The SCRIPT reigns supreme in the theater world. Actors learn their lines and recite them. So do artistic directors, who are known to cling to their publicity-vetted talking points like politicians in an election year.
Michael A. Shepperd counts himself a member of that managerial class, but you won’t find any bullet-pointed lists on his cluttered desk. The recently appointed artistic director of the Celebration Theatre -- the most prominent gay and lesbian theater company in L.A. -- shows no fear verbalizing ideas that would almost certainly send his PR folks ducking for cover.
On the subject of the Celebration’s target demographic: “It’s gay white males age 30 to 50 -- educated and wealthy,” he says. “I’m tired of just doing plays for gay white men. I want to bust some doors open.”
On attracting lesbian audiences: “We don’t have a big lesbian population in this theater. And a lot of it has to do with our programming. We’ve done some outreach, but not enough.”
On race and homosexuality: “I’ve found that in certain ways, the gay community is one of the most racist communities. I can’t even begin to tell you what I’ve experienced.”
Not exactly the kind of talk you would expect to come from the leader of a critically acclaimed performing arts institution.
A shredder of rehearsed rhetoric, Shepperd keeps his teeth sharp and always ready. “I’m someone who talks . . . a lot,” he says. “I go out and I speak what’s on my mind. And sometimes I can be offensive.”
An actor for most of his career, Shepperd, 45, has made a name for himself in many of L.A.'s most respected small theater companies, including the Oasis Theater, the Evidence Room and the Musical Theatre Guild. Trained at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the 6-foot-5 Shepperd says he worked in “practically every nonunion theater” in Chicago, sometimes performing three shows a day, before moving to L.A. in 2001.
Earlier this season, Shepperd won positive notices for his lead role in Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold . . . and the Boys” at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. And he recently penned the stage adaptation of April Sinclair’s novel “Coffee Will Make You Black” for the Celebration, where he has served on the board of directors.
These days, “acting isn’t feeding me the way it used to,” he says. “I want to learn the other side and create new work for actors.”
Since taking the helm of the West Hollywood-based Celebration this month, Shepperd has been trumpeting plans to attract the kind of audiences one may not normally associate with a gay-centric theater: children and heterosexuals. In the fall, the Celebration will inaugurate a family series geared toward elementary school students. The first production will be Patricia Loughrey and Rayme Sciaroni’s “The Daddy Machine,” a play about the son of two lesbian parents who invents a machine that manufactures fathers.
“Being a parent myself, I want to see more children’s theater that really speaks to gay families,” says Shepperd, who has two adopted children with his partner, Hutch Foster, an actor.
‘It’s about good theater’
Getting heterosexual audiences to come to the Celebration seems to be the more challenging of the two goals, especially since the theater will continue to produce overtly gay shows like “Sissystrata,” “Missionary Positions” and “America’s Next Top Bottom.”
“It’s about good theater,” says Shepperd. “I mean, why do gay audiences go to the Taper? It’s no different. Why wouldn’t straight audiences come here?” He points out that 12 of the 36 company members are heterosexual.
Part of the resistance to change comes from the gay community itself. Michael Matthews, the Celebration’s previous artistic director, remembers a remark made before a performance of “Play It Cool,” a jazz musical. “I was seating people in the theater and there were two middle-aged guys in the back row,” he recalls. “And they said, ‘What are all these straight people doing here?’ ”
Gay audiences, Matthews says, “need to be gently nudged” out of their old habits -- not an easy job for an institution that has been known for 25 seasons as a haven for gay theatergoers.
Shepperd sees the inclusion of straight audiences as vital to the theater’s survival. He plans to broaden the company’s late-night series, “After Dark,” to include straight and gay performers. And he wants to ramp up promoting the theater outside of the West Hollywood community.
“People might say that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done and that you’re going to destroy your theater that way. Maybe I will. I have no idea. But I do know that you can’t be exclusive of anyone,” he says. “I don’t want people to think -- oh, the Celebration Theatre, they only do the gay plays there. I want them to say, ‘They only do the really good plays there.’ ”
For all of his talk about change, Shepperd seems reluctant to toy with one time-tested gay theater formula: the presence of young, good-looking actors on stage, usually in various states of undress. “And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that,” he says, smiling. “I can tell you honestly that I have gone to see plays simply based on a poster with a good-looking guy on it.”
Shepperd concedes that such plays are safe moneymakers for the Celebration -- an important consideration since the company is perpetually “broke,” he says. Still, he wants quality to supersede titillation: “Sometimes you get pitched a play where it’s just seven guys naked on the stage the whole time. And I’m like, ‘no.’ There has to be substance behind it.”
On most days, however, Shepperd deals with issues that are much more mundane. He manages an annual budget of about $150,000 -- which he recently cut by $20,000 as a result of a hike in the theater’s rent. Shepperd is paid only a stipend, not a salary, and manages a small army of what he calls “professional volunteers.”
In his short time as the head of the Celebration, Shepperd has made racial diversity a priority. Next season, the theater will produce plays by Edwin Sanchez and Chay Yew.
“This theater should be servicing the entire gay community, not just one portion of the gay community,” he says. “The gay white male demographic is not the one I want to keep hitting.”
Thus far, the most difficult part of marketing toward minorities has been actually finding where they live. “It’s not like all of the black gays are over here and all of the gay Latinos are over here,” he says. “They’re all on the same hand, but you have to follow all of the fingers.
“I know what kind of theater company I want to build. When I go out to make my curtain speech and I look out, I want to see everybody -- gay, lesbian, straight, white, black, Latino, Asian.
“I want to see everyone out there.”