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Snehal Desai was born in Pennsylvania to parents who emigrated from India. Desai graduated with a BFA from Emory University and an MFA in Directing from the School of Drama at Yale where he founded the South Asian Theatre Collective.
Growing up as a young, gay, Indian-American in predominantly white elementary and middle schools was a challenge for Desai. As a result, he found himself wanting to be immersed in different stories, places, and characters, eventually finding his way to theatre. He dealt with many barriers (including close-minded audition processes and a lack of representation) in classic American stories. As a result, Desai decided to create and produce the stories that he wanted to see himself.
Desai first joined the East West Players (EWP) in 2013 as a Literary Manager, and has been the company’s Producing Artistic Director since 2016.
Located within the historic Union Center for the Arts in downtown Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, EWP has been home to AAPI artists and other artists of color for over 55 years. It has promoted the voices of many playwrights, directors, actors, and activists since 1965, and is one of the longest-running theatres of color. EWP is the nation’s leading Asian-American theatre company and specializes in transformative theatre that allows for activism and socially conscious messaging to be embedded within their stories.
“The founding of EWP came out as 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 leading roles where oftentimes in Hollywood, they’re relegated to sidekick roles. And the second was for Asian-American artists to tell Asian-American stories,” Desai explained during his podcast interview with the National Endowment for the Arts.
Desai and the EWP have worked with other theatres and social justice organizations including Center Theatre Group, the Japanese American Cultural Community Center, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and Asian-Americans Advancing Justice. Desai prides EWP on being able to take on social justice topics that aren’t often discussed in Asian-American communities including mental health, sexual orientation, and accessibility.
Desai’s theatre directing credits include The Who’s Tommy, A Nice Indian Boy, Allegiance, The Hungry Ghost, Bandage, Baal, and Free Outgoing, among others. He has received the Tanne Award, was the inaugural recipient of the Drama League’s Classical Directing Fellowship, and is a recipient of a 2014 Doris Duke Grant. He is also a member of the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab. His mission, as well as the mission of EWP, is to promote a world free of racism, discrimination, and unjust practices, as well as to develop and advocate for artists of color everywhere.