February 17, 2003

Director effect

By Eric Rangus erangus@emory.edu

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 a
year ago.

“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.”






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