Tapping Into East West's Energy Source

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

In 1980, a young actor named Tim Dang joined East West Players, a group that was recommended by one of his teachers at the University of Southern California, where he had just graduated.

Arriving for the first time at the ramshackle East West headquarters, near the eastern end of Santa Monica Boulevard, Dang asked a bald man--who was sitting out front and "looked like he was guarding the place"--for directions to the person who would accept Dang's first dues check. The man silently pointed, and Dang went inside.

After paying his dues, Dang was immediately sent to meet the "guard" out front. The bald man was in fact Mako, the company's co-founder, longtime artistic director, Academy Award nominee.

Mako, who "always looks like he's going to chew your head off," in Dang's words, coolly assessed the newcomer. The veteran actor then told Dang how rough his chosen road was, as an Asian American actor in Hollywood. And after a few minutes of conversation, he pronounced Dang a "banana"--yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

Or at least that's how Dang remembers it. "I was speaking well, but I didn't know anything about Asian American theater," Dang says. "So in essence I was a white person."

Nearly 18 years later, Dang has learned a thing or two. Since 1993, he has been the artistic director of East West Players, America's flagship Asian American theater company. And now, more than any other individual, Dang's in charge as East West ventures away from its 99-seat theater on Santa Monica Boulevard to its new mid-sized home in Little Tokyo--and to a much more prominent position on the L.A. cultural landscape.

Dang, by himself, was the entire East West staff during much of last year--after others were laid off in a reorganization designed to cut costs in the dormant period just prior to the big move. Now the staff has begun to rebuild, but Dang is still doing just about everything--including directing the new theater's opening production, "Pacific Overtures."

Don't worry, he can do it all, contends Lynn Fukuhara-Arthurs, president of East West's board and an enthusiastic Dang fan. "He sings, he acts, he manages, he raises money, he's never late," she exclaims. "He's the glue that holds all this together. There is something magical and contagious about Tim. If it were any other artistic director, I wouldn't be there. The board trusts him implicitly."

Even when she and Dang disagree, she says, "he bounces right back. He's very mature about taking constructive criticism."

"I am in awe of what he has done, business-wise," Mako says. "I tend to shy away from political problems. Tim tenaciously pursues them."

Mako doesn't remember calling Dang a "banana" on the day they met, but he acknowledges that he may have warned Dang about his banana potential. In Dang's first years with the group, when Mako was his acting teacher, Dang "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 says. "It was a matter of relearning, reexamining, starting from zero."

Dang is the first to admit that "we weren't told a whole lot about our culture" when he was growing up in Honolulu. He was fourth-generation Chinese American on his mother's side, and fifth-generation on his father's. "My parents didn't know how to speak Chinese--only the food and the cuss words," he says.

During World War II, his mother drove a truck at Pearl Harbor and his father was in the military, stationed on Guadalcanal. In Hawaii at that time, "you wanted to be as American as possible"--or at least not Japanese. "People wore buttons saying 'I Am Chinese,' " Dang says.

His father became a Shell Oil executive and his mother a court reporter. Staunch Catholics, they sent their four sons and one daughter to parochial schools. At St. Louis High School, Dang first went on stage in a musical version of "Everyman," followed by roles in "The Bald Soprano," "Godspell" and "The Drunkard."

Applying for college ostensibly as a math or physics major, Dang made sure the schools also had active theater departments. He chose USC not only because he got a full academic scholarship, but also because of USC's proximity to Hollywood. His housing was paid for by his brother Peter Dang, who's now a top Hollywood marketing executive (the upcoming "Godzilla," the Power Rangers).

Soon, Dang abandoned math and science, and he graduated in theater arts. He began trying to make a life as an actor, initially supporting himself for five years at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Hollywood, working his way up to head waiter.

As he began tackling Hollywood auditions, Dang soon realized that most of the available roles for young Asian American men were as gang members or butlers. "That's what showed me what East West is all about--to develop roles and writers that we otherwise might not get to play," he says.

So it was mildly ironic that his first role in an East West production was one he had already played, in high school--the character in "Godspell" who sings "All Good Gifts." Dang appeared in a number of East West productions, and stage managed others, during the '80s. "I moved from Mar Vista to Silver Lake to be closer to people with common goals."

He also achieved some success in Hollywood, with a recurring role on "General Hospital" as the leader of a gang called the Green Shirts ("but it was a good gang, like the Guardian Angels") and in commercials. "At that time, a lot of corporations were finally trying to capture the whole American scene" in their ads, he recalls.

A 1989 rift within East West--when the board forced Mako to resign--was "a complete shock," Dang says. "At first my concern was, 'Who's going to be my acting teacher?' " However, Mako's successor Nobu McCarthy gave Dang and others opportunities to direct and write as well as act; Dang staged and wrote the lyrics for the 1991 musical "Canton Jazz Club."

Meanwhile, the 1990 furor over the casting of "Miss Saigon" launched Dang on the road "from actor to activist," he says. "It taught us how much of a voice the Asian Pacific actor could have." He soon got the chance to speak out on a long-term basis. McCarthy "began mentoring me to the point where I might succeed her"--which happened earlier than he expected, in 1993.

Since his appointment, Dang has steered the programming more toward musical theater, especially the work of Stephen Sondheim. East West even produced a CD of its actors singing Sondheim.

Mako--himself no slouch in the Sondheim department, as the star of the original "Pacific Overtures" and as director of East West's first production of "Overtures" in 1979--says he probably would have opened the new theater with another play associated with East West, Wakako Yamauchi's nonmusical "And the Soul Shall Dance," if he were still artistic director. "Soul" is about Asian Americans, who are the theater's "roots," Mako says. "Overtures," about the opening of Japan to the West beginning in 1853, is set entirely in Japan.

In fact, East West revived Yamauchi's play in 1996. However, Mako's staging of "Overtures" was the company's biggest hit ever, Dang says, and he wants a hit to open the new space. He also believes the musical will show off the new theater's potential for spectacle--and that "the crossover appeal" of Sondheim's work is important. "If East West is to survive on this new level, we too have to open up, as Japan did in 1853. We're now in a city-owned facility. We have to share it with the other people of Los Angeles."

After corresponding with Sondheim and the show's librettist John Weidman, Dang cut two brief scenes, updated the finale, and turned the character of the American Commodore Perry--who was portrayed as a lion in the past--into a demon, in response to a Kabuki consultant who noted that the lion is a revered figure in Kabuki. He also has given the Japanese musical instruments equal weight with the Western instruments, in contrast to the original production, where he believes the Japanese musicians were more "decorative." Not that Dang saw the original or Mako's L.A. staging--but Dang did star in a production at Irvine Civic Light Opera in 1991, even wearing the same costumes that Mako had just worn in a San Jose revival.

For this new production, Dang offered the same role to Mako, who declined, on the grounds that he had been there, done that. Mako was interested in directing it, however. According to Dang, the board felt that Mako shouldn't be kept on hold through the many delays in the construction of the building, and "they also wanted the responsibility to be on my shoulders."

The themes of "Pacific Overtures" should appeal to the Japanese community in Little Tokyo, Dang says, "and we're here not only as an arts organization, but also to stimulate revitalization." Yet East West has been criticized for focusing too much on Japanese Americans at the expense of other Asian Americans. Dang's Chinese American heritage doesn't eliminate that possibility--he admits he's more conversant in Japanese than in Chinese and knows more about Japanese theater than Chinese theater.

So the rest of the season is "a conscious effort to have more of a balance," Dang says. It includes a play by a Thai American to be directed by an immigrant from Singapore, a play set in Hawaii with native Hawaiian and white characters, a multi-Asian American pageant tied to the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush, and a play about Joan of Arc (written by Asian Americans).

How secure is the rest of the season--and East West's fiscal future? The group's annual budget is expected to double, to about $1 million, within the next year. "Pacific Overtures" alone is costing $130,000, more than double the cost of most of the other productions in the new space and more than three times the cost of a musical in the old space.

"It's certainly a big leap, but they have the skills to make it work," says George Thorn, an arts consultant who advised the group for two years. "They achieved their goals on their capital campaign. They work very hard." And when Malaysian entrepreneur Vinod Sekhar pledged $1 million to East West early last year but failed to produce a penny, "they didn't budget that money. They set the non-money aside. Others might not have been that cautious."

Rod Y. Nakamoto, a financial planner and a former corporate controller who's on East West's board, recently got the group's non-paid title of chief financial officer. After examining the books, he says revenue targets are "more than achievable"--and based on a mere 55% of the tickets being sold, which he says is conservative. "I wouldn't be optimistic if they were flying by the seat of their pants," he says, "but they've carefully budgeted for a long time."

Board President Fukuhara-Arthurs notes that Dang himself put together the most recent fund-raiser, "and people were very responsive. People cannot say no to him." Each board member has agreed to raise at least $6,000 during the year, as opposed to the recent $2,000 target, she noted. "We're looking at the light at the end of a long tunnel," she says, "and it's very bright."

Thorn and Nakamoto give Dang credit for the business side, too. "Tim is on top of it," Nakamoto says. "He knows how the numbers are pulled together. That gives me a good feeling that it's not just pie in the sky."

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