He’s just 22 years old, although he appears younger. Judged
by looks alone, Snehal Desai may not be the most intimidating presence
in the room.
But then you study his accomplishments.
Resident director for Theater Emory (TE) and the artistic director
for TE’s Playwrights Lab, Desai has acted in, directed, managed
or written well over 30 plays. His track record trumps some theater
types twice his age, his profile is continuing to rise, and his
versatility is striking.
In December, Desai was artistic director for Shakespeare &
Music, a presentation that mixed TE actors with the Emory Symphonic
Orchestra. The event, which interspersed orchestral and opera selections
based on Shakespeare’s work with scenes from his plays, was
the debut theatrical presentation in the Schwartz Center for Performing
Arts and drew an audience of more than 500.
This summer, he directed a children’s play, Mike’s
Dirty, Yucky, Icky, Sticky Adventure, which went on a national
tour. Now Desai is directing a short piece at Dad’s Garage
(Mothers), and he is dramaturg and vocal coach for Homebody/Kabul,
a collaboration with theater studies’ Vinnie Murphy.
Most recently, he directed a reading of The Window, written
by Emory senior Brian Green, as part of the Brave New Works festival.
It was Desai’s first time working in the Schwartz Center’s
theater lab, and more then 75 people came out to watch, filling
the room. Not bad for someone who graduated from Emory less than
“I like to be involved in all areas of production,”
Desai said. “A director gets to set out a vision for a piece,
and that’s what intrigues me the most. I read a play over
and over again until I start seeing it in my head, or see ways to
stage it. That’s the idea—having a concept and seeing
it slowly materialize, step by step, into something on stage with
performers and an audience.
“I enjoy being able to sit back, watch and be there with the
audience as they are seeing this thing that you helped create,”
he continued. “You get to watch their reactions, and a lot
of times they’re laughing and clapping at different times
than what you thought, and you appreciate it either way.”
Through his work with the Playwrights Lab, Desai has been able to
act in and direct readings of pieces not only by student and local
playwrights but by national ones as well. He’s had steady
work for pretty much the last two years.
Easygoing offstage, Desai can be quite intense when he sits in his
director’s chair. He likes to challenge his actors (he joked
that his reputation is as the director “who makes everyone
cry”) because it takes them and their work to a higher level.
“When you push actors, they’re on edge, and I think
that brings about the best theater at times,” he said. “Everything
comes alive. I try to be sensitive to them, but I like actors who
are a bit out of their element. I look for challenges that force
me to become a better director, allow me to expand my range and
keep me on my toes.”
Desai never has ducked controversial, thought-provoking material.
At 16, he made his professional debut in a play about domestic violence,
Into the Black Hole. In addition, Shakespeare &
Music included several scenes of same-sex kissing.
“Most of my work has dealt with adult issues, such as politics,
sexual orientation or gender or race identity,” said Desai,
whose honors thesis was an adaptation of Jose Rivera’s magical
realist play Marisol. “These are issues that are
different with a human presence on stage as opposed to acting on
television or in the movies. I love the live interaction between
the audience, and the moments of catharsis we feel communally as
we experience a production.”
Young directors like Desai don’t have an easy time of it,
either. It can be difficult to cultivate respect from older, more
experienced actors. Desai has to earn it, and so far he has.
“You hope to develop trust during the rehearsal process,”
he said. Rehearsal for most full productions runs for at least a
month; a one-time performance like Shakespeare & Music
had a shorter rehearsal time: two very intense weeks.
“Professional actors in general will play off the way you
present yourself,” he said. “So I just try and get respect
through the way I handle things.”
Although Desai took part in theater productions throughout his undergraduate
career, he didn’t think seriously about a career in theater
until the end of his junior year. A political science major, he
had originally intended to go to law school and even interned in
a congressional office.
While he enjoyed acting and worked hard at his craft, Desai’s
love of directing was what made him think twice about a career change.
“I realized that there might be a possibility for me to have
a career in the theater as a director, because that’s a place
where race matters less.” (“The reality is there aren’t
many parts for short Indians,” the 5-foot-3-inch Desai quipped.)
He eventually double-majored in political science and theater studies
(“So much of politics is theatrical,” he said) and is
now applying at graduate programs throughout the country for a master
of fine arts degree.
Off stage, Desai is an intern in the Division of Campus Life. He
works as an admissions counselor and is a residence hall director
in Woodruff Hall. It’s a new experience for him. Although
he lived on campus all four years as a student, he wasn’t
involved with the Residence Hall Association.
His work as an RHD as well as an admissions counselor gives Desai
the opportunity to help them through some of the tight spots he
has already negotiated.
“It hasn’t been that long that I can’t relate
to their experiences or realize the pressures a lot of them are
under,” he said. “As much as possible, I try to guide
them and tell them what I’ve learned, so they don’t
repeat a lot of the same mistakes. But a lot of times they need
to learn on their own.”