Only in Los Angeles could you expect to find a star-studded gala in a shopping center parking structure. But that's because only Burbank would think of squeezing its premiere legitimate stage in amid Macy's' and Ikea's otherwise disinterested parking-space trollers at Burbank Town Center mall.
Yet that was the scene Sunday night as Colony Theatre graciously rolled out its red carpet on behalf of Celebration Theatre's 30th birthday benefit. That L.A.'s critically acclaimed, three-decades-old producer of LGBT theater had to throw its party so far from its own longtime home in the heart of Hollywood is only emblematic of the creative lengths to which Celebration has had to go merely to survive in this post-Reagan era's indifference to the arts.
Inside the Colony, the party went off without a hitch. The evening included an hour-long, pre-show reception, during which Co-Artistic Director Michael Matthews himself helped man the host bar, all the better to lubricate the sold-out crowd of $200 ticket-holders for the onstage antics to come.
Those included some celebrated — and not-so-well-known — faces of stage and screen lending their talents to an offbeat evening of comedy and song, all presided over by comedian and game show host Michael Burger.
Jane Lynch and Sean Hayes kicked things off with a tongue-in-cheek reworking of Elton John's “Benny and the Jets.” Lainie Kazan and Susan Sullivan contributed an irony-dripped reading from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Even movie legend Robert Forster got into the act, lending his pipes to a dramatic reading of the lyrics to Carly Rae Jepsen's bubblegum dance hit, “Call Me Maybe.”
Musical highlights included Keith David's rendition of the Sinatra standard “Luck Be a Lady,” Clifford Bañagale reprising “I am a Catholic” from Celebration's 2009 musical hit Altar Boyz, and the cast of this season's production of The Color Purple performing the finale number from Matthews' highly lauded staging. While the evening's highlight was the theater's presentation of their Vibrant Voice award to the actress Sharon Lawrence (NYPD Blue).
The fun factor aside, the 30th anniversary celebration was deemed a smashing success — read: the Celebration will be able to make its rent this month.
Of course, the real story of last night's Burbank event is eight miles away on Celebration's Santa Monica Blvd. stage. That's where L.A. Weekly recently sat down with co-Artistic Directors Matthews and Shepperd, the two Michaels to whom many attribute much of the decade-long artistic renaissance that has propelled Celebration to the forefront of Los Angeles' theater scene.
Though each had previously helmed the theater by himself — Matthews between January of 2005 and the summer of 2008, Shepperd from 2008 through the summer of 2011 — the two Chicago-bred actor-directors were brought back as a tandem act following a rocky relationship with the theater's former board that resulted in that board's eventual implosion and the current, reconstituted board luring them in January with the offer of a co-artistic directorship.
Both men were initially dubious. “But in the end,” recalls Shepperd, “it was sort of a no-brainer. Because we've worked together on a lot of projects, and [Matthews has] been there for me and I've been there for him. … But the one thing that we've found is that the things he hates to do, I love to do. And the things that I hate to do, he loves to do. Because he hates to talk to people. And I'm all about — I will pull a handy in the bathroom if it means getting a donation for the theater. [But] I hate organizing. I hate typing out the notes for the thing. He's like da-da-da-da-da — sent. And I'm like, 'Thank you.' So it's like we really complement each other that way.”
Whatever the secret of their success might be, the Michaels have already placed their combined programming stamp on Celebration in a season that, in addition to the hit run of Color Purple, has boasted two world premieres — the musical comedy Justin Love and the current run of the new Steve Yockey black comedy Wolves — and will finish with the upcoming premiere of Chris Phillips' Revolver. It's the kind of varied, artistically sophisticated and professionally polished season any theater — gay or straight — would be proud of.
It was not always so. Thirty years ago, gay theater in L.A. consisted of little more than a smattering of shoestring rental productions of formula romantic melodramas — what Shepperd calls “older man, younger twink stories” — that mimicked mainstream TV and movie storytelling but steered clear of the bloodletting zone of playwriting's cutting edge.
Such work had its place, Shepperd concedes, but was hardly relevant to the turbulence or urgency of the AIDS years. That crisis required a different kind of story, he reflects — “stories of death and remorse and regret and coming out and those types of things.” Gay theater eventually found those stories along with its voice in writers like Larry Kramer (Normal Heart), William M. Hoffman (As Is) and Tony Kushner (Angels in America). And Los Angeles finally got its theater dedicated to telling those stories with 1983's founding of Celebration.
For Shepperd, Angels was the turning point. And, he adds, as the AIDS crisis receded before AZT and the effectiveness of the various HIV cocktail medications, the Celebration stage was suddenly left open for other explorations of “who we truly are. We're not just queer. We're not just gay men and we just don't suck dick. Or lesbians and just sit in the house and have cats. Let's start writing experiencing what truly happens to us, and I think that's where this movement is happening now with queer theater, where a character happens to be gay as opposed to gay is their whole life.”
The bottom line, the Michaels agree, is that the new Celebration play doesn't need to be a “gay play” per se, as long as they're the kind of shows that the two of them would want to pay to see. That translates as whatever is “visceral and very daring.” And, Matthews is quick to interject, “as long as it fits the mission.”
For Celebration, that mission continues to be producing what Shepperd only half-jokingly calls “lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer-questioning-intersex-two-spirited-allied theater.” In plainer language, it is to satisfy the programming expectations of Celebration's hardcore, longtime membership base while offering the kind of edgier work that can lure a younger and more ethnically diverse audience.
That approach is already apparently bearing fruit. Celebration has not only retained the loyalty and support of middle-aged white gay men that continue to define its core audience, but it's begun to claim its share of the 20s-30s hipster set — like the young black lesbians and Filipino gays who have seemed to be flocking to recent shows.
That, says Shepperd, is what's truly exciting about the two Michaels' partnership. It is the best evidence that his vision from his first term as artistic director is coming to pass — that people will come to Celebration “not because it's gay theater. 'Oh, I've got to see the gay play this month.' No, I want people to come here because it's good theater. And I think with his work and my work we've created that. We made that happen.”