“To further cultural understanding between the East and West by employing the dual Oriental and American heritages of the East-West Players.”
That was the statement of purpose of Los Angeles based theater group, East West Players when they formed over three decades ago. Known as the premiere Asian American theater organization, they not only give Asian and Pacific Americans opportunities that they might not otherwise find, but they also involved heavily in numerous workshops to help young actors hone their skills through numerous art education programs.
East West Players was formed in 1965 with nine members that included well known and respected actors such as Mako and James Hong. At the time, it was a way for them to preform and cope with discrimination that many Asian American actors had to face on a day to day basis as well as in the professional arena of stage and film. From those beginnings, it has blossomed to a theater company that works with over six hundred people annually and who’s members have gone on to Oscar and Tony winning careers and whos alumni includes such names as Pat Morita, George Takei, John Cho, Dante Basco, Amy Hill, Alec Mapa and Freda Foh Shen.
Bridging the divide is the goal of the EWP and they do this by presenting performances that tell stories of the Asian Pacific experience. To accomplish this they’ve put on productions of theater staples such as Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd, original shows such as Christmas in Camp II (a show conceptualized by Mako and written by Dom Magwili, Mako and Keone Young) and adaption of traditional Asian Pacific stories and theater traditions like Ernest Harada’s Monkey and Karen Yamashita’s O-Men: An American Kabuki. With productions that range from drama to comedy and a catalog of shows that has both American classics as well as continually adapting new material, the EWP has an audience that consists not only of Asian Americans, but also a growing number of non Asians who now make up close to half of their audience. This in itself is a testament not only to the talent that the EWP develops and fosters, but also to the stories that they tell.
Not only a group of actors, the EWP also has a long history of arts education, offering a long standing Actors Conservatory that caters to actors of all ages, skill levels and ethnicities. They also have several long standing youth programs including teen acting classes, a touring show called The Youth Tour that has rotating shows and a summer program called Creative Play. Their most high profile program would most likely be Partners in Education and Arts Collaboration, a program to bring theater to schools that would otherwise not have the funding for an arts program. It’s goal is to bring students a basic understanding of theater skills, to help improve English language proficiency for non native speakers as well as installing a feeling of cultural pride and an appreciation for the cultures of others.
Continually developing and fostering new talent takes place not only on stage with actors, but also behind the scenes where the EWP works to pull in new stories. Through the David Henry Hwang Writers Institute, named for the Tony award winning playwright, writers can find a series of classes designed to hone their skill and develop new shows that can be one acts, full length productions or even scripts to be adapted to film like “Visas and Virtues” which was written and directed by Chris Tashima and won the 1997 Academy Award for best live action short film. Working with the Japanese American National Museum, they also host The Writer’s Gallery where readings and sections of new shows that may be developed for future performances can be previewed.
For actors, the EWP host a career development program and database called the Alliance of Creative Talent Services or A.C.T.S which helps Asian Pacific American actors promote themselves and holds talent showcases for major studios to find new faces. Working with networks such as CBS, ABC and NBC as well as other advocacy groups such as the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, they also gather information about how the networks (and movie studios) are diversifying the shows they develop to reflect an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural country.
With over three decades behind them, the EWP aren’t slowing down. In 1998 they moved to a the historic Union Center for the Arts in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district where their main stage, the David Henry Hwang Theater, can accommodate an audience of 240 people. Their current production is Road to Saigon which is running through June 13.