By Ashley Steed
Cultural Navigation: What Diversity Means
When Tim Dang stepped down as the Artistic Director of East West Players in 2016, he told the LA Times that he didn’t know what the next chapter in his life would entail. Although he’s no longer running a theatre, the ethos behind his leadership is clearly still his driving force.
Dang coined the term “cultural navigation” and has spent the past few years expanding on what that entails and educating leaders on what true diversity means. “I think that whenever a theatre contemplates doing a work that they are not necessarily familiar with the culture or the environment [presented in the play] that they need to invest some time with the tastemakers of that community, to get a pulse of that particular community that they are trying to portray on stage,” says Dang.
For him, it’s about more than tokenism – a company can’t simply put on one “Asian” or “African-American” play and consider themselves diverse. It’s about making a commitment to specific communities. “You really want to invest that time in the community,” he says. “You want those tastemakers [of that community] to come be a part of the process. Even from the first day of rehearsal – to have them in the room, at the table, to be a part of the conversation.”
He and director Leslie Ishii co-founded of the National Cultural Navigation Theater Project in order to formally expand this process. They first reached out to Bill Rauch, Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, about bringing this initiative to the Ashland community, and proposed working with them for two years. “We were able to introduce ourselves to the Asian community in Ashland, Oregon” says Dang, where only 2% of the population is Asian (compared to 11.4% in Los Angeles).
He continues, “Every lunar new year, [the Asian community has] a parade that they put together with Ashland and they have over 6,000 people attend. Leslie and I went there and started to ask questions and investigate ‘how did you do this?’” Both Ishii and Dang wanted to know not only how they got a predominantly white community interested in the Lunar Festival, but how they can translate that into theatres reaching out to other communities.
They’re one year into this two year process. “It’s a really deep dive into the community that’s more than ‘let’s share marketing lists.’ It’s deeper than that because we want to get that community to come to the next show. We want [minority communities] to invest in the theatre,” insits Dang.
This investment can only happen if there’s a complete paradigm shift. “It takes a shift on all levels,” he says, referencing education, LORT and regional theatres, and Broadway. “All of it needs to shift at the same time. And that’s where this notion of cultural navigation has to happen. It’s not just one entity doing it, everyone has to be in synchronicity. It is a challenge in making that shift happen.”
Even though this shift is a challenge, he’s adamant that the shift is indeed happening. “What I think is really exciting is that there’s a transfer of leadership that is happening right now,” he says. “One of the things that I wanted to do when I left East West Players in 2016 was to transfer that leadership to the next generation.” Although he passed on the reigns of East West Players to Snehal Desai, he’s still leading the charge for inclusivity, adding, “I still want to be a part of where Asian American theatre is going.”
The East West Players and 51%
Having lead the charge at East West Players for 23 years, it’s understandable that Dang would want to continue paving the way for diversity and inclusivity. He saw the company through many significant changes, primarily moving from their 99 seat theatre in Silver Lake to their current location, a renovated church in Little Tokyo which led to them becoming a full Equity company in 1998.
Dang’s departure from the company was planned five years in advance. “I believe in strategic plans – like a five-year plan,” he says, “and looking at it at least twice a year so you can guide the board of directors [and] guide the staff. When we came to the strategic plan that ended in 2016, that happened to be our 50th Anniversary so I thought that it was a great time to plan an exit on a high note of the anniversary and give it over to new leadership.”
At this time, the board was also discussing their own issues of inclusion and diversity. One would think that being an Asian American Theatre, they already check off that diversity requirement but they wanted to expand that diversity further. For instance, at the time, nine out of 12 board members were men.
This became the impetus for the 51% Preparedness Plan which urges theatres to become more diverse by having 51% of their companies comprised of people of color, women, and those under 35.
Dang admits, “I was being challenged by other people in the field because I was pushing diversity and so they challenged me to look at East West Players.”
This plan was created not only in direct response to Dang being challenged but also by a report from the US Census projecting that by 2042 ethnic and racial minorities will comprise a majority of the population of the United States. The children of mixed heritage and mixed race is growing, and in 2016 the number of infant births were just over 50% mixed race.
“Once you add culture to it, who are you? What are you?” asks Dang. “All these questions of what makes you you become really important. I think this discussion [about diversity] is going to continue to evolve for at least a generation.”
This discussion is also happening on a governmental level in Los Angeles. Dang is on the board of the Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative through the LA County Arts Commision, which was created explicitly to improve diversity in cultural organizations. Supervisor Hilda L. Solis states, “As a leader in the arts and perhaps the most diverse County in the nation, Los Angeles should be at the forefront of discussions and actions taken to improve cultural equity.”
“The rest of the country is actually watching LA to see how well it does,” says Dang. For him the focus is on creating pipelines for artists and to introduce them to current leaders. “You tend to employ people that you already know – because you’re comfortable with them, you’ve known them a long time, you know what you’re going to get out of them when you hire them. If you have a pipeline that introduces you to other [more diverse] talented artists at an earlier stage, these people will grow with you and will become a part of your circle.”
When Dang first introduced the 51% Preparedness Plan, Rauch was the first person to say yes. “He calls me every season to say ‘we have 51% women and at least 51% of people of color on our stage.’”
However not everyone jumped on board. “The theatres that we did get pushback from were [accusing us] of setting goals,” an illegal practice. Many of the companies pushing back simply fell back on the notion that they just want to hire the best people. “What does that mean?” asks Dang. “Bias and prejudice” play a role in hiring, even subconsciously. Thus for Dang, “hiring the best people” is an empty excuse. If there are no pipelines for minorities and women, then these companies will never evolve. More artistic directors and leaders need to be mindful of the communities they’re serving and the opportunities they’re creating.
“That’s what the LA County Arts Commission is trying to do with the Cultural Equity Initiative. We are building those pipelines,” says Dang.
In the first year of the initiative they had 8 out of thirteen recommendations approved by the Board of Supervisors, putting $1.1 million toward diversity and inclusion initiatives. Part of these recommendations will actively affect non profit arts organizations in LA that receive grant money from the Commission. “The application process for any grant in LA County that’s due in the 2019 cycle requires a Diversity and Inclusion policy as part of their strategic plan,” explains Dang. It’s going to take time for companies to adjust, but the question of “how [does a company] increase diversity in [their] strategic plan, whether it’s the board of directors, staff, to programming?” is going to be an ongoing conversation.
One aspect of the 51% Preparedness Plan that’s easy to overlook is the inclusion of those under 35. It’s clear that the next generation of artists is important to Dang as this chapter of his life is focused on mentorship. Which is no surprise considering how he first started with East West.
Back to the Beginning
While working on his BFA in Acting at the University of Southern California (USC), one of his professors and mentors, Jack Rowe, suggested that Dang get involved with East West Players as a way to work on his craft. “I did exactly that,” says Dang. “I started out as an actor but there were a lot of opportunities to learn other aspects of making theatre.”
Then the Miss Saigon controversy happened in 1989, when Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, was cast in an Asian role. That inspired Dang to direct. If he was at the helm then he’d be able to change the dynamics of casting. He talked to then Artistic Director Nobu McCarthy, saying that he was interested in directing and would like to be in rehearsals to observe her and other directors. She agreed and eventually offered him a directing opportunity. Dang says, “Nobu knew that I had a love for Stephen Sondheim musicals and many of the members of East West Players were part of the Broadway cast of Pacific Overtures. So we had a really good relationship with Stephen Sondheim.” They decided to do Into The Woods and McCarthy asked Dang if he wanted to direct. “She gave me the opportunity even though I had never directed before. That was the start of the career.”
When McCarthy stepped down from East West in 1993 she requested to the board that Dang take over. Like McCarthy before him, he’s doing what he can for the next generation. “I find it really rewarding and satisfying to be a mentor, says Dang. “And it’s not necessarily to [only] Asian American artists, but just trying to help the next generation find that opportunity” like he was given.
“I tell [mentees] one third is your talent and skill, that’s what you go to school and train for. The next third is how well you network, it’s who you know. Go to panels, meet people, shake their hands, get business cards because it’s all about who you know. The last 3rd is be authentic. Don’t try to be anybody you’re not. Don’t try to fit into their square or mold.”
He laughs, adding, “I don’t know if there’s a lot of money in mentoring.”
Nothing is the Same
Having ran a company for 23 years, Dang is adjusting to being a freelance artist. He’s just directed a show at the Sierra Madre Playhouse called Nothing is the Same which is about four teenagers in Hawaii during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He says of the staff at Sierra Madre: “They’re very smart in their cultural navigation and are having panel discussions, inviting people from the Pasadena community that have greater ties with Hawaii. They’re bringing in people with ties to the 442 battalion, the all Japanese American infantry that fought in WWII, they are inviting those people to be part of discussions. It’s really a step forward in reaching out to more diverse communities.”
Although he’d like to do more directing and acting work, the Cultural Equity Commission is taking up a lot of his time. “Diversity and inclusion is hard,” he says, adding, “it’s a different way of thinking” which takes time to challenge and change.
“What we’ve also talked about in terms of cultural equity and cultural navigation is that a lot of us are really tired in terms of bringing non people of color along,” admits Dang. Sometimes it feels like they’re telling people “‘you guys just have to catch up because we’re going [forward].’ The rest of the world is changing” and leaving you behind.
Dang has always had his eyes clearly focused on the future. The main question driving him is “how do we get [champions for diversity and inclusion] in leadership positions – so that [they] can enact change?”
Dang is clearly up to this challenge, not just by leading the charge, but by inspiring others along the way.
To read the review of ‘Nothing is the Same’, visit our friends at Stage Raw.