On the far west side of Theater Row at 7051B Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood sits a rather nondescript, somewhat bland building. But inside this particular structure resides a theater company that’s anything but, with a rich and colorful history only eclipsed by its diligent commitment to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer experience. As the Celebration Theatre celebrates its 29th Season, artistic director John Michael Beck fully embraces the motto ““ “Honor our past, distinguish our present, create our future.” With executive director Michael C. Kricfalusi, these two newly appointed leaders join forces to elevate the Celebration as well as their own artistic careers.
The Personal Journey
At Jersey Mike’s, a stone’s throw from the Celebration Theatre, a famished Beck ravishes a late lunch after attending an Ovation recommended production in Pasadena and before providing artistic oversight to Celebration’s first show of the season, What’s Wrong With Angry? Sidling into the booth, a beaming Kricfalusi effuses about a sizable donation just secured from an afternoon meeting. The enthusiastic energy exuding from both men fills the eatery.
Native Texan and Lamar University graduate, Beck flip-book describes his artistic background and shares exciting stories of a life being fully lived. Beck moved to LA in 2005 after his steady involvement in the theater communities of Dallas and San Francisco. In 2008 the multi-talented artist made his Celebration debut and shortly thereafter became associate artistic director while serving as producer on Women Behind Bars and the world premiere musical The Next Fairy Tale. During this time, Beck also created the workshop series CT Tuesdays which has since garnered a GLAAD nomination for the series’ first entrant, revolver.
New Yorker Kricfalusi built a successful career in the investment and banking worlds before he caught “the bug.” In 2003 he delved into theater while in turn using his financial acumen to obtain a distribution deal for a film. Upon the advice of his acting coach ““ “You need to go to LA and build your IMBD page with TV and film credits so you can return to NY and get roles on stage” ““ Kricfalusi left the Big Apple for Tinseltown. On his journey he found the world of theater in LA too inviting to pass up. “I saw an amazing production of Stupid Kids at the Celebration in February 2008. Impressed, I needed a home like this one. Four months after being brought into this welcoming company, I became managing director. I lost the bug to go out and get roles in TV and film, and I love being here.”
Now these two lives have been intertwined into a creative Celebration marriage of sorts. “To succeed we have to work as one,” states Kricfalusi. Beck adds, “I’m an artistic director with operations background and I understand where Kric is coming from. The theater’s board has charged us (and the company) to raise money for each show before they go up so pre-run expenses need to be covered. We’re moving forward cost-effectively with productions and we have to be creative ““ together.”
Honor the Past
Beck stresses the importance of the Celebration Theatre’s past to link to its future to which Kricfalusi nods in agreement. “Celebration has been the voice of the LGBT community for the past 29 years and to be a company member is to know the company’s past. I’m a huge history fan. We’ve been diving into archives and been awestruck by the stories and history left to us by our past artistic directors and other talented artists who’ve passed through our doors.”
In 1982, the Celebration Theatre was founded by gay rights pioneer Charles Rowland, who leased a storefront in the Silver Lake area. Rowland’s goal was to start a company dedicated to producing gay-themed material. In 1993, Robert Schrock took over as artistic director and moved the company to its present location.
The world premiere of the musical Naked Boys Singing in 1998 brought the Celebration much recognition while also marking nudity as the theater’s main selling point, whether it was an accurate description or not. “No matter what anyone may say about Naked Boys Singing, which the Celebration was definitely known for,” remarks Beck, “it saved the theater. Literally. Celebration wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for that show.”
Since 1999, Schrock has been succeeded by well-known creative artists Richard Israel, Derek Charles Livingston, Michael Matthews and Michael A. Shepperd.
Beck continues, “There’s this image the Celebration projects making people think we’re bigger than we really are.” He’s quick to point out, “If we were to rely though on the laurels of Naked Boys Singing, 13 years later, we would’ve done ourselves an ill service. Every one of our AD’s raised the bar higher. Under the watch of my predecessor (Shepperd), numerous productions received critical acclaim including Bash’d which just closed. Women of Brewster Place, the Musical was awarded the 2010 Ovation Award for Best Production of a Musical, Intimate Theater as well as Best Acting Ensemble. And Michael Matthews and Ameenah Kaplan were nominated as director and choreographer, respectively. There are big shoes to fill.”
Distinguish the Present
Describing the challenges of producing theater and gathering audiences, Beck bemoans the fact he’s shocked by the number of people in West Hollywood who don’t even know the Celebration Theatre exists. “I lived in San Francisco for 10 years. Everyone there, and nationally, knows about Theatre Rhinoceros and the New Conservatory. Sure Celebration is known in certain LA theater circles but to your average LGBT patron, they don’t know about it.”
Kricfalusi emphasizes, “We’re the longest, continuously producing gay theater company in the country.” Somewhat buffering Beck’s comment, “We draw people from beyond our backyard of West Hollywood ““ from Orange County, Ventura County, Riverside, West Covina, Long Beach, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood, Simi Valley,”¦. We encompass a number of counties and cities looking at us as their theater.”
But Kricfalusi fully concurs when Beck adds, “Celebration’s challenge is how we can be more socially relevant to the times we’re in today. While we may not have the same issues they had in the 1980s (although AIDS remains relevant), there are still important issues relating to the LGBT community ““ marriage, equality, full rights,”¦. If we don’t tap into the LGBT youth coming up, we’ll be doing the same plays for the same 50 to 100 people every year.”
Is there still a need for a gay theater in LA? With a raised eyebrow, Beck emphatically states, “You can give us equal rights and marriage equality; you can give us as many rights as you want but there will still be people who are against you and think it’s wrong. We can get the rights on Monday, on Tuesday there will be a group rallied against you, and on Wednesday your rights will be taken away.”
“We can never rest,” says Kricfalusi. “There will always be something. We can bring the stories of gay people in South America or Southeast Asia to our audiences so they can gain a better understanding of what being gay is like in other locations ““ where you have even less rights than you have in California.”
To further prove his point, Kricfalusi draws a comparison. “Have you noticed other theaters putting on gay and lesbian themed plays? Caught at the Zephyr, Interlopers at Bootleg, The Temperamentals at the Blank. Is there a need for a theater like Celebration focusing strictly on LGBT material? Absolutely. These other theaters are doing shows but notice they’re doing one show. We’ve been around for 29 years and we need to continue to be the voice for the LGBT community for years to come.”
At the same time, Beck and Kricfalusi maintain that the Celebration needs to be a theater for everyone. “˜We can take care of our own,’ mentions Beck, “˜but there’s an extra layer to who we are as a theater. LGBTQQIA. The “A” is for “Allied” ““ our allies to this community. If we shut ourselves off to our straight friends, we’re missing an important segment wanting to support us.’
Celebration’s 29th Season includes What’s Wrong With Angry? by Patrick Wilde (September/October 2011), Design for Living by Noel Coward (November/December 2011), Stories I Can’t Tell Mama written and performed by Leslie Jordan (January/February 2012) and The Color Purple (LA premiere, non-touring company) (March through June 2012). Beck discusses each production.
“What’s Wrong With Angry? is relevant for us now even though it focuses on British legislation from 1988 that prohibited schools and local authorities from depicting homosexual relationships as an acceptable view of family life. The age of consent for homosexuals was five years older than heterosexuals at 16.Â You can’t love who you love. While it’s not the same law as in California, similarities will resonate. We have an opportunity to bring in a younger generation from the LGBT community and partner with the Trevor Project, NOH8 Campaign, PFLAG chapters and Gay-Straight alliances.”
“Design for Living, by one of the gay godfathers of theater, is a guilty pleasure. You can’t get much better writing in the classic form, or with dialogue and rhythm. And its focus is on an under-represented segment, bisexuals.”
“With Stories I Can’t Tell Mama, I wanted to make a big splash with Leslie Jordan, who is a wonderful actor and an amazing human being. Four or five years ago, I mentored an 18-year-old Armenian youth who had issues with his family (being gay). Del Shores arranged for us to meet Leslie before a performance in Sordid Lives, and he gave of his time and shared so much with this youth. I want to work with people who are great on stage as well as off stage and Leslie fits the bill.”
“We close strong with The Color Purple thanks to Michael A. Shepperd who secured the rights and to Michael Matthews who will direct the musical. It’ll be the biggest production we’ve ever done in Celebration’s history. There’ll be people attending who would never think of stepping into a LGBT theater. If we put on a great show, our hope is they’ll say the theater did fantastic work and it just happens to be a LGBT company. That’s what we want. Then they’ll come back for more.”
The Future is Now
The Celebration Theatre continues to evolve as its mission states. Kricfalusi changed the ticketing system from subscriptions to memberships to empower patrons.Â Memberships range from $100 for 5 tickets to be used any way you choose throughout the next 12 months from the date of purchase, to $200 for 10 tickets, to $300 for 15 tickets and additional perks. “I felt subscriptions put hard dates in front of people. Memberships instead give flexibility to the patron to do what they want with their tickets.”
Beck explains further. “If someone isn’t a Leslie Jordan fan, and I don’t know who wouldn’t be, or maybe they don’t like one-man shows, the patron can use their tickets elsewhere (to another show). We have CT Tuesday Workshops and CT After Dark where memberships can be applied. CT Tuesday Workshops are minimalist productions of original scripts. Our most recent production, Elysian Fields, just moved to the New York International Fringe Festival. CT After Dark will begin in September and its focus is on improvisation, sketch comedy and more risqué material.”
The late lunch meeting draws to an end. Beck returns to the theater to provide support for the 29th Season’s opening show while Kricfalusi focuses on finances. As they walk along busy Santa Monica Boulevard, there’s an enthusiastic bounce to the steps of both theater leaders, who respectfully honor those who came before them, also rolling up their sleeves to address the present as well as planning for a bright future in the next phase of the Celebration Theatre’s life.
** “The Next Fairy Tale” photo by Ronn Jones
***”Women of Brewster Place, the Musical” photo by David Elzer
** “Elysian Fields” photo by Nathan Hatch
What’s Wrong With Angry? presented by the Celebration Theatre. Opens September 9. Previews September 6-8. Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 3 pm. Tickets: $30. The Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., LA.Â 323-957-1884 www.celebrationtheatre.com.