“It was my first trip to New York,” recalls the North Carolina native during breakfast at Pain Le Quotien in Beverly Hills. “I saw Cloud 9 at the Lucille Lortel in 1982 and it was the first time I’d ever seen gay people portrayed on stage. The first time I’d ever heard a gay story.”
Fast forward thirty years. The four-time Emmy nominee (NYPD Blue/Grey’s Anatomy) is being honored with Celebration Theatre’s 2nd Annual Vibrant Voice award at its 30 Years of Celebration benefit to be held this Sunday at the Colony Theatre. Scheduled to perform are Jane Lynch, Sean Hayes, Wendie Malick, Jane Leeves, Alfred Molina, Valerie Bertinelli, Susan Sullivan, Lainie Kazan, Philip Casnoff, Drew Droege, Sam Pancake, Kevin Chamberlin, Roger Bart, Alec Mapa, the Ovation Award-winning cast of The Color Purple and other special guests.
The Vibrant Voice award is given to an artist who has been both an ally to the theater and the LGBT community as a whole. Last year’s inaugural recipient was Leslie Jordan.
“Sharon’s support of Celebration Theatre has helped spread the word to her many followers and to so many others beyond that,” says Michael Kricfalusi, Celebration’s executive director. “She has been vocal in sharing news about our productions and our theater as a whole. Thanks to her, new audience members have been coming to see our shows and letting their circles know about our work. Her support extends across the LGBT community, and for that we consider her an ally of the highest order. We are very thankful we have Sharon in our corner and want everyone else to know this gracious and caring person is speaking up in support of all of us.”
The Broadway and LA theater veteran admits she first heard about the Celebration roughly two years ago. “I realized if I don’t know about it, then plenty of other people may not be aware. So becoming a vibrant voice for them feels like a great way for me to spend my time and energy.”
Lawrence remembers what her life was like 30 years ago when the options available to LGBT people were much more confined and limited.
“I was living in New York then and was with gay people all the time because I was a gypsy,” she recalls. “So my days and nights were spent with my gay friends. They were very much part of my world, but I was aware that becoming mainstream was not a reality at that point…People were still fighting for survival just to stay alive and not die from the plague. To think that this theater was established then touches me so much, because I know it wasn’t easy.”
Founded in 1982 by gay rights pioneer Chuck Rowland, the Celebration was recently given the Margaret Hartford Award for sustained excellence by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (LADCC). Its premiere of the musical Justin Love tied with War Horse (CTG/Ahmanson), The Book of Mormon (Pantages) and Cyrano (Fountain Theatre) for best production of 2012. With 13 nominations, Celebration’s revival of The Color Purple: A Musical was the most nominated production of the 2011/12 Ovation Award season. It won six awards including best production of a musical (intimate theater), acting ensemble in a musical, best direction of a musical, featured actress, choreography and music direction.
Lawrence says it was the award-winning production of The Color Purple: A Musical that opened her eyes to the quality of the theater’s productions. She deeply felt the show’s energy and believes in the power of theater in intimate spaces.
“Energy is part of why theater has such magic,” she emphasizes. “These big monolithic productions have their place — my god, they’ve paid my rent — but I also know the power of something small and crafted where every impulse can be explored and tested. You learn what it means to exist in the environment rather than a pageantry. The Color Purple was a miracle of a staging and performance. I know that Allee Willis and Stephen Bray [two of Purple’s lyricists] feel that it was one of the best productions of that show that’s ever happened. So to be in any way supportive of what they do is a gift to me.”
A Bi-coastal Theater Gypsy
Lawrence has an extensive theatrical resume ranging from Broadway musicals to Chekhov in intimate LA spaces. She made her Broadway debut in Cabaret starring Joel Grey in 1987, and went on to appear in a 1990 revival of Fiddler on the Roof as Tzeitel starring Topol and Chicago in 2000 as Velma Kelly. She almost starred in the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate but was appearing in two TV series at the time on two different networks: NYPD Blue as Sylvia Costas Sipowicz and her own short- lived sitcom, Fired Up. She also did the national tour of Zorba with Anthony Quinn, played Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes at Williamstown Theatre Festival and joined one of the rotating female casts of Love, Loss and What I Wore in New York.
“They needed a cover and she never was out, thank God!” she laughs. “I mean there would be a lot of very upset lesbians. I could never satisfy those fans because she was one of the first out women. I just talked about her the other day. I’d love to re-connect and see what she’s doing.”
Lawrence subsequently appeared in shows ranging from the 1994 Matrix Theatre Company’s double-cast production of The Seagull directed by Milton Katselas to the 2011 premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Poor Behavior, directed by Doug Hughes at the Mark Taper Forum. Other LA credits include Tongue of the Bird (Mark Taper), Under the Blue Sky and Paint Your Wagon (Geffen Playhouse) Company (Reprise Theatre Company) and Orson’s Shadow (Pasadena Playhouse, Ovation Award nominee). She also recently participated in the Enter Laughing, The Musical benefit held in late January at the Taper honoring Carl Reiner and benefiting Center Theatre Group’s Emerging Artists program.
She has an extensive television series and film credits with recent recurring roles on Drop Dead Diva and Rizzoli & Isles. But theater is where she thinks the actor and audience share an ephemeral moment that can’t be edited or repackaged. It’s something created together.
“In film or TV, I have no control,” she stresses. “A director can take what my intent as an actor was and even chop it within a sentence. On stage, everybody pulls together for one moment in time — starting from the rehearsal process to when the curtain goes up. Including the audience. They are all there throughout. They don’t answer their phones, they don’t get up and put it [the show] on pause. It’s a moment in time that has been worked and crafted and agreed upon to achieve. When you are scaling that mountain — and listen, we did it with Poor Behavior. We were all scaling the mountain. We were scaling different sides of the mountain because that’s what that story was about.”
Theresa Rebeck had been a writer on NYPD Blue when Lawrence was in the cast, but the two had never met. When Rebeck cast her in Poor Behavior, the actress stayed in the playwright’s office suite on the third floor of her Brooklyn brownstone during initial NYC rehearsals. Rebeck was still in the midst of writing the first season of NBC’s Smash and had not yet filmed the first episode.
“She’s so straight up and honest,” says Lawrence. “She has no artifice about her. I love this gal. You know the play was based on something that really happened to her.”
When asked about her experience creating a character in a new play, particularly one who is a borderline personality, Lawrence cites director Doug Hughes.
“It was fascinating,” she exclaims. “Doug Hughes. I admired Doubt so much. There’s nobody like him. He’s of another time, another era absolutely. The way he speaks, the way he thinks. He had his own perception of that particular character [in Poor Behavior]. I learned through the run how important it was that this really be a four-hander rather than three people deciding that Maureen was the problem because they were all the problem.”
Despite doing three shows at the Taper, Lawrence also has strong ties to the Geffen Playhouse and Pasadena Playhouse. She was very close to the late Gil Cates, who directed her in two shows at the Geffen. She says she considered him like a grandfather. Sheldon Epps nominated her to be a Lunt-Fontanne Fellow this summer at Ten Chimneys, where she will participate in a master class taught by Alan Alda.
“It is a gift,” she smiles. “I do a play every year but this is going to be different because this is like going back to class where you do have a week to experiment. That’s not something that you always get to do. I feel so grateful for LA theater because I have been given really interesting roles that take you on the precipice.”
This leads to a discussion of Lawrence being lowered upside down from the ceiling of the Taper dangling by a rope as Amelia Earhart in 1999’s Tongue of the Bird starring Cherry Jones, Marian Seldes and Diane Venora. “Talk about a precipice!” she laughs. “That was the grad school I didn’t go to,” referring to her time spent with the three acting legends.
So how then does she answer those who believe the best theater is being done in New York and not in LA?
“Well, I don’t know who’s saying that but they haven’t seen enough LA theater,” she states flatly. “They need to get in their car. That’s part of the problem. They don’t want to get in their car. They don’t want to drive to Pasadena and they are missing out. Fallen Angels was fantastic. Art Manke is so skilled. It was a jewel. But we are fatigued from that. So that makes it easier to say ‘Oh, it’s not worth it’ and then it’s their loss. Get in your car.”
Celebrating the Celebration
Lawrence admits she’d definitely consider directing theater but not television. “I’m not as interested in directing television because with all due respect, you are just a traffic cop. I love producing, that’s what I really like — managing the whole team.”
She also manages to spend her time working with a number of causes including Heal the Bay, Women in Film, Green Wish, World Wildlife Fund and Global Green USA. She’s also a partner in Akasha restaurant in Culver City. But on this Sunday night, it’s all about her latest cause — Celebration Theatre.
Lawrence says it brings to mind Ava DuVernay, the first African American woman to win best director at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. She won for her second film Middle of Nowhere, and she won the John Cassevetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards in February.
“The thing that Ava said about this work and what she’s doing as a filmmaker I think applies to the Celebration,” offers Lawrence, who is also in the film. “She said, ‘Rather than trying to knock down the doors with our work, let’s build our own house.’ And that’s what Celebration Theatre has done. They built their own house and that for me is something to celebrate every year.”
30 Years of Celebration, benefiting the Celebration Theatre, at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank 91502. Sunday, March 24 at 8 pm. Tickets: $35-200. www.celebrationtheatre.com. 323-957-1884.