Things aren’t just evolving over at the Celebration Theatre, they are re-volving as the company prepares to open the premiere of Chris Phillips’ latest play, revolver. This emotional drama centers around six scenes in what is described by Celebration as “the gun-shaped city of West Hollywood”. It requires a cast of six actors (like the six barrels of its titular weapon).
revolver marks a rather poignant moment in Celebration history. It’s the final play to be produced in the space the company has occupied for almost 21 years. Citing a significant increase in rent as the reason for departing, Celebration is set to vacate the premises of its 64-seat space at 7051B Santa Monica Blvd. on July 31.
For choreographer Janet Roston, who choreographed Celebration’s most recent musical Justin Love and won an Ovation award for her work in its The Color Purple, working in the current space has been quite the education. Known for its three-sided seating arrangement and rather large structural support pole stage left, directors and choreographers certainly have its inherent obstacles to contend with, particularly for a blockbuster musical like The Color Purple with a 30-member cast. “When I first came in there, I was like, ‘Oh my god, the space is so small! And there’s a pole! I just viewed it as a challenge learning how to work in such an intimate setting, with an audience around you on three sides. There was a real learning curve about that.”
Roston particularly credits Michael Matthews, Celebration’s co-artistic director and director of The Color Purple, with helping her adjust to what is typically one of theater’s biggest no-no’s. “I think he’s a visionary. He was so comfortable in that space. I learned a lot from him about not being afraid to have your back to the audience, because that’s what’s going to happen in the three-quarter space. It’s ‘backting’ — you have to make sure that the person is alive even when their back is to the audience. You have to make sure that there is a visual, not just a back. It forces you to keep things rotating and come up with different ways of using the space. Certainly with The Color Purple I really learned to use every inch of that space and not to repeat.”
While the layout of space may prove somewhat problematic to the creation of a show, Roston has also discovered that the various perspectives offered by the seating arrangement can be very rewarding for audiences. “When I watch my shows there, I really enjoy sitting in all of the different areas. I go ‘Wow, look at what I’m seeing! It’s really different from this side’.”
Though revolver is not a musical, dance certainly plays an important role in one of the six storylines. Centered around West Hollywood, with forgiveness as the central theme, the scene in question involves Jesus and Judas locked in an intense discussion while performing a very intricate tango. “The idea is that Jesus has decided Judas is the one that he wants to dance with for his birthday. This is a tradition Jesus does every year; last year he danced a waltz with one of his other apostles.” The routine should look complicated but so well-rehearsed that the two men that can proceed to have an intense discussion without thinking about the steps they’re dancing.
With about four weeks of rehearsal, commencing as soon as the actors were cast, Roston began instructing them on the basics of the tango, including how to lead and follow, and then blocking the routine to incorporate where the dialogue would go. “It’s very important that the conversation is foremost, so the dance has to be second-nature. It really travels through the space. It’s fun! I just love the challenge of it. First of all, two guys dancing together is awesome and fun. I really wanted to do tango that was as authentic as I could with dancers who really haven’t studied tango. It’s not fake or clichéd tango. It’s coming from the real tango tradition.”
Roston discovered that part of that “real tango tradition” actually includes two men dancing together. “There’s actually really great footage of men dancing the tango together for an Argentinian audience and everyone shouting ‘Bravo!’ The dancers would switch who was leading and would switch their hand positions. For me it was awesome learning that there was actually this tradition of male-male tango.”
An accomplished director herself, Roston strives to go above and beyond in her role as choreographer to help director, friend, and colleague Ryan Bergmann achieve his vision for revolver. “When I’m the director/choreographer, it’s this big vision that I’m trying to achieve. But when I’m the choreographer, which I love just as much, my job is to manifest for the director. I listen to their vision and my challenge is to then deliver that to the director and possibly more. As a choreographer, I’m totally willing and happy to make the changes to accommodate the director. You have to remember that there are a million choices out there, and if you can choose one you can choose another. I don’t hold my work so precious that there can’t be changes. The challenge of trying to meet the director’s vision is what interests me.”
Roston and Bergmann are headed to Austin next, where Roston will serve as director/choreographer and Bergmann as assistant director/producer of the premiere of a new musical, A Little Midsummer Night’s Dream. Set in a rock music festival (think Coachella or Bonnaroo), this stripped-down 90-minute musical of the Shakespeare classic features a score by songwriting team Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda (aka Groovelily). Roston’s choreography can also currently be seen in the currently-running musical short The Real Housekeepers of Studio City, which is part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
As for what’s next for the Celebration…that question remains to be answered. Roston is confident, however, that this change will bring about new and exciting opportunities. “Obviously I’m sad for them. I love Celebration, it’s like a home to me. Everyone there is so wonderful and dedicated and generous and open. But I think they’re going to come out stronger. Hopefully they’ll get a bigger and better space.” She also hopes the company can stay in its Hollywood/West Hollywood area. “Maybe this really peculiar space that they’ve been in has been explored and it’s time to go find a new one…without a pole.” She laughs.
In the meantime, Roston assures us that Celebration is leaving its legacy at the space on a high note with revolver, and giving us something to think about while the company determines what’s next. “I think it’s a really thought-provoking show. What I find really interesting about it is that it starts out as the six separate scenes but as it progresses the references start to overlap, and by the end of the show I feel like there’s a real kind of wholeness. It brings you back around; it all sort of comes together. It’s a pretty powerful show. The Jesus and Judas tango is actually probably the lightest thing. Not that it’s all doom and gloom, but it’s definitely intense.”
revolver, Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood 90038. Opens tonight. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through July 21. Tickets: $30. www.celebrationtheatre.com. 323 957-1884.
**All revolver production photos by Sean Lambert.Print
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