Snehal Desai (02C) was recently appointed Artistic Director of East West Players in Los Angeles. Desai spoke with the Wheel about what he’s learned from and since his time at Emory.
[Being Artistic Director] is about moving East West Players to that next level as an organization and as a theatre of color. It’s continuing my work as an artist in terms of telling stories that affect change. What I think theatre does — or what art can do — is that we [can] personalize and put a face and name to a story or situation that stays with you, that resonates.
[Living] in L.A. now, there’s still a diversity disability component in terms of even getting a fair shot.
[East West Players] is cutting new ground in that there really aren’t and haven’t been many role models [for theatres of color]. It’s not because the artists aren’t there or the talent isn’t there, but the opportunity has not necessarily been there.
What I’m proud of is that we’ve had to break through and lead the way [for theatres of color].
I was born and raised in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. It was a conservative community, which was not necessarily the place where I felt home. When you grow up in [a small town] you think that there are a limited number of options and places that you can go. Coming to a place like Emory, I … was, in a really great way, overcome with opportunities and chances and things to do. And what that really made me question was who I am and what I want to do.
Growing up, I was kind of the outsider to a lot of my town. I was one of the few people of color and from an immigrant family, and that allowed me to see the world in a different way.
So many [Emory] professors have this ability to see more in you than you see in yourself at that moment. All of them, in different ways, were able to see a career for me in theatre that I … had not been able to see.
The best professors gently push you, but they’re also encouraging and supportive.
Make sure that you’re not so focused on a job and career in your undergraduate that you don’t take the time to explore and push yourself and to try new things … I loved evolutionary biology — it really opened up my world.
I finished my major a little early, and I … was missing … that artistic place in my life, that balance. I didn’t want to graduate early, so I started taking more and more theatre classes, and I really found a home.
We were on campus when 9/11 happened, and I think that was such a traumatic and transforming moment for the country. The sense of both community and camaraderie was so strong and affecting [on campus]. The administration, the professors and the student body really just [came] together in strength and solidarity, especially since so much of the student body is from New York. I remember the vigil we had on the [Quadrangle] the next day. It felt like the whole campus was there, and we were still kind of reeling … That was one of the moments where I was so proud to be an Emory student … I was so affected on 9/11 and in those days afterwards.
I made lifetime friends [at Emory], and I think that’s important. You never know how that’s going to happen or where that’s going to happen or who it’s going to be, but some of the closest friends of my life have come out of my time at Emory.