The Spotlight: Director Michael Matthews at Celebration Theatre

September 21, 2011 | 10:40 am

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


By Chris Jones

Why is the Chicago theater so demonstrably lousy at retaining young directors? Take the case of Michael Matthews, the talented fellow at the helm of the exceptional, current Circle Theatre production of Patrick Wilde’s, What’s Wrong With Angry?, Despite such handicaps as a low budget, a tiny stage, a non-union cast and a script covering well-honed territory (the coming-out struggles of a British gay teenager), Matthews forged an intensely credible production, dripping in warmth, anchored in honesty and chock full of smart ideas. It’s a knockout piece of direction and it is no fluke. Matthews’ production of David Hare’s, The Judas Kiss (also at Circle) was another superb show. So was his Serendipity Theatre production of, Being 11, last staged in 2004 and a bittersweet look at the pain of adolescence in the 1980s.

I first encountered Matthews’ work in 1999, when I reviewed his production of Ntozake Shange’s, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, at the Journeyman. This piece of verse drama is fiendishly hard to do well. Matthews did it well.

When I saw, What’s Wrong With Angry?, last week, it finally dawned on me that these oft-unfashionable but uniformly admirable little shows all had one thing in common.

They all had the same director.

In fact, all you have to do is scroll back through this 29-year-old’s recent resume to find a common theme.

He’s worked mainly at Chicago’s smaller companies—the kind of creative but inconsistent troupes that tend to have ups and downs based on the particular show of the moment. But when Matthews has been the director, the pendulum always seems to swing upwards.

His production of Chay Yew’s Porcelain, for example, was one of the biggest hits in the history of the Trapdoor Theatre, snagging the Jeff Citation for Best Ensemble of 2001.

Matthews has been succeeding for quite a few years. So you’d think the big Chicago theaters would be swooping in, right?


“I found it very hard to get a chance anywhere at all,” Matthews says. “It was just a mess.”

Matthews has decamped for Los Angeles. His current show at the Circle merely was his honoring a prior commitment.

Despite the Chicago theater’s reputation for nurturing its young, that’s not the case with directors. Matthews now has his own Equity theater in L.A.—the Celebration Theatre in West Hollywood. They went after him there. “In Chicago,” he says, “I would never have gotten the kinds of opportunities I can have here.”

In L.A.? In the theater?

This should be a wake-up call.

Matthews’ talent is demonstrable. For one thing, he casts uncommonly well. For another, his shows are well-paced and provocative.

“I don’t like making obvious choices,” he says. “And I’ve always tried to concentrate on a sense of urgency.”

Matthews isn’t the only young director with this problem. Lynn Ann Bernatowicz, another emerging Chicago director who couldn’t get past a certain point here, also has headed out to California in recent weeks. “I’m looking,” she said as she left, “for new opportunities.”

Of all the jobs in the theater, directing is the hardest to break in. There are many actors in a show, but only one person running it. Many of Chicago’s large companies have ensembles, associate artists and other tickets to punch. And theaters often are run by controlling personalities (it’s the nature of the beast) and it’s a rare artistic director with enough self-confidence to risk the emergence of a talented newcomer at the helm. But our best artistic leaders don’t insist on their fingers being in every show. And in the long term, Chicago needs its young talent.

Matthews is dying to come back to a real theater town. “My heart is so much in Chicago,” he says, “it’s not even funny. There are so many companies I’d like to work with.”

In the meantime, a talented guy has to do what a talented guy has to do. Matthews is setting out to transform The Celebration Theatre.

“I want,” he says, “to give the place a bit more of that Chicago storefront quality.”

Michael Matthews Celebrates Collaboration

by TOM PROVENZANO  |  September 22, 2010

To be reminded of how joyous a life in theatre can be one needs only to spend half an hour speaking to Michael Matthews, former Artistic Director of Celebration Theatre, who is back in that theatrical home he adopted after a move from Chicago’s theatre scene in 2005.

Currently he is directing Richard Greenberg’s international and critically acclaimed hit Take Me Outfor Celebration. The play centers on the turmoil following a star pro-baseball player’s casual announcement he is gay.

Matthews is remarkably articulate about the fulfillment theatre brings. In that articulation the most common word he uses is “collaboration.” Though he is known for his laser-like ability to cut through to the essence of dramatic literature as he transforms page to stage, he consistently credits the artists surrounding him for the success of his theatrical process.

Chief among his theatrical relationships is with his cast. He creates an extraordinary bond from the auditions through the final performance. He smiles, “I love actors. I am a story teller. My actors are my collaborators in telling the story. I love them because I love to talk to people. I want to take the story we are telling and be able to truly know what it is about. I love to discuss what we need to do to convey the story. I keep asking them, ‘How do you get what you want?’ I talk to the actors about playing action and veering away from mood. We have to tell the story in an up-front honest way, not relying on how an actor’s feeling but what the characters do. In Take Me Out it is easy to fall into the mood of the piece instead of focusing on the story and letting the audience do the feeling.”

When Matthews talks about “playing action,” he is speaking from his deeply held conviction about the power of the Stanislavski system. Not the limited Strasberg notion of Stanislavski but the intense later work of the Russian genius which he learned at the feet of director Anna Shapiro, Steppenwolf member and professor at UC San Diego/La Jolla and Northwestern. Matthews speaks of Shapiro with the reverence of a disciple. ”She taught Stanislavski verbatim. It is all about what you want and how are you going to get what you want: ’Play your want! Play your action! You must clearly define your overall objective and play what that is by pinpointing every single action.’ That’s says it all for me.”

Matthews was ready to become a director after working with Shapiro. ”That’s what I devoured when I got back to Chicago and got going full throttle as a director. Since then that’s what I follow. That’s how I work with my actors. Lord knows you get an array of actors with a zillion techniques. What is so fascinating is to be able to watch the actors with their various techniques take what I am giving them and use it in their own ways.”

Like most stage directors, Matthews began as an actor. But he shudders and grimaces as he thinks of himself on stage. ”That’s so nasty! I went to a performing arts high school in Chattanooga. I was acting then. I started off in college as an actor but fell head over heels in love with directing after my first year of college.” He is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago. “While I was there I directed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. An outside company came in and saw it and when I graduated they wanted to remount my production. That’s how I got my start. It went over really well and I was directing in Chicago from 1999-2005.”

Matthews became a local theatrical celebrity in Chicago with an enormous array of credits in addition to For Colored Girls… which included the Chicago premieres of The Judas Kiss, What’s Wrong with Angry? and In the Blood with Circle Theatre as well as the world premiere of Being 11 with Serendipity at Victory Gardens, Porcelain with Trap Door Theatre and Les Blancs with the Chernin Center as part of the Lorraine Hansberry Festival. But he felt he’d gone as far as he could in Chicago and determined to find his way in Los Angeles or New York. Los Angeles won and he arrived in 2005.

He had success quite early. “When I first got to LA I was introduced to Nicholas Martin who directed Dead End at the Ahmanson. He brought me in there to assistant direct. Then I did the same for The Cherry Orchard at the Taper. I stayed in touch with Nicholas and he brought me to New York to assistant direct Butley. New York City was wonderful, amazing, fantastic! I would do anything to get back out there. I love it so much.”

Though his ambitions include New York, his present is all about LA. Very quickly after his arrival he found his way to the Celebration and became its artistic director, a post he held for five years. Though he gave up his leadership position, Celebration will always be part of him. “It is definitely my artistic home. But it hit me one day in the shower that I had to spread out. I called Michael Shepperd and said we needed to go for drinks. He said, ‘I think I know what you are going to ask me.’ He shadowed me for half a year then he took over. I stayed on as resident director. One or two shows a year.”

With Take Me Out, Matthews is directing one of the most famously nudity-enriched gay-themed plays in history. But nudity has never been an easy subject for this young director. He grew up in an extraordinarily conservative world-view and some of its strictures are still embedded in his consciousness. “I am a southern boy. The south is great for vacation. My parents live in South Carolina so I go back every year. I definitely like being in a big city – the south is difficult but beautiful. I grew up in a religious commune known as The Ranch in Chattanooga. Literally a working ranch and we lived on the premises. It was intense day in and day out translating the Bible and teaching the books. Before that we lived in a grape vineyard until I was 10. We’d harvest them for wine. My parents wanted to have wine and we were very much crucified for that. We had grape vines outside our house. When we finally moved they chopped down all the grape vines.” Still, his conservative parents recognized Matthews’ theatrical bent and gave their support.

Though Matthews left the ultra-conservative Christianity of his youth, certain aspects of modesty have prevailed. His only foray into nudity before Take Me Out was in a Chicago production. “I did Judas Kiss in Chicago with a man and woman nude behind a scrim. That was the only time because I am so uncomfortable with it.” That discomfort led him to make some very wise decisions in his role as Artistic Director at Celebration, which had become rather infamous for some sexual pandering to gay male audiences. But it wasn’t easy to change the culture. He laughs and is not sure how much he should relate. “I got into a lot of trouble when I took over Celebration. I said a lot of really brash things. I wanted it to be known clearly I wanted to tell great stories. I didn’t want to rely on nudity for nudity’s sake and I know there are so many gay shows that are very much about boys and bodies and skin. But that is not where I am. I laid some declarations. We did The Children’s Hour for god’s sake! I took the company on a much different path.” But he survived this onslaught and lasted five years. “People got used to it and we found a whole brand new audience. Michael [Shepperd] has taken that and cultivated it and it has gone in an amazing fantastic direction. I couldn’t be happier – that’s why I consider it my artistic home.”

Now he is back and providing plenty of skin in Take Me Out. He understands the raised eye-brows but explains why he sees no contradiction. ”People wonder why it is okay for me. It’s because I love this play so much. If you think about the nudity, it is in the shower scenes and tells the story of these men who are able to be comfortable in front of each other in the shower and pat fannies and pinch a nipple and tousle hair and kid around. It tells how they can’t do that anymore because of what has happened at the top of the show. Darren, the star baseball player, comes out. Now all of a sudden everyone is uncomfortable. We’re still naked and in the shower. These shower scenes are not sexual; they are very matter of fact. Very much about why it is Darren’s fault they can’t be themselves now. You can’t do that without the nudity. It tells the story.”

Why does he love this play so much? After a long pause he continues, “This play – it is easy to say what happens in the play. It is much tougher to say what the play is about. It goes in so many different directions. What attracted me to it so much is you see a man like Nathan, the accountant business manager, who is almost like a shell of a human being, about to go into his renaissance. He has never been in love. He has never been able to speak about love, to find out his truth even. He falls in love with baseball things. He falls in love with the numbers of it. It becomes his obsession. It lets him become who he truly is through the course of watching the team, watching the crowd – he is with the crowd for the first time in his life. You see this man turn into someone with a spine, with a backbone, who can care, who can love, who can breathe and at the same time you see Darren and their friendship and this man who was a god before slowly become a human being. I relate to the truth in that friendship and what they discover in themselves.”

The Celebration is already an intimate space but for this show Matthews is making it even more so. ”I decided to do the show in-the-round. The space almost becomes, in my concept, a Petri dish. You are invited in to watch the event – this scientific experiment, if you will. To see how everyone reacts to the chemistry between these people when the front of you.”

Intimate theatre is ingrained in Matthews. His LA credits include the local premieres of Haram! Iran!,The Jazz Age, The Prodigal Father, Stupid Kids and Four plus Ovation nominations (Best Director and Best Play) for both Beautiful Thing and The Bacchae. His last production for Celebration was the beautiful rendition of Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, the musical by Tim Acito with which he hopes to continue to work. “Tim Acito is probably one of the most brilliant men I have ever met. Incredibly talented. I spent five or six months with Tim on the phone and emails back and forth. It was a fantastic, amazing experience. I would love an ongoing relationship with the show. You never know. I would have that show put up everywhere. I’d love to see those ladies, those fantastic eight beautiful women, take that show all over the place. It meant a lot to me.”

Again he is crediting his collaborator with his success but as always that credit is requited by the other artist. Tim Acito speaks about Matthews’ skills as a director. “As a director, Michael Matthews combines the best of both worlds on several accounts. He has clear ideas as to what he wants but is always open to collaboration; he can employ poetic and experimental theatricality without ever losing focus on the basics of storytelling; and he believes that art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive but actually dependent on each other for their fullest expression. He makes playwrights feel welcome and empowered – a rarity amidst the petty territoriality that too often characterizes the theatrical process, particularly with musicals. Perhaps most importantly, he believes collaboration is a continuing process. It is not accomplished over one or two phone calls. It is accomplished over dozens of phone calls, emails, coffees and beers, starting months before rehearsal and ending only when the curtain goes up opening night. Never underestimate the value of a director who believes in frequent, easy-going, two-way conversation – it reveals not only professionalism, but humility and humanity.

“Specifically regarding Brewster Place, Michael really embraced the minimalism of the new version of the show, which allowed it to move and shine exactly how I had hoped. I had overwritten its previous incarnations (I blame no one but myself), so it was a huge inspiration and relief Michael shared my belief that five good lines of dialogue, if presented correctly, can often say more than several whole pages. I love how he gave the ‘deeper’ aspects of the show (the psychologies, the metaphors, the socio-political commentaries) the same attention he gave the more mundane aspects (how to get the table on and off without its wheels squeaking too much), which is precisely the delicate balance of artistry and logistics all theatre needs.”

Matthews joined the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society with Brewster and hopes the play will be part of his future – a New York production would be “a dream come true.” Meanwhile his ambition is to continue his growth as a stage director in LA and hopefully in regional theatre across the country. “Los Angeles theatre is tremendously exciting. I come from Chicago which is an A #1 theatre town and so I was a bit skeptical coming here. But just in the past five years seeing how things have evolved and being a part of it is amazing. So many fantastic voices are finally being heard. I think it is wonderful and an honor to be a part of it. To know these are my peers is incredibly rewarding.”