By any critical yardstick, the 20-year-old International City Theatre in Long Beach has been and is a resounding success. Through two decades and approximately 100 productions, ICT has garnered more than 185 awards, including the L.A. Drama Critics Circle's Margaret Harford Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatre. Sustaining that excellence has taken not only the considerable efforts of Artistic Director-Producer Shashin Desai and his wife, ICT General Manager Caryn Desai, but also a whole community of artists and businesspeople--a remarkable coalition that has fueled a remarkable theatrical institution. ICT's beginnings, however, were humble enough.
"I was chairman of the theatre, dance, and film departments at Long Beach City College," says Shashin Desai. "I had worked there for about 12 years by then, and a lot of wonderful young people were going through the program, because there was a very dynamic faculty over there. It was a very creative environment. I was consulting at the time with Universal Studios, and I knew a lot of professional people. I had a feeling that the young people going out from [LBCC], the only place they could go [to do theatre in the area] was South Coast Rep. During my [time] in the department, the college decided to build a black box theatre. It was a very nice space, a very flexible theatre. I went to the administration to ask if they would allow me to start up a professional company. I talked to Equity, and they came and examined the space. All my ducks were in a row. I said, 'It's not going to cost the college anything. I'll volunteer my services to graduating students and put them in as apprentices with the theatre. It's good for the community, good for the college, good for what I want to do, and good for the students.' I must say, it was a one-of-a-kind program for that time on a college campus, and [the college administrators] approved it. That was the beginning of International City Theatre."
A Quiet Beginning
Long Beach proclaims itself as "The International City," and that's where ICT derives its name. The theatre has often lived up to its moniker, both in choosing shows that appeal to segments of the local community and in picking plays that reveal a wider viewpoint-- humanist works with a global appeal. Such a show was chosen for its first production, fittingly enough.
"I had come across a world premiere show, a play called A Quiet End, by Robin Swados," says Desai. "It was about AIDS, and the sufferings of five people. At that time people didn't know anything about it, or very little. It was so touching, the subject matter, what these human beings were going through. I decided to do that as the opening of the theatre. [Director] Jules Aaron has been my friend for many years. I talked to him, and he said, 'I want to direct that one.' I thought that was a very good idea. As much as you might like to open a theatre so you can direct whatever you want, the smarter [idea] is not to get involved with it right away, until the theatre gets on its feet. I opened the season with three plays--two world premieres and one West Coast premiere--and chose the directors for all three of them. I tried to put the finances and people and designs and marketing together, and I think that worked very well for us. At the time I had thought, 'It will take five or six years before anybody notices us, because we are in Long Beach,' but the subject matter and the quality of the show and [great reviews] from the L.A. Times and Dramalogue--we got wonderful support.
"Theatre art is a community art, no matter how you look at it," continues Desai. "Without the support and presence of the community, theatre does not exist. I went out into the community to get them to [attend], not to give me a $100 bill. I want you to be sitting in that seat when we are performing. We got tremendous community support. At every single performance for the last 20 years, either Caryn or myself is there to greet the audience. Right now we have 51 board members, and they're all Who's Who in any book you [want], from city council members to county supervisors to corporate CEOs to lawyers to educators. They are very close to my heart. It is crucial that we are supported by Long Beach, but it's not sufficient [to take care of everything]. If I say I only want to worry about the city of Long Beach, it is not sufficient. We have to go out to get the people. What has helped us is that we [got our reputation] through new works. What happened in the very beginning was that the people who wanted to see new stuff were attracted to [ICT]."
Back in Black
In the theatre world, financial solvency is often chancy at best, so the news that ICT has been in the black for most of its lifetime--exempting an unavoidable and recently resolved downturn following 9/11--is impressive.
"The reason we call it a show business is because it's a business," says Desai. "This is a business establishment. We have our offices in the World Trade Center on the Convention Visitors Bureau floor; it's a corporate building. I do not want to open an office underneath the theatre, because that's where you're buried, and that's what you're going to be. I want to be out in the corporate world, because you're treated as a business. Only then can you afford to hire professional people. I feel personally that the most abused people in the theatre world are writers and actors. Even when I ran an Equity waiver theatre, I paid them whatever I could afford for rehearsal and performance. It wasn't much, but it was there. I never said to an actor, 'This would be good for you; come and work for me free.' Right now we're under the Small Professional Theatre contract, and we try to get as many Equity contracts as we possibly can, for designers, writers, actors. Everybody gets paid in this theatre."
In keeping with its artistic aspirations, ICT implements many programs to benefit the surrounding community.
"We have programs to touch the lives of everyone from elementary school to seniors," says Desai. "We have a Saturday Family Theatre series. We do musical programs, we do puppet workshops, and that has become very popular. There is the PACT [Performing Arts in Classrooms Teaching] program. We bring the performance to a class. The children watch the performance, and then we give them booklets that ask, 'What kind of play would you want to do?' They are participating in it, after seeing what other professionals have done. There's an internship program that we use right now for college and high school students who are professionally minded. We have a summer traveling children's theatre, and that is free performances for children, all done by professionals. We take the set and costumes, put everything in a van, and we travel for six weeks to 24 parks in the Long Beach area in the months of July and August. We have a Summer Conservatory program for children ages 7â€“15. The program is four hours a day, four days a week, for six weeks. The kids come from 9 am to 1 pm to the classes, and they take music, dance, juggling, singing [lessons]. The last hour of each class, they work on a special production they put together at the end of six weeks for their family and friends, and then we bring them to the Center Theatre to give them all the professional support to put on a production.
"Our Senior Outreach program is one-of-a-kind," continues Desai. "We go to their homes and seek out the seniors who have limited mobility or limited income and bring them in buses to our Sunday afternoon show. [We do this] once per production. They see the show, and then we discuss the show afterwards. You would not believe how they dress up [for the shows]. There was one woman [who attended] in a wheelchair--Caryn was pushing her--and she was 104 years old. She was so delighted and dressed up to see the show, and Caryn asked her, 'When was the last time you went to see theatre?' She answered, 'Oh, honey, I think 40 years ago.' We have another program called Introduce a Child to the Theatre. We help disadvantaged young adults experience live theatre."
When asked what he sees as personal highlights of his tenure at ICT, Desai expresses a fondness for the theatre's first season, when everything came together better than he could have imagined, and the recent, acclaimed production of Raisin. The theatre is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a season of plays chosen specifically to parallel the diversity of the Long Beach community, and it will honor 20 people the ICT board of directors feels have contributed greatly to the organization's success.
According to Desai, however, the goal of ICT is refreshingly similar to the desire that founded it: "We want to reap the cultural renaissance as a leading company, becoming a major regional theatre representing Long Beach to the outside world. That's our goal." BSW
For more information on ICT, go to www.ictlongbeach.org or call (562) 436-4610.