International City Theatre, known as ICT, celebrated its Silver Jubilee during the weekend at its home next to the Long Beach Convention Center. ICT enters its 26th season following two of its worst on record. ICT’s founder and artistic director Sheshin Desai recalled when the economy collapsed in fall 2008.
“And everything just froze, even the grants that were coming," said Desai. "We received letters from the foundations and everybody said ‘Sorry we have committed this, but we cannot fulfill your grant,’ or ‘We will not be able to give you anything this year,’ whatever. All of a sudden, all of the money that was coming, didn’t come.”
The company fell back on the half-million dollars it held in reserve. Desai said that money kept ICT alive. Now it's begun a campaign to replenish its reserve fund.
ICT spent its first decade on the campus of Long Beach City College, where Desai taught theater courses. In the late ‘90s, the city invited him to take over the downtown Center Theatre. It was a wonderful offer, he said.
“The only problem was, and the fear was, we were coming from a 99-seat theater, going into a 750-seat theatre," said Desai. "That would be, I thought, committing suicide.”
The Actors Equity union doesn’t require theater companies to pay actors when they perform in spaces with fewer than 100 seats. The more seats a producer fills, the more that producer must pay the actors.
“And so we approached the union and said, you know, we can start with 150 seats, then 190 seats, then go to 249 seats.”
Actors Equity agreed, and today, ICT sells up to 289 tickets for each performance. It’s a graduated plan that, Desai said, keeps the company in business. In a few more years, he hopes to offer up to 500 seats per show.
ICT’s biggest challenge now, Desai said, is luring new audiences. The company is known for introducing new works – not for staging the tried and true plays you might see elsewhere. Sheshin’s wife, caryn [she does not capitalize her name], has been ICT’s general manager the past 20 years and occasionally directs. She helms the first show of the season, which opened Saturday, "Backward In High Heels."
“It’s Ginger’s story, public and private," said caryn desai. She’s talking about Fred Astaire’s partner, Ginger Rogers.
“She was a very focused young woman, from an early age. She knew what she wanted to do.”
It’s a famous line: Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backward and in high heels. Just ask Anna White, who plays Ginger.
“She not only does partnering with Fred, there’s a lot that goes into it, but she’s a great actress too, a great singer," said White. "It’s kind of a great role. You get to show it all off.”
Fred Astaire is brought to life by Matt Bauer. Lithe and nimble, Bauer found himself in awe of Anna Whte's – and therefore, Ginger Rogers’ – abilities.
“I could not even imagine having to tap and dance like we’re doing in high heels. Or heels at all," said Bauer. "And you find in the show and stuff that that’s why she [Ginger] wanted to move on with her career and do other things and not just movies with Fred – it’s because she’s tired.”
The story is as much about the business of Hollywood as the story of a young dancer. caryn desai says Ginger Rogers was headstrong and ahead of her time, fighting for equal pay.
"The studio didn’t think that was quite lady-like at the time," said caryn desai. "She was earning less with RKO than the third actor, even though her name was above the title and selling tickets. That was hard to cope with. That was hard to accept.”
That need to sell tickets hasn’t changed, no matter what kind of theater you run, and both Sheshin and caryn Desai understand that their future, and that of ICT, depends on what boils down to consumer confidence.