An L.A. LGBT Theater Company Is No Longer Theater-less

Michael Shepperd, left, and Michael Matthews
Michael Shepperd, left, and Michael Matthews
Ryan Orange

For nearly two years Celebration, the award-winning LGBT theater troupe, was homeless. But now, after bouncing from one temporary venue to the next, the 33-year-old theater company will be moving into Hollywood's Lex Theater — and its fans will note that the new space is in a familiar neighborhood.

"The old space is only a 10-minute walk from here," says Michael Matthews, Celebration Theatre's co-artistic director. He shares this position with his longtime creative partner, Michael A. Shepperd, who sits beside him in the first row of the Lex's 48-seat space. The modest black-box theater on the corner of Lexington and McCadden is a block away, and far less than a 10-minute walk, from 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., which had been Celebration's home for 20 years.

In 2013, the company was forced from its location due to a combination of skyrocketing rent and renovations that transformed the units next to and above the theater into recording studios. When cacophonous recording sessions and the pungent odor of marijuana smoke began overpowering their stage performances, Matthews and Shepperd decided it was time for Celebration to move on. What followed was a prolonged nomadic existence that brought the queer theater company to various locations, including a stint in Atwater Village and, most recently, a series of staged readings in the West Hollywood City Council chambers. It was in those municipal chambers on Aug. 11, during an award ceremony honoring the career of gay playwright and Celebration collaborator Michael Kearns, that Shepperd announced the company would once again inhabit a permanent performance space. Shepperd and Matthews optimistically anticipate that the new theater will unite previous patrons with new fans.

"We found when we did our shows at Atwater Village [that] while it’s a remarkable, well-run space, our clientele didn't want to travel to the Eastside," Shepperd says. “It's a very L.A. problem. We ended up losing some folks. But we gained some folks being over there as well. Eastside folks don't mind the travel. Westside folks don't want to. Now that we're centrally located, we've found a place where we can get both sides to see shows. "

With its new residency in the Lex, Celebration is now one of only two LGBT theater companies to claim a permanent space in Los Angeles, the other being WeHo's lesbian-focused Macha Theater.

"There's a whole lot of companies but not a whole lot of spaces," Matthew says. "Getting a space is almost impossible."

Says Shepperd: ”Finding a space you can turn into a theater, next to impossible — unless you have a very heavy backer. Finding a space that is already a theater, people don't want to give those up."

Complicating matters, a recent referendum passed by Actors' Equity Association, the national theater union, will require actors to be paid a minimum wage of $9 an hour for rehearsals and performances. While paying performers a living wage may appear altruistic, many members of the ultra-low-budget L.A. theater community have complained that this added expense is likely to make it harder for companies to afford permanent spaces. Some actors and directors have expressed concern that the minimum-wage plan will be a death knell for many troupes and companies in the city's theater scene.

"There is a a very strong concern, not just with our company," Shepperd says. "Every theater in Los Angeles is [asking], ‘Where are we going to find the funding to put up a show with more than five people?’ Paying minimum wage means a lot more than just paying minimum wage. Who does the books? Now we have to pay someone to do the books. A lot of producers are actors and directors."

"And we're not getting paid," Matthews chimes in.

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”If we can actually break even on a show, it's a huge success," Shepperd says.

"With this new plan, I feel a lot of that of work will no longer exist, because they can't afford it," Matthews warns.

Matthews says Celebration's newly acquired performance space gives the company a tactical advantage:

"We need to show what we're doing, who we are, and do our work in order for anyone to fund us. This [theater] will provide exactly what we want."

Celebration pops the cherry of its new space in September with a sketch show starring queer comic Todd Milliner, followed in October by its first official production, Booty Candy. The new year ushers in the stage adaptation of gay coming-of-age novel Dream Boy, and the season concludes with Broadway hit The Boy From Oz. During the theater's dark nights, Celebration intends to use the space for workshops and staged readings spotlighting specific parts of the community, such as its trans members. Additionally, the company plans to dedicate Saturday afternoons to programming for the children of LGBT parents.

"There are a lot of gay parents, lesbian parents, bi parents, who want their kids to be in an environment of openness, where it’s not an issue that the kid has two daddies or two mommies," Shepperd says. At that very moment, the sound of his own son singing carried over from the Lex's adjoining lobby.

"We want to provide a home, a place for people to feel free and safe but to also see really good work," Matthews says, promising: "You come here, you see your story onstage."

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