A talented and successful director with awards and nominations from LA Drama Critics Circle, LA Weekly, Drama-Logue, Robby, Ovation, and NAACP, Caryn Desai is also the artistic director / producer for International City Theatre (ICT) in Long Beach. She has extensive experience in acting, directing, producing, and administration, as well as a certificate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Other certificates in arts administration, marketing, and fundraising prepared her for running a successful non-profit organization dealing with arts and education. For over 20 years, she taught college classes at Long Beach City College and received the Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2018, Caryn was named Distinguished Alumna from the College of the Arts at California State University, Long Beach. She was recently named “Enterprising Woman in the Arts” in Long Beach. Clearly, Caryn is a busy woman who likes to get things done. She took time from her busy schedule to interview in April 2020.
When and how did the International City Theatre first form? Were you involved from the beginning?
Caryn Desai: International City Theatre (ICT) started in 1985 on the campus of Long Beach City College under the 99-seat plan. The theater was founded by Shashin Desai, who was chair of the theater, film, and dance department at the time. I have been involved from the beginning - but not officially until 1990, when I became general manager. Shashin retired ten years ago, and the Board unanimously named me to lead. I’m now the artistic director and producer of ICT; in my free time, I also do some directing. In 1996, with the encouragement of then-Mayor Beverly O’Neill, ICT moved downtown to the beautiful Long Beach Performing Arts Center. We work with Actors Equity Association under the small professional theater contract. Everyone is paid, both artists and crew. I’m proud to say that 2020 marks ICT’s thirty-fifth anniversary.
What are some of the most popular plays you've done? How about awards?
CD: Over the years, ICT has received more than 400 professional awards including the LA Drama Critics Circle award for sustained excellence. In 2015, we also received the LADCC award for outstanding season. We have had many plays which were real people-pleasers. Some of ICT’s most popular plays have included Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, and Life Could be a Dream. Both are from ICT’s 2019 season and broke 34 years of presale records. Prior to 2019, some of our most popular shows included Backward in High Heels, To Kill a Mockingbird, Swinging on a Star, and Dinah Was. We try to select productions which are entertaining, intellectually stimulating, and fun.
When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?
CD: ICT was lucky enough to complete the run of our thirty-fifth anniversary season opener on March 8. ICT runs on a calendar year, so that was our first show of the season. Our offices were forced to close with little notice on Friday, March 13, along with everyone else in the County. The next show we planned, Daisy, was a California premiere we selected for its relevance and importance in this election year. We were supposed to start rehearsal April 7. We’ve moved Daisy to the next slot for a June opening and bumped another show to our 2021 season.
How has COVID-19 impacted on your theater?
CD: To date, ICT is facing lost revenue from one cancelled show so far. We don’t know if there will be future cancellations, and we don’t know how many patrons will want a refund. Right now, it’s hard to predict the impact this will have on season renewals. This is especially disheartening, since subscriptions are our bread and butter and have been up over the last six years.
ICT also has a very active and strong commitment to education. We have six programs for every demographic from age 4 to 104. Most programs are free, including a popular in-school program for third graders which I created at the request of the school district based on my 20 years as a college instructor. That program makes about 480 classroom visits annually. On the other end of the spectrum, ICT runs a Senior Program which provides tickets and transportation to low income seniors to keep them mentally and socially engaged. These are two of our six programs providing access, education, and inspiration to our community. This is a loss for our students, our community, and our teaching artists.
Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Are you streaming? Do you have virtual meetings? Are you planning for your next show when the theater can reopen?
CD: ICT has reached out to the union for some flexibility in allowing possible streaming, and obviously affordability is an issue. We’re having discussions with teaching artists, and we may be able to have virtual classes for our Summer Youth Conservatory - or even our school programs. Currently, all meetings with the executive committee and the board are virtual. The staff is working remotely and communicate mostly by email and phone. The Daisy cast did a virtual read-through on their own. This is a challenging time for all of us, what with our poor artists and audiences isolated from each other and from the work that feeds our souls, brings us together, and helps us understand our shared humanity and the world in which we live. It’s painful for those of us who value and understand the importance of live theatre.
What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?
CD: I have to remain hopeful that this pause will motivate those who have the capacity to ensure the future of this most human art form to take action. It would be sad to see this battle we are in with a horrific virus win by losing a voice from any of our many diverse companies and artists.
What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the Theater public?
CD: Right now, I need to stay strong, hold my small team together, and find a way through this. I hope the theatre public will stand by ICT and provide the support needed to survive and grow. That would be a victory over this foe and something to celebrate — the spirit, strength, passion, and commitment to art! That feels like America to me!
What are some of your future plans?
CD: ICT has a strategic plan outlining goals for the next three years, including greater investment and further development of this art form, increasing earned revenue, growth of our education programs, and ensuring accessibility to professional theatre for all. This was certainly not how we planned to celebrate our current milestone. ICT’s little team in the office has a motto: “It’s never easy, but it’s important.” We never anticipated it would be this hard! Here’s to better days. Onward!
This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.