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STAGE : Out of the Woods? : East West Players bounced back from the brink of insolvency, only to face criticism that non-Asian influences are diluting its identity

<i> Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

In April, East West Players, the oldest Asian-American theater company in the United States, found itself in a crisis. Rumors abounded that the troupe, founded in 1965, was on the verge of closing. Artistic Director Nobu McCarthy termed the situation “precarious.”

New board members were recruited, including Jeff Smith, corporate manager and assistant to the chief executive officer of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., who was appointed East West Players’ first non-Asian board president.

It was a move that typified the continuing arts debate over separatist versus integrationist approaches to and definitions of multiculturalism. McCarthy characterizes the choice as one more example of East West’s newfound diversity, but others see Smith’s appointment and the theater’s increasing diversity in casting and programming as a diminution of its mission.

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Guy Lee, one of the company’s co-founders and now an agent, fired off an angry letter to McCarthy. “I don’t believe this is the time to open (East West) up to being a rainbow coalition,” he wrote. “I don’t think Asian-American actors have enough access to other theaters at this time.”

“We are based in Asian-American-ness, but expanding it to outside multicultural experiences,” McCarthy says. “We are asking the white theaters to diversify, and it’s well for us to keep on doing what we think an Asian-American theater should be doing, but we should also have expansion.”

Just when you thought the M-word was off the P.C. list, it’s alive and well at the Silver Lake home of East West Players. “We are still building Asian-American-ness, and that comes first,” McCarthy explains. “But at the same time, we cannot negate our neighbors or blindfold ourselves. We are multicultural now. We are responsible to be both. Whoever wants to come in, we have to welcome them. The balancing is the key.”

Striking the balance may be difficult, but so far, so good for McCarthy. When East West opens its season this week with a production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” it will mark her fourth year at the helm. “Things are,” as she says, “in really good shape.” The company has announced five shows for the 1992-93 season, which has a budget of $300,000.

While the company is better off fiscally than it has been in a long time, McCarthy is also navigating a tricky course into the ‘90s. The changes she has engineered in the interest of both administrative and artistic change have caused tongues to wag.

Only two years after the “Miss Saigon” controversy--which centered on the casting of an Anglo actor in the role of a Eurasian--Asian-American theater artists across the country have a newfound activism. And with its own share of recent upheaval under the bridge, East West is on a roll. Subscriptions are up, the board has nearly doubled in size, and the company is expanding its educational programs.

New grant monies are also coming in from both public and private sources. East West was one of the lucky few awarded a $50,000 Arts Organization Stabilization Initiative grant from a new program run by the Los Angeles County Music and Performing Arts Commission that channels private and public funds. In addition to this money, which was awarded in July, the company will also have the chance to receive another $300,000 in the future.

“Asian-American theater is only 27 years old, as long as this theater has existed,” says McCarthy, a veteran actress who was in the 1991 Mark Taper Forum production of Philip Kan Gotanda’s “The Wash.” “We’re still beginning, still solidifying the ground. I’m responsible for tilling this ground, so that future generations can stand on its platform. If we don’t do it, no other people will do it. It’s really up to us.”

East West Players was launched in the basement of a Sunset Boulevard church in 1965 by a group of theater artists and friends that included Rae Creevey, James Hong, June Kim, Guy Lee, Pat Li, Yet Lock, Beulah Quo and Mako, who served as the company’s first artistic director. At that time, there were no other Asian-American theaters in the United States, but there was an increasing faith in the viability of ethnically specific institutions.

The majority of theater, film and television’s best-known Asian-American artists--from playwrights Gotanda and David Henry Hwang to such actors as John Lone and Sab Shimono--have passed through East West’s doors.

Perhaps more important, East West set an example for other institutions. The country’s three other Asian-American theaters--San Francisco’s Asian-American Theatre, New York’s Pan Asian Repertory Theater and Seattle’s Northwest Asian-American Theater--were all founded during the ‘70s. The several part-time producing companies in North America, including Toronto’s Can-Asian/Sansei North Productions and Chicago’s Paper Angels Productions, have also looked to the East West beacon.

McCarthy was invited to join East West Players when it was launched, but she didn’t find time to become part of the company until 1971.

In 1989, founding artistic producing director Mako and East West’s board of directors came to loggerheads. The board charged the founder with nepotism--with regard to directorial assignments for his wife, Shizuko Hoshi, and the potential casting of his daughters--and Mako, who had always reigned as the theater’s undisputed leader, resigned.

McCarthy took over in the wake of the crisis, but she didn’t inherit a totally sound operation. Although East West had come to be relied upon for a certain type of theater, there were also artistic, political and financial liabilities.

“Mako had this theater for 25 years, so he knew exactly what he wanted to do and how he wanted to handle it,” McCarthy says. “He was very independent.”

This independence caused its share of problems.

“When I came in, East West Players was solid in the artistic direction that Mako wanted to go,” McCarthy says. “But what I didn’t see was multiculturalism, and the administrative end was also weak.

“This theater was founded by actors, so when I came in, actors were the administrators and the board of directors. We didn’t know how to raise funds. We did have NEA and California Arts Council grants, but not any from any corporations.

“That was my battle for the past three years, to get in touch with the people that we need as board members,” she says, adding that 14 new members have joined, bringing the total to 34, eight of them non-Asian. “When people saw East West Players’ financial state, they said, ‘I don’t know. . . .’ ”

The diversification of the board has extended to the staff. In addition to McCarthy, the company currently includes general producer Tom Donaldson, who is non-Asian. On the artistic front, East West’s current season includes works by playwrights Hwang and Gotanda, whose L.A. premiere of “Fish Head Soup” will be directed by Oskar Eustis, a resident director at the Mark Taper Forum.

Not surprisingly, the “Miss Saigon” experience still looms large in any discussion of the plight of Asian-American theater artists. Asian-Americans continue to battle to play roles at major venues and to have artistic directors view Asian-American plays as potential moneymakers on Broadway and elsewhere.

Gotanda’s “The Wash,” for example, was only the second Asian-American main-stage production at the Taper, and it took seven years to make it there. After an initial workshopping at the Taper, the play ran in San Francisco and was made into a PBS film. It wasn’t until the Manhattan Theater Club decided to stage the intergenerational drama that the Taper joined in as a co-producer.

The silver lining of the “Miss Saigon” flap, however, was that it focused some attention on a longstanding problem.

“Two years ago, the Asian-American community finally noticed that these performers are suffering because of this (stereotypical) imagery that has been (put forth) for so many years,” McCarthy says. “A lot of people never thought twice about it before that.”

That, and the lure of healthy box office, is why East West stages at least one popular non-Asian musical each year, albeit with an Asian-American cast.

“We’re doing ‘Into the Woods’ to show that all musicals do not necessarily have to be portrayed by blond-haired and blue-eyed people,” McCarthy says. “During ‘Miss Saigon,’ we were told that Asian people are not talented enough, and we’d like to prove that’s not true.

“Asian-American performers do not often get the chance to perform any of the major roles in plays, and East West Players’ mission is for them to have that opportunity. But we also have multicultural casting, not only within the Asian-American communities. In ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author,’ we cast colorblind, and we had a whole range (of ethnicities represented).”

“I started out as an actor,” says “Into the Woods” director Tim Dang, who joined East West in 1980, fresh out of USC. “Then, two years ago when this ‘Miss Saigon’ brouhaha happened, I decided to empower myself. If we can’t get our work seen, I better start directing and writing my own things.”

Dang’s first original work, last year’s “Canton Jazz Club,” was staged at East West and, the playwright says, will “probably be done in New York next year, as well as in the Bay Area, and we even have a little nibble from London.” Dang has also proposed an idea for a musical based on the Tian An Men Square massacre, for which he’s hoping to snare a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he will direct a staged reading of Elizabeth Wong’s “Kimchee and Chitlins” at the Mark Taper Forum’s “Out in Front” festival next Sunday.

“I thought that it would be challenging for the actors to sink their teeth into roles that they would not normally get to play outside of East West,” Dang says of the choice of “Into the Woods.”

It’s also a directorial opportunity he probably wouldn’t find elsewhere right now: “Because I have this Asian face, they think, ‘Let’s interview Tim Dang for this Asian play.’ But I would love the opportunity to do any other play. I don’t think I would get that opportunity anywhere else.

“There is more of a community feeling here. We’re all working together toward a single goal, to improve the image of the Asian-American. When you work at another theater, you’re constantly reminded that you’re Asian. I get bombarded every day. No matter how subtle, it is racist.”

“Outside of East West Players, you’re Asian,” says East West staffer Noel Alumit. “But at East West Players, you’re an artist. It’s that simple.”

“I have been in the business for 36 years, and some things have changed but not much has really changed at all,” McCarthy says. “Especially when ‘Miss Saigon’ hit, I felt like I was pulled back 50 years into 1930s Hollywood.”

Of course, there are also commercial reasons for presenting such works as “Into the Woods,” and McCarthy and colleagues acknowledge that the theater has a much easier time selling tickets for this kind of fare.

“I believed it was something that would bring in the audience,” Dang says. “The riots scared people about going out at night, and the recession has made people really choosy about their entertainment dollar.”

McCarthy is bent on establishing a better system for nurturing Asian-American artists, although this isn’t controversial like some of her other innovations. Classes and outreach programs have only come and gone until now, and they were mostly gone during the last few years of Mako’s leadership.

“I firmly believe that artists have to be forever learning,” McCarthy says. “My No. 1 (goal) was to build a writers workshop, which was never here. Without writers we cannot build anything.”

The David Henry Hwang Writers’ Institute, a two-year, four-part program for beginning through advanced playwrights, is now in its second year. It culminates in staged readings of the participants’ scripts in a New Works Program and a full production of one student’s play as part of the regular East West season, which usually comprises four to six productions.

The Philip Kan Gotanda Series, also new under McCarthy and financed by the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, is a three-year project during which the playwright will bring forth and present the work of new talents. Still on McCarthy’s wish list are such ventures as a musical theater workshop and other training pro grams. Hwang and Gotanda will seek out new writers from an array of cultural backgrounds.

“We are searching hard in the Korean, Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian communities,” McCarthy says. “This is Asian-American theater which is truly multicultural.”

What holds McCarthy back isn’t lack of vision but more prosaic constraints such as space. “We only have one theater, and it’s difficult to schedule everything that I have in my mind in that one room, plus rehearsals and performances,” she says, referring to the single-stage theater that has been the company home since 1971. “We’re expanding quite fast right now, but at the same time, we don’t have the space.”

At least, though, improvements are being made in the technical capabilities of that one space. “Finally now, we’re putting in a new electronic lighting board and sound board, but it took us 27 years,” McCarthy says.

McCarthy also believes that the company has not historically programmed an inclusive Asian-American repertory and that the theater’s funding and audience development suffered because of that.

“This Asian-American theater produced quite a bit of Japanese-American stories and few Chinese or Chinese-American or Philippine-American stories,” she says. “I guess the reason was that Japanese-American writers caught on first. It became almost like a Japanese-American theater. Chinese-American community people refused to support this theater because they could not see anything that they could identify with here.

“Audience development was coming in from one corner, specifically second-generation Japanese people. We’re into educating the audience that we are all Asian-Americans.”

In the year in which citywide events--including a co-production by East West and UCLA of Wakako Yamauchi’s “12-1-A"--are marking the 50th anniversary of Japanese-American internment, the notion of an Asian-American community identity is still in the embryonic stages.

Even though Asian-Americans suffer stereotyping and limited opportunities along with African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians and others, before “Miss Saigon” they were not always perceived as an aggrieved minority. Assimilation, combined with an accrual of political clout, has only made the situation worse.

“The Asian community history is still new compared to white, Hispanic or black society,” McCarthy says. “The first (priority has been) survival, then the children’s education. They have little space for the expansion of their arts and culture.”

Even McCarthy is hard-pressed to come up with icons of popular Asian-American culture.

“Asian-American culture, what would that be?” she asks rhetorically. “We do have a culture, but not a specific rooted culture in America like black people have blues and jazz. Asian-American culture (means) maybe a railroad builder or victims of concentration camps.

“The concept of Asian-Americans or any minority has not really changed. I always ask the directors and producers in film why that is, and their excuse is that the population of Asian-Americans is so small that viewers don’t care (about them), that they are not up to seeing Asian material.”

Persistent as the problems may be, though, McCarthy is optimistic about both the future of Asian-Americans in the arts in general and of her theater in particular. The key is adapting the institution to keep up with the times.

“Theater can be the voice for Asian-Americans,” she says. “We do have a certain stereotypical image, but we do have our own voice. We do have dysfunctional families. We do get angry. We are human. The gap between East and West may not meet, but people will at least understand.”

Yet given tensions such as that between the African-American and Korean-American communities now, it’s going to be that much more difficult for McCarthy to chart her multicultural course.

“Since the riots started, I have been contemplating that it’s very necessary for us to talk to, say, (the Inner City Cultural Center’s) Jack Jackson and Hispanic theaters to work together,” McCarthy says, noting a project she envisions in which representatives from the Asian-American, Latino and African-American communities would go to inner-city schools. “I’ve been talking to UCLA about that, but it hasn’t really materialized.

“I know the government is really stressing diversifying and multiculturalism,” she says, citing as evidence her experiences serving on the NEA’s opera and musical theater panel. “I see that they are really trying, but sometimes they’re trying without understanding.”


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