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Mr. Livingston, We Presume

Photo by Anne Fishbein

ASK DEREK CHARLES LIVINGSTON HOW, IN 2000 at the age of 32, he came to head L.A.'s premiere gay and lesbian theater, and he'll tell you with an infectious laugh that it's part of his martyr complex. "I really do have one," he then confides, laughing a little less. "I didn't get enough love as a child." (Now, not laughing at all.) When he's not directing or understudying for missing actors, Livingston can be found all alone at the Celebration Theater, balancing both its general operations and its season lineup in a cluttered office. Today the air is heavy with the smell of bleach as he is about to attack a fire exit that has become a favorite outdoor urinal for the hustlers and homeless of Celebration's Santa Monica Boulevard habitat.

A tall, athletically built man with a shaved head, Livingston is everything you'd want on your team, regardless of the sport: He's organized, humorous, and both exudes and inspires confidence. He's also at ease acknowledging problems, whether they be the shortage of lesbian plays and audiences for them -- "Unfortunately, many gay men have no interest in softball" (his metaphor for lesbian issues) -- or the competition for gay fund-raising dollars with groups like Outfest and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.

The Sacramento native is one of an increasing number of California theater artists whose boomerang career trajectory has taken them to New York and now back to the Golden State. Livingston's loop went something like this: Brown University, where he came out at age 17; work at Playwrights Horizon (New York) and Walnut Street Theater (Philadelphia); AIDS-education lecturing (he handed out condoms at gay bars and, a towel in hand, gave safe-sex chats at bathhouses); aerobics instructing; acting work in PSAs and industrial films; gay political activism in Rhode Island and North Carolina that led him to become, at 24, one of four co-chairs of the 1993 Gay Rights March on Washington, D.C.

In 1998 he moved to L.A. to attend UCLA's MFA film program (in which he's still enrolled) and now lives one block from the old Holiday Inn on Highland Avenue in Hollywood -- where, ironically, he stayed as a child on his very first L.A. visit. Nearly two years ago he spotted a blurb in IN magazine noting the departure of Celebration artistic director Richard Israel. A résumé was assembled, letters prepared and sent, and the rest is . . .

Like its new captain, the Celebration has come a long way. It seems only yesterday that the theater, once located in a tiny venue on Hoover Street, suffered from weak casts and potboiler scripts that mostly seemed to be coming-out fables; today it boasts long-running shows, two of which, Naked Boys Singing and End of the World Party, were for a while playing simultaneously off-Broadway after moving to New York. Livingston partly credits the raising of the Celebration's standards to changing attitudes among actors, straight and gay, toward performing in homosexual-themed plays.

"Actors are a lot less afraid to work here now," he says, while admitting that there is still a divide between actors who are willing to kiss another man onstage and those who are not.

For now, Livingston faces two challenges: trying to encourage patrons to come to an iffy neighborhood with tight parking ("The sex club across the street has valet parking!") and to produce more plays written by women; to that last end, he views an October production of Cherríe Moraga's The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea as a coup for Celebration.

"The exciting thing about working in Los Angeles is the acting talent that is here," he says. "Most actors are here for film and TV, but they develop an appreciation for stage work. What's so disappointing is that theater is not part of the culture here. In New York, people will always ask each other what plays they've seen. In L.A., there is so much discussion of television shows that even though I don't own a TV, I can still engage in conversations about some show like The Sopranos, because I've read and heard so much about it."

Perhaps his greatest reward lies in his theater's greatest challenge, to live free of the violent prejudices against same-sex love. "I want to be able to hold a man's hand," he says, "and to overcome this fear that exists within us."

DEREK CHARLES LIVINGSTON, artistic director of Celebration Theater. High points: Insurrection: Holding History and The Queer Nutcracker (he directed both).