Q&A: Attorneys and the Performing Arts

February 23, 2023

Dan Mayeda and Matt Thornton are pulling back the curtain on their involvement and pro bono work in the performing arts. Both Dan and Matt are members of the firm’s Litigation Department. Dan is based in Los Angeles, and Matt is based in Minneapolis.

Q: What do you love most about the performing arts?

Dan: I love the way that live theater can, perhaps better than any other medium, cause people to engage with lives and experiences different than their own, and thereby increase empathy and change perceptions. I also love the experience of sitting together with others in a confined but comfortable space, seeing and hearing the audience react in real time to what is unfolding on stage.

Matt: I’ve always been enamored by how a performing artist can transform a concept into a visual and audiovisual masterpiece. The process is undoubtedly long and arduous, and yet none of that comes through in the final piece. It is as if the art is, in part, making something that is really difficult look effortless. If only legal advocacy were so eloquent …

Q: When did you first get involved? And what do you do now?

Dan: I was first exposed in college to East West Players, an Asian American theatre company in Los Angeles, when I saw their production of [Stephen] Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” Seeing remarkably talented Asian Americans singing and dancing changed my life because it shattered (in a good way) my prior expectations of what Asian Americans were like, what we were capable of. I realized the importance of seeing Asian Americans on stage, on TV, in film, etc., doing more than enacting stereotypes. I realized that our portrayals could influence both our self-image and the perceptions of our community by the larger society. So when the opportunity arose to join the Board of Directors of East West Players, I jumped at it. That was in the mid-1990s, and I have continued to serve in leadership roles with this nonprofit group for nearly 30 years. In 2021, I was awarded the organization’s Visionary Award.

Matt: I was first introduced to the performing arts in elementary school. The Richmond Ballet in Richmond, VA had (and still has) a terrific program, called Minds in Motion, that teaches fourth and fifth graders basic dance moves. That planted the seed. Getting selected to participate in the more advanced dance group, Team XL, soaked the seed in fertilizer. By the time I finished elementary school, I was eager to find more opportunities to participate in the performing arts. Unfortunately, that did not culminate the way middle school me envisioned it (perhaps, as a professional dancer). But I have found ways to stay connected, including through sitting on the Board of Directors of The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company in Denver, CO, and doing pro bono legal work for performers whenever the opportunity arises.

Q: How do the performing arts influence your community?

Dan: Performing arts provide one way to address difficult issues and can bring communities together. For example, EWP has performed plays or musicals involving matters such as the struggles of transgender youth to find their identity—“Interstate”—conflict between the Korean American owner of a Black beauty supply store and his Black employee—“The Great Jheri Curl Debate”—and the multi-generational experience of Japanese Americans during World War II, featuring George Takei—“Allegiance.”

Matt: One of the things I find so compelling about the performing arts is that it can mean different things to different people, and thus its influence on any particular community is capable of meeting that community’s needs. In Denver, for example, the Cleo Parker Dance Company serves as a cultural anchor, an ambassador of diversity, and a place for children of all races, ethnicities, and socio-economic statuses to feel safe while learning about art and dance. Those are the kinds of things that are vitally important to and can influence the shape of one’s community.

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