A Beige Green Room

Photo by Elizabeth PerrinHollywood’s Celebration Theater is finally getting more depth. About five feet more, according to Michael Matthews, the venue’s new artistic director. Last February, when Matthews and his team were inspecting the Celebration, they discovered the theater’s upstage wall did not stand where everyone had assumed it did (where scenery flats and screens had been piled behind a curtain) but, instead, a little farther back. “I’m so excited about this wall,” he says when pointing out the stage’s extended boundary to a visitor. Matthews, who recently turned 29, is keenly aware of boundaries. He has transformed L.A.’s only theater devoted solely to gay- and lesbian-themed work into a complex of color-coded rooms, has meticulously organized its props, tools and costumes — and knows that the border between West Hollywood and Hollywood happens to run through his theater’s dressing room.Matthews and his friends worked every weekend from February to May cleaning up what he says were mounds of props, costumes and rat-infested sofas. “We had to climb over this wall just to get in here,” he says, opening the door to a prop room. “We found unopened submission envelopes going back to 1993. But we’re answering each one of them — with an apology.” Matthews has opened a cabaret space to engage theatergoers between the Celebration’s 8 o’clock and late shows, and even expanded its green room, repainting the walls beige and the doors red. (“It was all lime,” he recalls.) His office is a tidy grid of straight lines and angular furnishings. A scented candle burns on his desk, on which is pasted a tiny label with his name printed on it. Matthews was hired by the Celebration’s board to do more than paint and spackle, though. To reinvigorate the theater, he has broken new ground by establishing a fixed season of four plays, a subscription base, and a theater company of 11 that includes a producing director, company manager, casting director, master electrician, grant writer and literary manager. Matthews also plans to scan and digitally archive the production histories of every Celebration show, going back 23 years. And, earlier this month, he opened his debut production at the space, Christopher Shinn’s Four, while preparing the theater for a late-night bill of sketch comedy called 1985.Matthews seems like a force of nature blown in from Chicago, where he’d been building his professional reputation since 1999. “Los Angeles for me is not known for theater,” he notes, “but has twice the number of theaters that Chicago has.” On this Friday afternoon, Matthews, who lives a couple of blocks from the Celebration, is dressed in a casual shirt, khaki cargo pants and old running shoes. He speaks with the slightest drawl, the legacy of a South Carolina birth and a childhood spent in the South.“I’m a Southern boy through and through,” he says, recalling life in Tennessee, where he worked on his family’s vineyard after school before eventually attending college in Chicago.“I absolutely love Chicago, it’s a great theater town . . . plays there are either hits or flops. It’s a theater that is very much about the language.”Chicago’s problem, he says, is that it has an old boys’ network of directors who make it difficult for young men and women to move from storefront theaters up to bigger venues like the Goodman or Steppenwolf. After Matthews’ longtime partner moved to Los Angeles for business reasons, Matthews followed — and immediately found L.A. to be a far more flexible town.“I was at a party, and it was only my second night in L.A.,” he says, “when I met a friend of the director of Dead End [at the Ahmanson Theater]. ‘I love that play!’ I told him. So he called Nicholas Martin, and the next thing I was having lunch with him and he made me the show’s assistant director.”In the meantime he heard that the Celebration’s artistic director of nearly five years, Derek Charles Livingston, was stepping down. He applied for the position last January and, after several weeks of interviews, got the job.Matthews says he plans to bring “more Chicago-style theater” to the Celebration, which means less stage scenery and more emphasis on dialogue.“I love plays with no stage directions,” he says. “My favorite gay play in the world is [Chay Yew’s] Porcelain. I won’t be doing Love, Valour, Compassion! or Jeffrey.”Still, Matthews is aware of the lack of draw that lesbian plays have in L.A.“Pulp was a hit in Chicago but barely broke even here,” he says about last year’s Celebration production of Patricia Kane’s spoof, noting that two upcoming shows, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour and Mark Winkler and Larry Dean Harris’ Play It Cool, feature lesbian themes and characters.“I’d [also] like to have plays that appeal to transgenders and bisexuals — we don’t have enough,” he adds, possibly lending a peek into next year’s season.Matthews is faced with even more basic problems than inclusiveness, among these a theater with a post that’s famously stuck in center stage left, a street location that is a veritable San Juan Capistrano for transsexual prostitutes and drug dealers, but, even more direly, a city with a legendary indifference to live theater. “I couldn’t care less about the post,” Matthews says. “My biggest problem is that I have 64 seats and I can’t fill them. I don’t understand it. The Book of Liz is just down the street and has been sold out for nine months — granted, it’s 40 seats.” True, Four’s premiere-night attendance resembled a show that was heading toward the end of its run.“I haven’t been to a show where there aren’t empty seats,” he marvels of his L.A. theatergoing. “Dead End had a low turnout on weeknights. [The Celebration’s] given free tickets, sent post cards and e-mail blasts. I honestly can’t tell you what’s going to work.” “I never got it on the financially sound footing that I wanted,” says Derek Charles Livingston, the man Michael Matthews replaced, in a phone conversation. “I did everything I could do and then some.” Livingston, who says he quit because he couldn’t make a living at the nonprofit theater, is clear on what advice he would give Matthews.“One hit doesn’t necessarily carry over to another audience,” Livingston says, citing two previous productions that played simultaneously. “Pinafore! and The Insurrection did not have crossover audiences. The reality is that you have to heavily paper your first weekend and half-price as much as you can.”Matthews says he has done these things and more, to little avail. “Rent on this theater is $4,500 a month,” he says. “I made $50 on Four last night.”This is a shame, as Four is a memorable production that, like The Insurrection, makes good on the promise of quality gay drama that the fledgling Celebration Theater first offered nearly a quarter-century ago. Shinn’s play is very much part of the theater of voices that Matthews champions and may be a harbinger of scenically spare plays to come. The 80-minute carousel of vignettes revolves around Joe (Michael A. Shepperd), a middle-aged black man, and June (Nathan Frizzell), the 16-year-old white boy he’s taken out on the latter’s first “date.” It’s a Fourth of July evening in Hartford, Connecticut, and Joe’s daughter, Abigayle (Cesili Williams), is home caring for her unseen and ill mother. Soon she will be out cruising in the car of a young, half–Puerto Rican drug dealer named Dexter (Blaine Vedros). No one in this story gets what he or she wants, which is really some sort of human connection. Instead, as directed by Matthews, the characters make fitful moves of intimacy, then withdraw and look blankly out at the audience like Audubon studies. Yet Matthews knows when to have fun with a scene, as when minutes after Joe informs June that the star of the action film they are about to watch is secretly gay, the lights go down — and the Mission: Impossible theme comes up.If anyone can bring back audiences to the Celebration, it will be Matthews. He has launched an ambitious season that will include a guest turn from Livingston, who’ll stage the L.A. premiere of Judy Garland at the Stonewall Inn in January. Perhaps he’s being both premature and brassy when he says, “I will close a hit to get to the next show,” but it’s the kind of bravado L.A. theater, gay or straight, needs today.“We are all incredibly excited,” Matthews says in his office. “We’re young and are trying to figure things out.” FOUR | By CHRISTOPHER SHINN | At CELEBRATION THEATER, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through December 11 | (323) 957-1884


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