LBBJ: Great. What's happening next year?
desai: Passion is our theme. We'll open the season with "Around the World in 80 Days," which is based on Jules Verne's novel. It's five actors playing 39 roles. It's a wild romp around the globe. It's crazy.
That's a passion for adventure. Then we'll showcase passion for music with a Tony winner and a Drama Desk winner for Best Play – Terrence McNally's "Master Class," about the great diva and renowned soprano Maria Callas. Then we have a passion for connection with the Helen Hays Award winner for Best Play – Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone." She's a quirky writer, it's a quirky comedy. I love her stuff. Then we have a passion for art. We're doing the Tony and Drama Desk winner for Best Play, John Logan's "Red," about Mark Rothko. We're going to end the season with a very funny comedy by a French writer called "Don't Dress For Dinner," representing a passion for mischief. People may have seen one or two of those, but it's also about new experiences. Plays have something to say, some have a very quirky, funny way of doing so.
LBBJ: Let's talk about casting. You had mentioned "God of Carnage" was a huge hit, and I saw on ICT's blog that the casting call attracted thousands of actors from across the country. How do you narrow down the number of candidates to a final selection for a production?
desai: We were one of the first regional theatres to get the rights to do that play. Whoever is directing works with the casting director for a breakdown, and that means a description of each character. You have to ask what you are looking for as a director. It includes age, ethnicity, maybe some traits like being good with timing, with comedy or emotional connection, and then a little description of the character. Then the casting director will sift through the thousands. We may also have people to see, and the casting director may already know people who meet that criteria. In addition to that, you're looking at résumés for people who have done some work that might be similar. Training is important, so whatever training you have should be on your résumé.
As a director, casting is the most important thing you do. The final choices you make with casting are going to influence that production more than anything else. Because when it comes down to it, the whole experience at the theatre is between the actors and the audience. So it's stressful. I guess it's a blessing that we live in an area where there are a lot of actors. There's never a shortage of actors, but sometimes there may be two or three that you like so much, and you have to decide which way you're going to go because you know it's going to make a difference. Because of the union we have to have an open call, so anyone can come audition. You never know who's going to walk in on that.
LBBJ: How far in advance do you try to select actors for a given production?
desai: For "Ain't Misbehavin'," we just did final casting. Today [August 28] we got confirmation that [all the parts] are all booked. The casting director booked them, because he does all the calls to the agents. They start rehearsal September 18, and then they have three weeks to rehearse the show before the first preview. That's it to learn it all. . . . A smart actor is going to go in and read the play before an audition. In this day and age, when you can e-mail scripts, it's not like running down to the theatre to pick up a copy. I don't know why you wouldn't.
LBBJ: Let's talk about ICT as a nonprofit. You raise funds through ticket sales, memberships and grant funding. How successful has this fundraising year been in comparison to past efforts?
desai: Like most nonprofits, we're still facing some challenging times. We're certainly planning and working on fun development and what we're going to do for the future. In the meantime, we have our big fundraiser on September 29, and that is crucial to our bottom line. That event typically brings in about $250,000, so it's vital. We have some great honorees this year. We have Bill Collier from Keesal, Young & Logan; Mort and Susan Stuhlbarg, who are just wonderful to so many organizations; and the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, which does a marvelous job for our community under Steve Goodling's leadership.
LBBJ: As a nonprofit, what challenges does ICT face today in seeking continued or new community support?
desai: Let me talk about subscribers, who sign up for a whole season, and what a vital role they play in nonprofit regional theatres across the United States. It's the subscribers who are keeping theatre alive, and I'll tell you why. Obviously we're not doing shows like "Lion King," and don't have budgets like commercial theatre in New York. But we're also responsible for the next generation of writers, the next generation of plays that are going to speak to our society. I love theatre history. If you look back at the plays you can understand what was going on in society at any particular time. It's so fascinating.
That's our responsibility. So I know that if I didn't have a subscriber base, I couldn't do "Ghost Writer." Subscribers provide a base of support for a whole season, and that allows me to take some risk because we already have a little cushion there for the play.
Of course I'm going to try to sell it, but it's a hard sell. It's a new play, and people don't know it unless those who saw it and loved it are out talking about it. I try to encourage word of mouth; it's our best advertisement. If you were a company trying to stay in business and you had to market each play on its own by itself, it would be so hard to justify doing a play like that because you already know you're taking a hit. Ticket sales only pay for maybe 45 percent of our budget. Subscribers are just gold, and so vital. I don't know if they understand their role, but I hope they do and I hope they appreciate it.
Whether they subscribe to ICT or another theatre, they are keeping theatre alive across the nation.
LBBJ: What is your general opinion of the performing arts in Long Beach?
desai: There's a lot going on. I think Long Beach is a very vibrant city and there are certainly lots of things for people to do. That was one of our motivations in moving downtown. With all of the urban living now we are within walking distance. But we have a wonderful symphony and Musical Theatre West, so there are lots of organizations doing good work. If you appreciate ICT or any of the other institutions and value our availability and what we provide to this region – through main stage productions, in the schools and to the community – you need to support us. It's like a favorite restaurant. You drive by, find out they are closed and think how much you loved that restaurant. But in truth, when was the last time you were there? We take things for granted too often.
LBBJ: Do you think local government has been continually supportive of the arts?
desai: To the city's credit, as hard as it is with their budget, they still have managed to eek out a little for the arts. Obviously it's not enough, and I know they know that, but it's something. Until better days come, which I hope are soon . . . we get 20 percent of what we used to get. That's a big change. That's money you have to find somewhere else.
LBBJ: This is the 27th year for ICT. What lies ahead for the theatre?
desai: Good question. For the main stage, I'm going to continue to negotiate for the rights of the plays that our community should be exposed to. I want to continue to grow our audiences. I think it's going to be even more important moving forward. That personal connection, that eye-to-eye contact – theatre is the most human art form. It's actor to audience, and it's people. I think people are going to be hungry for human communication because we get more and more isolated with computers and texting. Interpersonal communication is really important to the future of our country and our world. The ability to communicate to people can't just be through computers, because people read things differently. . . . Sometimes you wonder, "Is there any hope for humanity?" because we keep making the same mistakes. But, see, that is the important word – hope – because the people that believe in trying to make a difference, trying to make a change, have to continue. Or there is no hope.
LBBJ: The show must go on.
LBBJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
desai: I think it is incumbent upon the people who do go to the theatre to introduce the next generation. They may not choose it on their own because it's foreign. I knew that from teaching college. I would always make tickets available for students, but they don't know what to expect. They don't even know how to dress. They would ask me, "What do I need to wear?" It doesn't matter. Just go. We have student rush tickets at $15, just show your I.D. It's a great date night, particularly for new people, because at least afterwards you have something to talk about. That's what theatre is supposed to do: create dialogue and create understanding. But if you're not there participating, you're not benefiting.
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