EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of occasional articles revisiting subjects from the LA STAGE magazine archives. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center’s Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center was newly christened at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza when Deborah Behrens wrote a feature article for the March 2002 issue. Artistic director Jon Imparato discusses the last 10 years and the center’s upcoming revival of Deathtrap.
The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center was founded in 1971 to promote health care and political rights for its community — a full decade before AIDS exploded as the community’s major issue for years. Now the center encompasses five Los Angeles buildings and serves more than a quarter of a million clients with its services and untold thousands of visitors to its cultural offerings.
In 2002, the cultural aspect of the organization was underscored when it was adopted by two great lesbian activist artists and renamed the Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center. Housed in the beautiful Hollywood oasis called “The Village” at Ed Gould Plaza, the cultural arts center has thrived over the last 10 years, producing an array of theater productions and visual arts exhibits.
From its beginning in early 2000, before Tomlin and Wagner came aboard, the cultural arts department was handed to eager young producer-director Jon Imparato with the mission to develop an artistic vision. Imparato has worked nonstop, and center productions have received GLAAD, Ovation and LA Weekly awards. Though he had successful acting, directing and producing careers in New York and Los Angeles, nothing has been more important to his artistic life than his ongoing creation of arts at the Village.
As he gives a brief tour of the Village and its performing spaces — the 200 seat Renberg Theatre and black box Davidson/Valentini Theatre — noting their continually improving technical prowess, Imparato expresses his gratitude to the administrators of the center for their understanding of the place cultural arts holds in building a community. Even through the deep recession, he received support to keep growing the arts organization.
He explains why. “The cool thing is…they believe that what I do is prevention — cultural arts as part of prevention. By that I mean it’s a way for our community to come have a social outing that is not about alcohol and sex. It’s them seeing their lives on stage in a real concrete way, not as secondary characters.” But there is more than just an isolated theater experience here. The alfresco atmosphere of the Village’s courtyard is structured to create social opportunities. On performance nights, audience members generally come early, creating a community get-together, accompanied by bar service.
Imparato is particularly proud of the experiences the center provides to gay and lesbian seniors. “We have a huge senior program. The other day a woman said to me, ‘I used to go all the time with my gay friends to the clubs and dance. But I am too old for that. I don’t go out and party any more, but I come to the Village. I come to see your shows with my gay friends’.”
Though community building is central to the mission of the cultural center, the productions are far from non-professional community theater. Imparato’s success comes from a strong artistic sensibility, insistence on professionalism and an array of high-profile entertainers who are happy to take his call. He would like to be able to devise a full season of productions, but he finds it impossible to plan in advance with precision when dealing with big-name personalities. “Our big theater, the Renberg, is more celebrity-driven because it requires large audiences and varied Equity contracts. Kathy Griffin will say, ‘I want to do a show.’ That’s great! Then she’ll call and say she has a Law and Order and needs to change the date. When celebrities do me a big favor, they often have to reschedule. They always swing back and deliver, but to actually put together an actual season is impossible.”
When Tomlin and Wagner blessed the cultural arts center, it received enormous attention. Imparato tactically maneuvered that attention to artistic action as he boldly, and successfully, reached out to icons of gay entertainment. Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho immediately became part of his circle, which led to more big names. “Kathy kept telling people this was the best place to work in LA. I saw Megan Mullally do a play at the Evidence Room and asked her to come do a show. I got Carol Channing to do her show Razzle Dazzle as a benefit.”
For a 25th anniversary reading of the hugely successful Vanities, he was able to coax original cast member Kathy Bates to return to the show. “Kathy said, ‘In Act I we’re 18, I ain’t doin’ that, Act II we’re 21 — ain’t doin’ that, but Act III we’re older — okay!'”
Imparato also has a remarkable ability to spot emerging talent. “I just fall in love with talent,” he gushes. Long before Glee made Jane Lynch famous, she starred in the center’s original play The Breakup Notebook. Her experience with the play and with Imparato encouraged her to become a board member of the center.
But it is not only high-profile actresses with gay followings who have kept the center’s momentum going. Imparato has also been able to partner with and help shape the careers of such performers as Miss Coco Peru, the female alter-ego of Clinton Leupp, whose internationally renowned monologue performances have become a big part of Imparato’s line-up. He has worked closely with Coco Peru for 10 years as her dramaturg and cheerleader. This work has led to a philosophy about gay and lesbian performance art that has helped shape the content of the center’s offerings. “Coco is very smart in that she does not perform in LA a lot. When she is here, she sells out like crazy. We always have this huge wait list. Lily Tomlin is a freak for Coco, because the writing is just so strong.”
The high quality of the writing and performing is absolutely vital to Imparato’s vision. This perfectionism is the reason he has never allowed the center’s stages to become rental houses. “It’s all about quality control. If you see a bad show at a theater twice, you don’t go back.”
He is extremely meticulous in his choice of artists. “People submit pieces to me and think because it’s gay we should do it. My joke is, all I get is plays from gay men saying they wanted to wear their mothers’ dresses and couldn’t catch a baseball and lesbians saying they wanted to play baseball but were forced to wear a dress.” In his work with new talent, he tries to help them tell their stories in new and different ways.
Because of his hectic schedule, which includes overseeing non-theater events and all room rentals, Imparato rarely has a chance to direct, but occasionally he does find a piece that he can’t resist. He discovered one such project when he met with baseball great Mickey Mantle’s gender-bending nephew Kelly Mantle. “She came to me with a show about her gender identity. I liked her — I mean him — and gave him notes. At one point I said, I have to direct this. I am in way too deep. So it became this play The Confusion of My Illusion. I’d been looking for a good piece about gender. It is hard to find one that is interesting and fun and moving.” That was two years ago, and it was Imparato’s last major directing job.
While Imparato is thrilled with the infusion of celebrities as well as original gay and lesbian-themed performance art, he does not neglect his original love of plays. His 2004 revival of the classic lesbian play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove ran for nine months. He collaborated with Cornerstone Theater to produce Luis Alfaro’s Body of Faith, garnering a PEN Center’s USA Literary Award. At the Hudson Backstage not far from the center, he shepherded a 2005 musical version of the center’s 2001 award-winning hit The Break-Up Notebook. It won an Ovation award for best musical Ovation and an LADCC award for best score.
Imparato was ecstatic about hosting the West Coast premiere of The Lost Plays of Tennessee Williams. He exclaims, “This was our coup de grace. They were found in a suitcase in his estate about eight years ago. We ran it here for five months, then moved to the Coast Playhouse. It was a runaway hit.”
However, Imparato certainly has no expectations of finding more lost plays and is eager to develop local talent. His main concerns are quality and uniqueness. He found them in playwright Nick Salamone, whom he believes is LA’s finest playwright. He produced both Salamone’s highly regarded Sea Change and The Sonneteer. Imparato explains, “Nick writes plays that I think just speak to our community in ways that nobody else does in terms of LGBT experience. I commissioned Sonneteer…It included 23 original sonnets which are really sophisticated. You’d think they’d been published for years.”
While the center strives to produce important literary work, it also thrives on absolute fluff, like the increasingly popular MisMatch Game, a goofy spoof of the old TV game show. Imparato describes it as “our cult hit, which Out magazine called one of the 10 best theater events in America. It’s just filth, filthy, filthy.” He books the drag performer Varla Jean Merman and produces a variety act called Village Variety Pack. “I get all the great Groundlings people here. Amazing!”
This week the theater is opening a revival of Ira Levin’s huge hit Deathtrap. The thriller has captivated audiences since 1978 with shocking, unexpected twists. Imparato is excited. “I have never done a thriller. This is a really scary thriller and I thought we could put a really good stamp on it. It’s not your mama’s Deathtrap. It’s a hot sexy Deathtrap.” Although he prefers to cultivate new plays by local playwrights, Imparato occasionally bows to economic realities. He figured that the popularity of Deathtrap would bring in audiences.
Imparato says he cannot judge a play by looking at the script, so he has to hear it aloud. Before he committed to Deathtrap, he gathered a group of artists to do a reading. “We were all shocked at how well written it is — a really good play with cool twists and turns and great dialogue. I thought this could really sell with the right cast.” He is thrilled with the cast and even more so with his director Ken Sawyer, who has made a name in LA in the thriller genre with Woman in Black and Dracula. Imparato laughs, “Ken could direct traffic for me. He is known for the genre and does it really well.”
Sawyer is a bit cagey about the production. “We’re being a little more bold than the play is usually done. I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking, but it certainly is the most perfect little play I have ever read. Levin really thought it out. I am a little nervous, because people are going to wonder why we’re doing a classic Broadway thriller at the Gay and Lesbian Center — it’s one of the secrets of the play.”
Throughout the last decade of increasing visibility and critical success, Imparato never forgets why he’s doing what he does. “This happened because our board went on a retreat, and the person facilitating said, ‘Go off, take two hours and dream. Forget about cost. Just dream of whatever you want.’ They came back and said everything we do for our community right now is for people in need. We’re doing everything for their illness, nothing for wellness in our community. Thus this happened.
“I am a firm believer that the Jewish community after the Holocaust understood clearly that one of the ways they were going to heal was through the arts. Community centers cropped up all over America and there was all this money and influence. My feeling is that after the AIDS epidemic, once the protease inhibitors were working and people were not dying, we all took a breath and went, ‘Oh my God. Part of what we’re doing here is creating a place for our community to come here and heal. That it was not about living through an incredible plague, but about wellness and celebrating our lives.”
Deathtrap, presented by the Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center. Opens March 30. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm.; Sun 7 p.m. through May 6. Tickets $20-$25. The Davidson/Valentini Theatre, Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood.Â Â http://laglcculturalarts.eventbrite.com/