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LGBTQ History Worth Celebrating

Celebration Theatre Champions Stories Going on 35 Years

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Clockwise from Left: Michael O'Hara, Marcedes L. Clanton, Michael A. Shepperd, Ryan Bergmann, Drew Droege, Michael C. Kricfalusi, Jami Rudofsky.

Photo by Luke Fontana.

Los Angeles has a long and storied history of LGBTQ rights activism. The city was the site of some of the earliest mass demonstrations against police persecution and the birthplace of the nation’s first widely distributed gay and lesbian publications, including The Advocate. As activism paved the way for acceptance in the second half of the 20th century, stories about and by LGBTQ communities could now start to enter the public sphere. Enter Celebration Theatre, the oldest continually producing queer theatre in America, whose production of Die, Mommie, Die! plays the Kirk Douglas Theatre May 10–20, 2018 as part of Block Party.

Celebration founder Chuck Rowland was a gay rights pioneer and founding member of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay-rights organizations in the US. In the 1950s, the Mattachine Society organized clandestine meetings and publications to organize the gay community during an era of open persecution, but the organization eventually gave way to the more public and vocal activism of the ’60s and ’70s. In 1982, Rowland leased a storefront in Silver Lake and created Celebration Theatre, intending to create a dedicated home for gay and lesbian stories.

Over its 35-year history, Celebration has produced 250-plus shows, workshops, and readings, including over 50 premieres, and has won 19 L.A. Ovation Awards. Yet Celebration has not endured this long without tribulations. In 2013, due to skyrocketing rent prices, the company had to abandon its longtime home in West Hollywood in search of greener (cheaper) pastures. After a two-year stint as a semi-nomadic troupe, Celebration settled in as permanent residents of The Lex in Hollywood.

Now, as LGBTQ culture has become more mainstream, Co-Artistic Director Michael A. Shepperd explained that the types of stories they bring to the stage have become more diverse. We’re no longer at a place in [our] society where coming out stories are relevant, he said. Those stories are just not as powerful as they used to be 10, 15, 20 years ago. New playwrights are tackling stories dealing with gender fluidity and throuples and all of these different sorts of things that people are identifying as, said Shepperd. I’m always amazed at the number of writings, plays, and musicals that I [see] where gender doesn’t matter.

Alongside these new stories come opportunities to tell old stories in new ways. Celebration has bucked many traditional hurdles to achieve remarkable results at their 55-seat venue. One of the most notable was staging the West Coast premiere of The Boy from Oz, the hit Broadway musical inspired by the life of Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen. Their much admired version, Shepperd explained, focused less on spectacle and more on the personal themes, finding a story that can fit in any size space.

Like theatres around Los Angeles and the country, Celebration is also looking to reflect changing demographics. Noting the draw of internet sensation Drew Droege in the title role in Die, Mommie, Die!, Shepperd denounced conventional gripes that theatre can’t attract younger generations. Approximately 60% of our audiences who came to see [Die, Mommie, Die!]…were all under the age of 30, said Shepperd, and even after the run, Celebration was seeing them come for other productions.

But though the LGBTQ landscape and theatre audiences may be changing, the inclusivity and community at the heart of Celebration’s mission have not. If you come to Celebration Theatre, the first thing you’re gonna notice is how friendly everyone is, Shepperd said, because we all want to be there. We all believe in the mission. For Shepperd, Celebration is first and foremost a place for anyone and everyone to come to enjoy good company and great theatre: We’re fun, and we’re drinkers, and we’re laughers, and we’re a little dirty.

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