A concern with nepotism coupled with a desire to broaden the casting opportunities and the range, professionalism and horizons of East West Players appear to have been at the heart of the dispute between East West’s board of directors and its founder-artistic producing director, Mako, who stepped down this week.
In his letter of resignation, Mako, who founded the theater in 1965 and served until recently as its virtually unchallenged leader, outlined the reasons for his departure. He singled out three of five resolutions adopted by the board at its annual retreat on Oct. 22 that he says he “could not live with.”
One was the board’s decision to make the position of managing director “parallel” to that of the artistic producing director, and both subject to supervision by the board. The second was the adoption of a policy limiting the participation in the theater of persons “related by blood or marriage” to board members or other theater employees. And third was the adoption of a policy limiting the artistic producing director to “directing, designing or performing in one production per season unless otherwise approved by the board.”
Mako’s letter stated that he found these resolutions “contradictory in nature to the creative process” and “beyond the reality of running a theater on an everyday basis.”
“Even though they say that (limiting family participation) is a general policy,” Mako elaborated Thursday, “I’m the only one with a wife who acts and directs and daughters who want to act. Perhaps they wanted to get rid of me.
“This season was unique. We had to deal (with the Waiver disputes) with Equity. I had to be away on location during the annual retreat and I had instructed our administrator to discuss that (issue). Instead (the board) decided to table it and talk about nepotism.”
Andrew Wong, chairman of East West’s board of directors, said Mako’s resignation was expected.
“We love Mako,” he said. “He’s held the company together. At no time did we want his achievement or his dignity to be diminished. But we had differences of opinion about the limits of authority.
“He told us he could not live with any type of restriction from a board of directors. We noted some weakness in casting. The same people were being cast over and over again. We felt we needed to encourage the participation of more young people. Eighty percent of the people in the current production (“Laughter and False Teeth”) are new. We did go over Mako’s head and also selected a director (Robert Ito) who is new.”
These actions and the board’s decision to pull a production of Naori Naho’s “Potato Flowers Don’t Bloom,” which Mako had unilaterally decided to do, apparently brought matters to a head.
“ ‘Potato Flowers Don’t Bloom’ is a play that was thrown on us without warning,” Wong explained. “Mako informed us his wife (Shizuko Hoshi) was going to direct. And we had just told him we wanted more openness. We came head-to-head on it. It wasn’t just a matter of artistic decision. We felt it was important to give more actors out there a break.
“I don’t think the problems were so great until Mako’s daughters grew up. It was important for this change to occur. I think people on the outside have been waiting for it.”
Beulah Quo, a co-founder of the group with Mako and a former board member who served eight years as board president, was also not surprised by the events.
“I was aware of the discussions,” she said Thursday. “I’m deeply fond of Mako. We sat in many storefronts together. No one had his dogged perseverance. But people do get tired and the theater needs a new direction. It has to keep up with the times.
“Our playwrights need to explore more than the (internment) camps. Theater has to reflect the community. There is a need to look at other Asians in this town and do productions that embrace the experiences of our new immigrants. We should have some nontraditional experimentation, regardless of race, color or creed, including blacks, Hispanics and Vietnamese. And we should try to develop an outreach program.”
As for the nepotism issue, “It’s been the (focus) of a lot of the complaints,” Quo said. “You can’t use your family too much.”
Meanwhile, a search is on for a new artistic director. And the board’s eye seems squarely focused on expansion keyed to East West’s projected move to larger quarters downtown, as part of the First Street North redevelopment project that managing director Michele Garza says should happen in about three years.
“We want to remain on good terms (with Mako),” Wong said. “I would hope he’d sit on the board and help us select a new artistic director. We want the best. The person doesn’t even have to be Asian. Michele (Garza) is not Asian, but she’s the best. We have to evolve. We have to grow.”
Asked if he would participate in the theater, Mako’s answer was qualified.
“I can’t say no,” he said, “but at this point I’m not sure. As you know, boards rotate every few years. I’ll be perfectly willing to work there again. In any capacity.”
Does he have allies on the board?
“I thought I did, but 90% of the (board members) are not (allies).”
Can he recommend who his successor should be?
“I have no recommendation. I do not want to make their task (in choosing a successor) easier.”