BWW Interview: Actor/Director Michael A. Shepperd Stepping Off-Stage to WEST ADAMS
A creative staple of the Los Angeles Theatre community, director/actor Michael A. Shepperd will next be exhibiting his directorial talents in the world premiere of playwright Penelope Lowder's WEST ADAMS, opening February 1, 2020 at the Skylight Theatre. This dark comedy on race, class, and a bouncy house in the West Adams neighborhood features Andrés M. Bagg, Allison Blaize, Clayton Farris and Jenny Soo. Michael managed to find a spare moment between his multi-tasking to answer a few of my inquisitive queries.
Thank you for taking time for this interview, Michael!
You directed the Skylight production of ROTTERDAM in 2017. When did you first meet up with Skylight's artistic director Gary Grossman?
Gary and I have known each other for years. We really started getting to know each other during the fight to save 99-Seat Theatre. For whatever reason, I'm thinking insanity, he asked me to direct ROTTERDAM, and it was a great collaboration. We were looking for something else to do together and when this script popped up we both knew it was time.
What aspects of WEST ADAMS piqued your directorial interest?
The way Penelope has written about the subtle and not so subtle everydayness of systemic racism, and how micro-aggressions are used so commonly that most European American folks have no idea they are committing them. The struggle as a director was going to be how to address these issues, but also to make sure we really like the folks whose mouths these words are coming out from. That is still the challenge as we go into previews.
Since this is a world premiere, is playwright Penelope Lowder tweaking her script as you rehearse? Or are her words already set in stone?
Every day it is tweaked. Every day we are finding new things. Every day, there are slightly newer scenes for the actors to learn. Penelope is a dream playwright to work with. She sits in on our rehearsals and she listens to the rhythms that I'm creating with her words, and then she is able to tweak and fix things right in the moment. It has been an absolute treat working with Penelope.
Michael Teoli is the only other person I've worked with. He created all new interstitial music for this production. This is our third collaboration. And Michael O'Hara is a props God!!! All the others are coming in as virgins. I think we all know how they will leave. Yup. In tears.
ROTTERDAM was picked for Center Theatre Group's Block Party. What did that recognition mean to you as a non-equity theatre director?
Well, I'm not just a non-equity theatre director. I am also an equity theatre director. I will direct whoever, whenever, however; as long as I get paid. LOL! Being accepted into Block Party was a huge honor, not just for me but also for Skylight Theatre Company. I was thrilled to be a part of something so amazing. And I got to have that experience twice. Celebration Theatre was in Block Party the year before with DIE, MOMMIE, DIE.
What feeds your artistic soul more - performing onstage, or directing offstage?
They both offer me different things. I think I have to say acting. It feeds me in a way that I can't describe. It's also less nerve -wracking.
As one who wears a director's cap frequently, do you find it easy to leave it off when being directed in your acting roles?
All three of the larger theatre roles that I did last year were directed by the same director, Michael Matthews. We have such a short hand when working together that I already know where he wants me to go before he tells me. And he knows exactly when my mental breakdown will happen during week three of rehearsals. I guess I need to start working with other directors, for me to be able to answer your question.
You have been Artistic Director of Celebration Theatre for over ten years now. How do you juggle your time to take on directorial and acting gigs outside of Celebration?
I think it's closer to 15. Yikes. To be honest, I don't know. Thank goodness for calendars on my phone, and reminders that make my phone beep. I think the hardest thing is to make sure I leave enough time for my family. Both of my children are teenagers now, and they need me in their lives more than ever. They may not admit that because, I just said they were teenagers, but I know how important it is to have parents around during these incredibly hard years. And it helps that I drink.
You've been a most deserved recipient of numerous awards. Which award still remains the most significant to you?
I've been very fortunate to have been recognized for my work as both an actor and a director. I like them all, but if I am to be honest, it is my three 99¢ Only Store trophies from an event called "Write Club." Write Club is a monthly event at the Bootleg Theater where writers are pitted against each other for seven minutes and the topics are always the opposite of each other. For example, black versus white, or top versus bottom. And you literally go head-to-head against another writer/performer and it is absolutely thrilling. I have performed in this three times and I've won three times. I have beat two multiple Emmy award-winning writers and my super talented husband. Anytime I get to beat my incredibly gifted husband at anything, is a miracle. I will treasure THAT trophy for the rest of my life.
What theatrical role would you love to take on?
Sweeney in SWEENEY TODD, Mama Rose in GYPSY, anything August Wilson.
What drama or musical would you like to take the directorial reins on?
THE WIZ. I would love to filter that show through a 2020 queer black lens. LOVE! VALOR! COMPASSION! would be my second choice.
Do you have visions of Broadway? Or would you rather remain in the Los Angeles Theatre community working?
Uh, mmmmmmm? Next question 'cuz I know you know my answer, LOL! Look. I'll go wherever there is great theatre being produced. Right now for me that happens to be in L.A. But who knows where I'll turn up.
What, for you, would be the most satisfying response/reaction from the Skylight audience after WEST ADAMS' curtain call?
Silence. Then reflection. Then conversation. And hopefully a conversation, with a person of color where non-melanated folks will sit and listen, because this play has a lot to say.
Thank you again, Michael! I look forward to experiencing your latest theatrical creation.
For ticket availability and show schedule through March 8, 2020; log onto www.skylighttheatre.org