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Asian theater leader Tim Dang to step down at East West Players

Tim Dang will step down next June after 23 years as producing artistic director of L.A.'s East West Players.

Tim Dang will step down a year from now as producing artistic director of East West Players, the downtown Los Angeles theater company he’s led since 1993.

He will leave after overseeing East West Players’ coming 50th anniversary season, ending next June with a production of the musical “La Cage aux Folles” that Dang will direct.

“I thought that … would be the appropriate time to pass the torch. ... It’s the beginning of a new chapter of EWP,” Dang, 56, said in the company’s written announcement of his decision.

East West Players is a platform for Asian American theater artists -- writers, actors, directors and designers. It’s known for launching new plays set in those ethnic milieus and for bringing Asian American perspectives to shows from the standard repertory. It styles itself the nation’s “leading creator of Asian Pacific artistic work.”

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Dang said the company is about to complete a five-year strategic plan whose goals have included giving more attention to plays about South Asian and biracial characters, “because that’s the way America is going.”

Rather than shape the next five-year plan – and perhaps feel obligated to carry it out – Dang said he decided to leave that to a successor he plans to work with directly during a transition period next year.

“I want to investigate what else there is for me to do that would be artistically satisfying,” the director-producer-actor said. “This is a chance for me to leave on a high note and see what else is out there.”

He’s interested in directing musicals, ideally on a bigger scale than East West Players' annual budgets of no more than $1.4 million have permitted. Dang's directing credits at East West include 10 stagings of Stephen Sondheim musicals.

Among Dang’s most important achievements was shepherding the company from a 99-seat theater in Silver Lake to the 240-seat David Henry Hwang Theatre in Little Tokyo. That growth demanded a doubling of the annual budget. Dang helped lead a campaign that raised $1.7 million to carve a theater out of a church that had been built in 1923. Two other nonprofit arts organizations share the building.

“East West Players is extremely grateful and fortunate that Tim chose to devote over twenty years…[to] guiding and nurturing EWP through critical transitions and challenges,” board President Robert Kawahara said in the announcement of Dang’s coming exit.

A Noise Within in Pasadena and the Colony Theatre in Burbank are the only other L.A. stage companies in recent memory to have made the transition, which commits a theater to paying its employees regular wages and benefits instead of small stipends.

For East West Players, the transition was no easy thing. For about a year before the new theater opened in 1998, the company downsized staffing to free up money, leaving Dang as the sole employee.

His salary continued to reflect the close-to-the-margins finances of small and midsized theaters. Dang earned $73,724 annually for a 60-hour work week in 2013, according to East West Players’ most recent nonprofit tax return. Donations, rather than ticket sales, are the company’s biggest revenue stream.

Dang said he’s supplemented his theater earnings with occasional voice-acting roles, including Ban Bearheart, an armor-clad ursine warrior-shaman in the "World of Warcraft" video game series.

As East West Players embarks on a national search for Dang’s successor, it will continue to approach finances conservatively, mounting three productions instead of the usual four during the 2015-16 season. Dang said it has to budget to hire a search firm and pay two artistic directors’ salaries for the time in which he’ll remain aboard while his successor learns the job.

Besides “La Cage,” East West will stage a revival of David Henry Hwang’s comedy “Chinglish” (Sept. 16-Oct. 11) and the world premiere of “Criers for Hire” (Feb. 11-March 13, 2016) by Giovanni Ortega, about professional mourners in L.A.’s Filipino American community.

Dang came to East West Players in 1980 as a 22-year-old actor straight out of USC. He found a mentor in Mako Iwamatsu, the company’s founding artistic director, who was known for his Oscar-nominated turn opposite Steve McQueen in “The Sand Pebbles.”

Dang had grown up in a highly assimilated household in Honolulu that was several generations removed from its origins in China.

“He was a good student, but he had a difficult time grasping what is Asian American, how we express our point of view as opposed to the establishment’s,” Mako, who died in 2006, told the Los Angeles Times for a 1998 story about Dang.

“Starting from zero,” as Mako put it, Dang was able to catch up and become a leading artistic exponent of the Asian American experience.

“That there are so many fine Asian American theater artists today… is in large part attributable to Tim Dang’s dedication and leadership,” George Takei, the former “Star Trek” star who chairs East West Players’ council of governors, said in the announcement of Dang’s departure.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today without Tim’s stewardship, leadership and vision,” said playwright-director Chay Yew, who in 2011 became the first Asian American to lead a major, non-ethnic stage company, the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. Yew arrived on the L.A. scene as a playwright and credits Dang with helping him broaden his scope.

“He allowed me to direct plays and be part of the administrative life at East West, skills I would never have thought of [developing]. And now I’m directing a theater,” Yew said in an interview Tuesday.

Yew said that Dang stood up to a couple of board members who tried to stop East West from producing his “Whitelands” trilogy in 1996 because two of the three plays were about gay Asian Americans.

Earlier this year, Dang announced an initiative aimed at writing diversity into the genetic code of the theater scene as a whole. In a manifesto entitled “The 51% Preparedness Plan for American Theatre,” he urged stage companies to respond to demographic changes that are expected to result in nonwhites outnumbering whites a generation from now. Dang called for theaters to reconfigure their hiring so that by 2020 women, people of color or people under 35 would constitute the majority of a company’s artistic and behind-the-scenes workforce.

East West Players also announced Tuesday that Marilyn Tokuda, its director of education for 13 years, will retire next June.

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