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The Spotlight: Director Michael Matthews at Celebration Theatre

September 21, 2011 | 10:40 am

Michael Matthews
He's cute, he's Southern and he's going to need a bigger mantel place for all those awards. Michael Matthews, 35, was born in South Carolina but cut his teeth on Chicago theater before coming out to L.A. During his three years as artistic director of Celebration Theatre, Matthews established a name for himself as a versatile director, recently winning two NAACP awards for "Take Me Out" (for which he also is nominated for an Ovation Award) and "The Women of Brewster Place." His latest project, "What's Wrong With Angry?," looks at homophobia in a British school.  

What is a white boy doing winning two NAACP awards?

(Laughs) I have no idea. I’ve been very blessed to be in a place to where I get to tell fantastic stories. When the NAACP honored me, they honored the casts and the theaters. Those awards were for everybody.

When you came out here from Chicago, what was your initial impression of L.A. theater?

The first thing I saw was a production of "Buried Child. The flier said agents, managers and casting directors admitted for free. I didn't even know what a manager was. "Buried Child" is so Chicago. Edgy, in-your-face. But in this production, everyone looked like a model. There was no mud! How can you do "Buried Child" without mud? I was so scared. Was this L.A. theater? Of course, I learned the answer is no. Now if I hear, "Is L.A. really a theater town?" one more time, I'm going to shoot someone. There is fantastic theater here.

Name some favorites.

Work by Furious Theatre Company. Every show I see at Boston Court makes me happy. I have a total director's crush on Steve Yockey's "Heavier Than ..."

Unconventional storytelling can be a tough sell in this town.

But in the past year and a half, theater here has made a very interesting step up in taste. Audiences are evolving. "House of the Rising Son" by Tom Jacobsen was hands down the best show I've ever seen in Los Angeles. People like Michael Michetti are making everyone raise their game.

Speaking of good directing, share a trade secret.

Our job is to illuminate the text. It sounds simple, but it’s not. In college, we were given the following exercise for every show: Describe in 10n words or less what happens in the play. Then 10 words or less on what is the play about. And finally 10 words or less on what the play means to you. It's the specificity that makes my job interesting.

Talk about "What’s Wrong with Angry?"

It was written in Britain in 1992, when it was illegal to be 16 years old and gay. The story follows a young boy, full of joy, in love with the school jock. He's bullied. There’s actually a line in the play where someone says to him: "It gets better." I want kids out there to come and see the show. There are still attacks happening in West Hollywood. I was reading about the Trevor Project (the initiative to prevent suicide among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth). Young people can't access it on school computers because it has "gay content." But there is open access to websites that support homophobia.

People will think, Oh, it's another coming-out play. No. This character is already out. It is a play about hope, about a boy who chooses not to be bitter. Bitter is a mood. He gets angry. That's an action.  

Do you ever want to steal plays from New York to do here?

Actually, I'd love to take things we do things here and show them in other cities. 

Your partner, Todd Milliner, is an executive producer of "Grimm" and "Hot in Cleveland." What’s your perspective on film and TV?

We're both storytellers. He's in the same boat, just in a different ocean. That works for us. My heart is on the stage. 

-- Charlotte Stoudt


Theater review: 'Poor Behavior' at the Mark Taper Forum

Theater review: 'Pride and Prejudice' at South Coast Repertory

Theater review: 'What The Moon Saw...' at Son of Semele Theater

"What's Wrong With Angry?" runs at Celebration Theatre through Oct. 29.

Above: Michael Matthews at the Celebration Theatre. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times