“There is great respect for theater in this town,” says Michael Shepperd, co-artistic director of Celebration Theatre. “The problem is, there's a lot of great theater, then there's a lot of vanity projects.”
The Michaels, Shepperd and Matthews, who run L.A.'s premier LGBT theater company, are adept at distinguishing quality from self-indulgence. Theatrical excellence is what attracted these Chicago natives to Celebration, founded in 1982 by gay-rights forefather Chuck Rowland. They have been co-artistic directors for the last 18 months, but their partnership at the institution dates back to 2005, when they collaborated on staging Christopher Shinn's Four.
Nearly a decade later, the duo has garnered a deluge of awards for shows including The Bacchae, Beautiful Things, The Women of Brewster Place and Take Me Out.
Matthews' reserved, practical yin serves as foil to Shepperd's boisterous yang.
“I love making schedules,” explains Matthews, 37, a Hollywood resident, sitting at a folding table in a Sunday school room within Los Feliz's Metropolitan Community Church. “I like making things super organized, very compact, getting everyone on the same page. And he likes schmoozing. Which I suck at.”
While the Michaels' productions have thrived artistically, their company has suffered Dickensian plagues: poverty, a miserly landlord and a cloud of noxious smoke.
“The biggest problem for 99-seat theaters is funding,” says Shepperd, 50, who lives in Los Feliz with his husband and two children. “Theaters like the Geffen, people will donate $50,000 a year, but won't consider doing that for a smaller theater, no matter what the quality of work is.”
From 2005 to 2013, rent at Celebration's longtime Santa Monica Boulevard home had soared from $3,000 a month to $8,000. Aggravating matters, the landlord turned neighboring units into recording studios.
“They come in with their instruments… ” Matthews says.
“With loud basses, and guitars, and drums,” Shepperd adds.
“Every show was BANG BANG BANG!” Matthews demonstrates by striking the table repeatedly. “On top of that, they are all smoking pot, which I don't have a problem with, but it all seeped down into the theater. You walk through the door and 'BOOF!'?”
When the landlord refused to compromise on the noise violations or the escalating rent, the Michaels and their troupe found themselves on the street. After a brief stint at the Atwater Village Theatre, Celebration found office space – and sanctuary – within the walls of the church.
Even without a conventional theater, the Michaels remain optimistic. In April, Celebration will begin a series of LGBT staged readings at MCC, and in July, the company will honor the “50th anniversary of gay theater in America” by producing four shows from queer playwriting pioneers.
The Michaels also have found a benefactor, Betty White, who will lead her Hot in Cleveland co-stars in a reading of an episode of The Golden Girls as a fundraiser.
The spotlight may be on White, but it's the Michaels' push for Celebration's survival that deserves the applause.