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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Males allege sexual misconduct inside L.A. Celebration Theatre

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Because the longtime inventive director of Celebration Theatre, the town’s main LGBTQ stage, Michael A. Shepperd has been an outspoken advocate for social justice. As a homosexual Black theater-maker, Shepperd has pushed for inclusion and variety within the arts. And as a profitable director and actor — somebody who has landed not simply on Broadway but additionally in TV sequence comparable to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “NCIS” and “Prison Minds” — he has been an inspiration to a youthful era attempting to interrupt into the enterprise.

However in interviews with The Instances, 9 individuals who labored with Shepperd, 58, painted a special portrait of the inventive director, and two males accused Shepperd of sexual misconduct in incidents spanning 13 years. The lads additionally allege Celebration mishandled complaints about Shepperd’s habits and finally selected to maintain him in his management place till this week, when the theater introduced his termination and stated an inside investigation had discovered credible allegations of misconduct in opposition to him.

Shepperd’s lawyer, Jordan Susman, issued a press release to The Instances shortly after Celebration fired Shepperd that learn partly: “Michael categorically denies any and all allegations of misconduct and laments the absence of due course of that led to Celebration Theatre’s determination.”

In an interview with The Instances, Shepperd referred to as Celebration a “queer protected area” the place flirtation and bawdy innuendo have been widespread, and he stated any habits of a sexual nature between him and different Celebration solid or crew was consensual.

Celebration Government Director Chris Maikish — who assumed his function after the alleged incidents occurred — declined to touch upon the theater’s investigation, carried out by lawyer Susannah Howard from O’Melveny & Myers, however he did say Celebration had instituted a zero-tolerance coverage on harassment, discrimination and retaliation. The theater, he stated in a press release, is growing “a broader code of ethics to make sure that all who have interaction with our mission adhere to our requirements of habits and embrace our dedication to a protected, safe, and respectful atmosphere, with an inclusive give attention to the intersectional communities we serve.”

Celebration is L.A.’s oldest LGBTQ theater, based in a Silver Lake storefront in 1982 by Chuck Rowland, a co-founder of the gay-rights group the Mattachine Society. Shepperd has helped to lift Celebration’s stature since being appointed as inventive director in 2008, when he was the topic of an L.A. Instances profile.

Michael Shepperd, proper, and David Tarlow settle for an Ovation Award in the course of the L.A. Stage Alliance ceremony in 2011 in Thousand Oaks.

(Ryan Miller / Getty Photos)

Shepperd racked up awards and accolades, gathering the L.A. Stage Alliance’s Ovation Awards for greatest musical in 2011 and greatest ensemble solid in 2012, and incomes three Ovations in 2017 alone — greatest musical for Celebration’s “The Boy From Oz”; greatest director of a musical (a class whose nominees included Billy Porter); and greatest featured actor in a play (“Booty Sweet”), a class that included Michael McKean, amongst others. His work has been critically acclaimed as effectively, with Instances reviewers praising his appearing as “nuanced,” “thunderous” and “heart-stopping” (“Fences,” 2015) and declaring productions he directed to be “pitch-perfect” (“Rotterdam,” 2017) and “good” (“West Adams,” 2020). He has been honored by the Hollywood Arts Council and is a winner of an NAACP Theatre Award.

However Andrew Diego, 33, a solid member of Celebration’s 2019 manufacturing of “The Producers,” stated in an April 14 Fb submit and in subsequent interviews with The Instances that Shepperd used his energy as inventive director and the confines of a small theater to sexually harass him.

‘That isn’t a calling card or a permission slip’

At 55-seat Lex Theatre in Hollywood, the place Celebration has staged its exhibits since 2016, Diego stated Shepperd repeatedly got here up from behind throughout pre-rehearsal warmup onstage and put his arms round Diego’s waist, or loomed over him whereas respiratory on his neck and touching his torso. Throughout one rehearsal, Shepperd instructed Diego that when the present was over they usually not needed to be skilled, Shepperd needed to have intercourse with him, Diego stated. Shepperd used a extra vulgar phrase for intercourse, and he stated it loudly, in keeping with Diego, who on the time was embarrassed that others would possibly hear.

Backstage was slim, cramped and cluttered with costumes and props. Shepperd and Diego, who have been starring within the manufacturing, stood at the hours of darkness of this area, ready for his or her cues to go onstage, Diego stated, when Shepperd would contact or caress him, often on his buttocks or thighs.

Diego stated one of many alleged encounters that disturbed him essentially the most occurred when he was standing backstage in costume, ready for Act 2 of “The Producers” to start. It was then that Shepperd instructed him that as a younger man he would masturbate to the gang rape scene within the Jodie Foster movie “The Accused.”

Shepperd recalled the incident in an interview with The Instances and stated that, in most theaters, actors share a sure closeness that leads to sharing that may go too far.

“We have been having conversations in a sex-positive, queer protected area, and that’s one in all my truths that got here out,” Shepperd stated.

Shepperd additionally stated he and Diego collaborated intently on how their characters would act in the course of the present. He stated it was Diego who urged they kiss at a sure level within the present and, due to a knee damage, Diego would assist Shepperd dress backstage. Throughout these instances, Shepperd stated, Diego would “slide down my leg slowly whereas staring me within the eye, and it was very seductive and lustful and subservient.”

A “showmance,” Shepperd stated, developed on and off stage. “Had been there moments that I put my arms on his hips? Certain. Had been there moments the place he slid his arms up my legs? Certain,” Shepperd stated. “Was it finished in a sexual method, or in a queer and performative method?”

Diego disputed Shepperd’s characterization of his assist getting Shepperd dressed. At first, Diego would flirt and play together with Shepperd’s advances, Diego stated, however he by no means invited the habits. He had lengthy admired Shepperd and was excited for the chance to work with him. The job was a milestone in Diego’s profession, Celebration was a revered place to work, and Shepperd was revered — which made his experiences extra distressing, Diego stated.

“In case you are somebody who professes to be a champion of social justice when within the shadows you reside and exhibit habits that’s so antithetical to that, it’s actually troubling,” Diego stated.

Three solid and crew members for “The Producers” spoke to The Instances about Diego’s accusations. Two stated they witnessed the touching and caressing throughout warmups. The third stated Diego shared his issues about Shepperd’s habits on the time. The three individuals requested anonymity, citing Shepperd’s recognition and the extent to which talking out might hurt their careers.

“Michael Shepperd would nearly sneak up behind Andrew, and I might see his arms touching Andrew’s hips from behind,” one crew member stated. “He’d put his face very near Andrew’s face … nearly like a sluggish dance from behind. I seen that was occurring persistently.”

Diego stated he reported Shepperd’s habits first to the present’s stage supervisor, Estey DeMerchant, who in keeping with Diego tried unsuccessfully to watch Shepperd’s habits. DeMerchant declined to remark for this text.

A couple of weeks later, on Aug. 6, 2019, one of many present’s producers, Andrew Carlberg, despatched an e-mail to members of the manufacturing. The message, which has been reviewed by The Instances, stated the manufacturing was meant to inhabit “a protected area the place all really feel welcome and comfy,” however a number of individuals had knowledgeable Carlberg that “some language and actions within the theater are usually not reflecting that at present.”

Diego responded privately to Carlberg.

“I admire the pressing consideration to this matter,” Diego wrote in an e-mail reviewed by The Instances. “I’ll say that as of this previous weekend, the language and actions you’ve cited are ongoing. I acknowledge the problem of the scenario. However of all locations, Celebration is one which I really feel ought to have a fully zero-tolerance coverage on the subject of this matter.”

Within the e-mail and in a follow-up cellphone name, Diego stated, he requested that his feedback stay confidential. However Diego stated Shepperd confronted him and stated he knew the youthful actor had spoken to administration about Shepperd’s habits. Shepperd remoted himself in his dressing room (which doubled as the toilet) and averted talking with others, Diego stated.

“His response made us really feel like we needs to be apologizing to him,” one crew member recalled.

Shepperd denied confronting Diego and instructed The Instances he by no means was instructed who had filed the criticism.

“I used to be simply instructed that what I used to be doing needed to cease,” Shepperd stated. “I acted like knowledgeable and stopped flirting.”

A “Producers” crew member — an individual in a management place — recalled receiving Diego’s allegations of inappropriate touching. The particular person stated the allegations have been handed alongside to producers, who promised to take motion.

“I went to the producers and stated, ‘Hey that is what’s happening, and it’s making everybody actually uncomfortable,’” stated the crew member, who recalled separate conversations about Shepperd’s habits with Carlberg and producer Rebecca Eisenberg.

Reached by The Instances, Carlberg, who famous that he was not part of Celebration’s administration workforce and was employed particularly for “The Producers,” issued a press release that stated: “As soon as I used to be made conscious of allegations, they have been promptly and sensitively addressed, and shared with the correct people at Celebration Theatre.”

Eisenberg, who additionally was contracted for the present, stated she by no means witnessed the habits in query however that it had been dropped at her consideration. She stated she was out of city when Carlberg despatched the e-mail, and she or he thought the issue had been dealt with swiftly, professionally and respectfully. When she returned from her journey, she stated, the difficulty appeared to be resolved.

A portrait of Michael Shepperd seated on a stage.

Michael A. Shepperd in 2008, when he was named inventive director of Celebration Theatre.

(Los Angeles Instances)

Shepperd described Diego as “intercourse optimistic” and stated he and Diego had speedy onstage chemistry.

“We had characters that have been tremendous flirty, tremendous enjoyable and naughty bawdy, and generally that naughty bawdy fun-ness from each of us would carry off onstage and go backstage,” Shepperd stated.

Shepperd cited Fb messages, reviewed by The Instances, through which Diego stated he loved performing with Shepperd and was wanting ahead to the ultimate two exhibits of the manufacturing. Within the messages, Diego stated his discomfort wasn’t with Shepperd’s habits, however moderately with the notion that different solid and crew stated they have been uncomfortable with how the 2 males have been behaving.

In these messages, Shepperd wrote that the producers of the present instructed him that Diego was “very uncomfortable and upset” and “felt coerced mainly.” Diego responded that “feeling ‘coerced’ will not be one thing that I felt or reported.”

When requested about these messages, Diego stated he was working by way of a troublesome scenario and attempting to defuse battle with a theater chief within the curiosity of transferring ahead. He additionally stated he would nonetheless not use the phrase “coerced.”

“I really feel as if I used to be in a scenario and an atmosphere that was troubling to start with, and I went together with it for a time frame, and that’s what everyone was doing,” he stated. “I used to be nonetheless paralyzed by this worry of, ‘I don’t wish to rock this boat. I don’t wish to be on his dangerous aspect. He’s this titan within the business.’”

Diego stated he was proudly intercourse optimistic however disagreed with Shepperd’s evaluation of what that meant. “That isn’t a calling card or a permission slip to whoever I’m in an area with to capitalize on … with out having a dialogue about consent or my boundaries.”

Diego stated that as time handed, he was affected by emotions that his Celebration expertise was not proper and shouldn’t be allowed to happen once more.

“I might argue that what was occurring at Celebration was not a celebration of sexuality; it was an exploitation of it,” Diego stated.

Celebration board member June Carryl, who has been Shepperd’s buddy since 2010, and Celebration firm supervisor Parnell Damone Marcano (who served as an understudy for Shepperd and Diego on “The Producers”), issued statements to The Instances in assist of Shepperd.

Marcano wrote that though he was not attempting to color Shepperd as a “choir boy,” he was shocked by Diego’s Fb submit. He wrote that he had by no means seen the alleged habits and that when he noticed the e-mail from Carlberg, he chalked it as much as “the customarily ribald humor that theater individuals are recognized for.”

Carryl, who recused herself from the Celebration investigation and board vote on Shepperd’s firing, wrote that she was “uncomfortable” with numerous facets of Diego’s account. She described Shepperd as direct, vocal and flirtatious, and wrote, “As an incest and sexual assault survivor, I’m painfully conscious of the hazard of defending accused predators and blaming victims” however that she nonetheless felt compelled to precise what she noticed as contradictions between Diego’s allegations and his habits at Celebration. Carryl declined to remark additional.

Michael Taylor Gray poses for a photo in front of a background of trees and flowers.

Actor Michael Taylor Grey has alleged sexual misconduct by Michael Shepperd.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Instances)

‘You simply develop into part of this tradition of acceptance’

When Diego’s allegations hit Fb, different males interviewed by The Instances stated they have been struck by how related his account felt to experiences that they had had whereas working with Shepperd.

Michael Taylor Grey carried out in his first present at Celebration Theatre in 2006. For the following decade, he served in a wide range of roles, together with firm member and casting assistant. He labored the field workplace and generally stayed after hours to assist with upkeep, comparable to portray the bogs. Celebration, Grey stated, was his second house.

When Grey was nonetheless new to the corporate, he completed putting the stage after a present and accompanied Shepperd to the scene store. Quickly after they acquired inside, Grey stated, Shepperd shocked Grey by taking down Grey’s pants and performing oral intercourse.

Grey, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, stated he remembered feeling frozen within the second. Shepperd’s actions triggered conflicting emotions: titillation, disgrace, guilt, worry and confusion.

“You’re caught up on this swirl of so many ideas and feelings, and there’s no doable means you’ll be able to suppose clearly,” Grey stated. “It’s all very blurry and straightforward to get caught in that considering of, ‘I’m flawed, too,’ and to begin blaming your self.”

Amanda Gari, a buddy of Grey’s who carried out in exhibits at Celebration, stated Grey instructed her in regards to the alleged incident just a few months after it occurred, and that they continued to debate Grey’s interactions with Shepperd through the years.

In The Instances interview, Shepperd stated the intercourse with Grey was consensual. He and Grey went on to have consensual intercourse six or seven instances, Shepperd stated, and maintained an in depth friendship. He stated Grey turned bitter towards him and the theater when he stopped being solid in exhibits.

Grey confirmed the a number of sexual encounters with Shepperd however stated they have been half of a bigger sample of a sex-abuse survivor complicated consideration with intercourse. He stated he continued contact with Shepperd as a result of he didn’t wish to fall out of favor with the theater firm, to which he had devoted a lot time and vitality.

“There was at all times, ‘I’ve gotta hold this relationship going as a result of this can be a particular person that’s concerned with the theater and I very a lot wish to be a part of the theater,” he stated.

Grey stated that, wanting again, he now might see how troubling the facility dynamic was between the theater chief and the beginner attempting to achieve a footing with the corporate. When requested about that energy dynamic, Shepperd identified that he was not inventive director on the time. Grey, nevertheless, recalled that Shepperd was a Celebration board member on the time. (In line with Celebration’s tax filings, Shepperd was a board member within the fiscal 12 months beginning July 1, 2006.)

Grey and others detailed a tradition at Celebration through which overtly sexualized habits was normalized as a ceremony of passage for homosexual males who had struggled for a lot of their lives to seek out security and acceptance. Generational variations performed a job within the notion and acceptance of sexual advances, among the males stated. Older homosexual males tended to be extra comfy with a vibe through which sexual advances have been an expression of freedom, whereas youthful homosexual males anticipated a extra skilled environment through which to pursue their chosen artwork kind. To them, the theater is a office, not a social gathering.

However in some homosexual arts areas, the lads stated, overt sexual habits is commonly tolerated as a form of inventive foreign money — a technique to assert that you simply received’t be silenced or shamed. A need to be free and open about one’s sexuality as a substitute turns into a technique to dominate and manipulate unwilling contributors, they stated.

“You simply develop into part of this tradition of acceptance. That is simply the way in which issues are finished; I’m not able of energy, so I’m simply going to simply accept it,” stated Grey, explaining why he continued working on the theater. “I’m simply going to play alongside and grin and bear it.”

‘We have been all enjoying in a system that was a damaged one’

The lads interviewed by The Instances stated they didn’t step ahead earlier as a result of Shepperd was a revered and inspirational determine to many in L.A.’s theater scene. They feared his energy and affect, and, some stated, as non-Black males they anxious that their allegations could be perceived by way of a racial lens.

Diego stated he was left with the impression that talking out could be futile. “Producers” director Michael Matthews and producers Carlberg and Eisenberg — who would collect for celebratory drinks after the present on the patio subsequent to the theater’s entrance and exit — appeared like an impenetrable clique, Diego stated.

Matthews and Eisenberg stated in interviews that that they had made themselves obtainable always to solid and crew.

Matthews, a former inventive director at Celebration, additionally issued a press release to The Instances that stated, partly, that he was “disturbed and saddened” by Diego’s Fb submit. He stated he didn’t witness any improper habits on the a part of Shepperd towards Diego, and he was “really heartsick and sorry for the ache [Diego] went by way of, and continues to undergo.”

The lads interviewed for this story stated that they had lengthy needed to keep away from darkening the fame of Celebration, they usually don’t need the theater to disband. It’s a worthwhile and essential firm, they stated, that should acknowledge its errors.

After discovering “different credible accounts” of misconduct by Shepperd past the Diego allegations, Celebration’s investigator advisable numerous actions that the theater stated it was working to implement, together with “further insurance policies and procedures to reinforce artist security, improve accountability, and make clear requirements of conduct.”

The investigator additionally discovered that Carlberg, Eisenberg, Matthews and DeMerchant “didn’t reply inappropriately” to Diego’s allegations, “primarily based on the knowledge that that they had on the time.”

In response to the investigation’s findings on the present’s administration, Diego stated these leaders may need thought they have been appearing appropriately. “The fact is that they weren’t,” he stated, “as a result of we have been all enjoying in a system that was a damaged one.”

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