The sexual misconduct allegations rocking L.A.'s largest LGBTQ theater company

·17 min read
A portrait of actor Andrew Diego
Andrew Diego's Facebook post was the center of Celebration Theatre's sexual misconduct investigation of artistic director Michael Shepperd, who was fired this week. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

As the longtime artistic director of Celebration Theatre, the city’s leading LGBTQ stage, Michael A. Shepperd has been an outspoken advocate for social justice. As a gay Black theater-maker, Shepperd has pushed for inclusion and diversity in the arts. And as a successful director and actor — someone who has landed not just on Broadway but also in TV series such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds” — he has been an inspiration to a younger generation trying to break into the business.

But in interviews with The Times, nine people who worked with Shepperd, 58, painted a different portrait of the artistic director, and two men accused Shepperd of sexual misconduct in incidents spanning 13 years. The men also allege Celebration mishandled complaints about Shepperd’s behavior and ultimately chose to keep him in his leadership position until this week, when the theater announced his termination and said an internal investigation had found credible allegations of misconduct against him.

Shepperd's lawyer, Jordan Susman, issued a statement to The Times shortly after Celebration fired Shepperd that read in part: “Michael categorically denies any and all allegations of misconduct and laments the absence of due process that led to Celebration Theatre’s decision."

In an interview with The Times, Shepperd called Celebration a "queer safe space" where flirtation and bawdy innuendo were common, and he said any behavior of a sexual nature between him and other Celebration cast or crew was consensual.

Celebration Executive Director Chris Maikish — who assumed his role after the alleged incidents occurred — declined to comment on the theater's investigation, conducted by lawyer Susannah Howard from O’Melveny & Myers, but he did say Celebration had instituted a zero-tolerance policy on harassment, discrimination and retaliation. The theater, he said in a statement, is developing "a broader code of ethics to ensure that all who engage with our mission adhere to our standards of behavior and embrace our commitment to a safe, secure, and respectful environment, with an inclusive focus on the intersectional communities we serve."

Celebration is L.A.’s oldest LGBTQ theater, founded in a Silver Lake storefront in 1982 by Chuck Rowland, a co-founder of the gay-rights organization the Mattachine Society. Shepperd has helped to raise Celebration's stature since being appointed as artistic director in 2008, when he was the subject of an L.A. Times profile.

Michael Shepperd, alongside David Tarlow, speaks into a microphone on a stage with the sign "Ovation Awards."
Michael Shepperd, right, and David Tarlow accept an Ovation Award during the L.A. Stage Alliance ceremony in 2011 in Thousand Oaks. (Ryan Miller / Getty Images)

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

But Andrew Diego, 33, a cast member of Celebration’s 2019 production of “The Producers,” said in an April 14 Facebook post and in subsequent interviews with The Times that Shepperd used his power as artistic director and the confines of a small theater to sexually harass him.

'That is not a calling card or a permission slip'

At 55-seat Lex Theatre in Hollywood, where Celebration has staged its shows since 2016, Diego said Shepperd repeatedly came up from behind during pre-rehearsal warmup onstage and put his hands around Diego’s waist, or loomed over him while breathing on his neck and touching his torso. During one rehearsal, Shepperd told Diego that when the show was over and they no longer had to be professional, Shepperd wanted to have sex with him, Diego said. Shepperd used a more vulgar word for sex, and he said it loudly, according to Diego, who at the time was embarrassed that others might hear.

Backstage was narrow, cramped and cluttered with costumes and props. Shepperd and Diego, who were starring in the production, stood in the dark of this space, waiting for their cues to go onstage, Diego said, when Shepperd would touch or caress him, usually on his buttocks or thighs.

Diego said one of the alleged encounters that disturbed him the most occurred when he was standing backstage in costume, waiting for Act 2 of “The Producers” to begin. It was then that Shepperd told him that as a young man he would masturbate to the gang rape scene in the Jodie Foster film “The Accused.”

Shepperd recalled the incident in an interview with The Times and said that, in most theaters, actors share a certain closeness that results in sharing that can go too far.

"We were having conversations in a sex-positive, queer safe space, and that is one of my truths that came out," Shepperd said.

Shepperd also said he and Diego collaborated closely on how their characters would act during the show. He said it was Diego who suggested they kiss at a certain point in the show and, because of a knee injury, Diego would help Shepperd get dressed backstage. During those times, Shepperd said, Diego would "slide down my leg slowly while staring me in the eye, and it was very seductive and lustful and subservient."

A "showmance," Shepperd said, developed on and off stage. "Were there moments that I put my hands on his hips? Sure. Were there moments where he slid his hands up my legs? Sure," Shepperd said. "Was it done in a sexual manner, or in a queer and performative manner?"

Diego disputed Shepperd's characterization of his help getting Shepperd dressed. At first, Diego would flirt and play along with Shepperd’s advances, Diego said, but he never invited the behavior. He had long admired Shepperd and was excited for the opportunity to work with him. The job was a milestone in Diego's career, Celebration was a respected place to work, and Shepperd was revered — which made his experiences more distressing, Diego said.

“If you are someone who professes to be a champion of social justice when in the shadows you live and exhibit behavior that is so antithetical to that, it’s really troubling,” Diego said.

Three cast and crew members for “The Producers” spoke to The Times about Diego's accusations. Two said they witnessed the touching and caressing during warmups. The third said Diego shared his concerns about Shepperd's behavior at the time. The three people requested anonymity, citing Shepperd’s popularity and the extent to which speaking out could harm their careers.

“Michael Shepperd would almost sneak up behind Andrew, and I would see his hands touching Andrew’s hips from behind,” one crew member said. “He’d put his face very close to Andrew’s face … almost like a slow dance from behind. I noticed that was happening consistently.”

Diego said he reported Shepperd’s behavior first to the show’s stage manager, Estey DeMerchant, who according to Diego tried unsuccessfully to monitor Shepperd’s behavior. DeMerchant declined to comment for this article.

A few weeks later, on Aug. 6, 2019, one of the show’s producers, Andrew Carlberg, sent an email to members of the production. The message, which has been reviewed by The Times, said the production was meant to inhabit “a safe space where all feel welcome and comfortable,” but multiple people had informed Carlberg that “some language and actions in the theater are not reflecting that currently.”

Diego responded privately to Carlberg.

“I appreciate the urgent attention to this matter,” Diego wrote in an email reviewed by The Times. “I will say that as of this past weekend, the language and actions you’ve cited are ongoing. I recognize the difficulty of the situation. But of all places, Celebration is one that I feel should have an absolutely zero-tolerance policy when it comes to this matter.”

In the email and in a follow-up phone call, Diego said, he asked that his comments remain confidential. But Diego said Shepperd confronted him and said he knew the younger actor had spoken to management about Shepperd’s behavior. Shepperd isolated himself in his dressing room (which doubled as the bathroom) and avoided speaking with others, Diego said.

"His response made us feel like we should be apologizing to him," one crew member recalled.

Shepperd denied confronting Diego and told The Times he never was told who had filed the complaint.

"I was just told that what I was doing had to stop," Shepperd said. "I acted like a professional and stopped flirting."

A “Producers” crew member — a person in a leadership position — recalled receiving Diego’s allegations of inappropriate touching. The person said the allegations were passed along to producers, who promised to take action.

“I went to the producers and said, ‘Hey this is what’s going on, and it’s making everyone really uncomfortable,’” said the crew member, who recalled separate conversations about Shepperd’s behavior with Carlberg and producer Rebecca Eisenberg.

Reached by The Times, Carlberg, who noted that he was not a part of Celebration's management team and was hired specifically for "The Producers," issued a statement that said: "Once I was made aware of allegations, they were promptly and sensitively addressed, and shared with the proper individuals at Celebration Theatre."

Eisenberg, who also was contracted for the show, said she never witnessed the behavior in question but that it had been brought to her attention. She said she was out of town when Carlberg sent the email, and she thought the problem had been handled swiftly, professionally and respectfully. When she returned from her trip, she said, the issue seemed to be resolved.

A portrait of Michael Shepperd seated on a stage.
Michael A. Shepperd in 2008, when he was named artistic director of Celebration Theatre. (Los Angeles Times)

Shepperd described Diego as "sex positive" and said he and Diego had immediate onstage chemistry.

"We had characters that were super flirty, super fun and naughty bawdy, and sometimes that naughty bawdy fun-ness from both of us would carry off onstage and go backstage," Shepperd said.

Shepperd cited Facebook messages, reviewed by The Times, in which Diego said he enjoyed performing with Shepperd and was looking forward to the final two shows of the production. In the messages, Diego said his discomfort wasn't with Shepperd's behavior, but rather with the notion that other cast and crew said they were uncomfortable with how the two men were behaving.

In those messages, Shepperd wrote that the producers of the show told him that Diego was "very uncomfortable and upset" and "felt coerced basically." Diego responded that "feeling 'coerced' is not something that I felt or reported."

When asked about those messages, Diego said he was working through a difficult situation and trying to defuse conflict with a theater leader in the interest of moving forward. He also said he would still not use the word "coerced."

"I feel as though I was in a situation and an environment that was troubling to begin with, and I went along with it for a period of time, and that’s what everybody was doing," he said. "I was still paralyzed by this fear of, 'I don’t want to rock this boat. I don’t want to be on his bad side. He's this titan in the industry.'"

Diego said he was proudly sex positive but disagreed with Shepperd's assessment of what that meant. "That is not a calling card or a permission slip to whoever I am in a space with to capitalize on ... without having a discussion about consent or my boundaries."

Diego said that as time passed, he was plagued by feelings that his Celebration experience was not right and should not be allowed to occur again.

"I would argue that what was happening at Celebration was not a celebration of sexuality; it was an exploitation of it," Diego said.

Celebration board member June Carryl, who has been Shepperd's friend since 2010, and Celebration company manager Parnell Damone Marcano (who served as an understudy for Shepperd and Diego on "The Producers"), issued statements to The Times in support of Shepperd.

Marcano wrote that although he was not trying to paint Shepperd as a "choir boy," he was shocked by Diego's Facebook post. He wrote that he had never seen the alleged behavior and that when he saw the email from Carlberg, he chalked it up to "the often ribald humor that theater people are known for."

Carryl, who recused herself from the Celebration investigation and board vote on Shepperd's firing, wrote that she was "uncomfortable" with various aspects of Diego's account. She described Shepperd as direct, vocal and flirtatious, and wrote, "As an incest and sexual assault survivor, I am painfully aware of the danger of defending accused predators and blaming victims" but that she nonetheless felt compelled to express what she saw as contradictions between Diego's allegations and his behavior at Celebration. Carryl declined to comment further.

Michael Taylor Gray poses for a photo in front of a background of trees and flowers.
Actor Michael Taylor Gray has alleged sexual misconduct by Michael Shepperd. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

'You just become a part of this culture of acceptance'

When Diego's allegations hit Facebook, other men interviewed by The Times said they were struck by how similar his account felt to experiences they had had while working with Shepperd.

Michael Taylor Gray performed in his first show at Celebration Theatre in 2006. For the next decade, he served in a variety of roles, including company member and casting assistant. He worked the box office and sometimes stayed after hours to help with maintenance, such as painting the bathrooms. Celebration, Gray said, was his second home.

When Gray was still new to the company, he finished striking the stage after a show and accompanied Shepperd to the scene shop. Soon after they got inside, Gray said, Shepperd surprised Gray by taking down Gray's pants and performing oral sex.

Gray, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, said he remembered feeling frozen in the moment. Shepperd’s actions triggered conflicting feelings: titillation, shame, guilt, fear and confusion.

“You’re caught up in this swirl of so many thoughts and emotions, and there is no possible way you can think clearly,” Gray said. “It’s all very blurry and easy to get caught in that thinking of, ‘I’m wrong, too,’ and to start blaming yourself.”

Amanda Gari, a friend of Gray's who performed in shows at Celebration, said Gray told her about the alleged incident a few months after it happened, and that they continued to discuss Gray's interactions with Shepperd over the years.

In The Times interview, Shepperd said the sex with Gray was consensual. He and Gray went on to have consensual sex six or seven times, Shepperd said, and maintained a close friendship. He said Gray became bitter toward him and the theater when he stopped being cast in shows.

Gray confirmed the multiple sexual encounters with Shepperd but said they were part of a larger pattern of a sex-abuse survivor confusing attention with sex. He said he continued contact with Shepperd because he didn't want to fall out of favor with the theater company, to which he had devoted so much time and energy.

"There was always, 'I've gotta keep this relationship going because this is a person that is involved with the theater and I very much want to be part of the theater," he said.

Gray said that, looking back, he now could see how troubling the power dynamic was between the theater leader and the newbie trying to gain a footing with the company. When asked about that power dynamic, Shepperd pointed out that he was not artistic director at the time. Gray, however, recalled that Shepperd was a Celebration board member at the time. (According to Celebration's tax filings, Shepperd was a board member in the fiscal year starting July 1, 2006.)

Gray and others detailed a culture at Celebration in which overtly sexualized behavior was normalized as a rite of passage for gay men who had struggled for much of their lives to find safety and acceptance. Generational differences played a role in the perception and acceptance of sexual advances, some of the men said. Older gay men tended to be more comfortable with a vibe in which sexual advances were an expression of freedom, while younger gay men expected a more professional atmosphere in which to pursue their chosen art form. To them, the theater is a workplace, not a social gathering.

But in some gay arts spaces, the men said, overt sexual behavior is often tolerated as a kind of artistic currency — a way to assert that you won’t be silenced or shamed. A desire to be free and open about one’s sexuality instead becomes a way to dominate and manipulate unwilling participants, they said.

“You just become a part of this culture of acceptance. This is just the way things are done; I’m not in a position of power, so I’m just going to accept it,” said Gray, explaining why he continued working at the theater. “I’m just going to play along and grin and bear it.”

'We were all playing in a system that was a broken one'

The men interviewed by The Times said they didn’t step forward earlier because Shepperd was a respected and inspirational figure to many in L.A.’s theater scene. They feared his power and influence, and, some said, as non-Black men they worried that their allegations would be perceived through a racial lens.

Diego said he was left with the impression that speaking out would be futile. “Producers” director Michael Matthews and producers Carlberg and Eisenberg — who would gather for celebratory drinks after the show on the patio next to the theater’s entrance and exit — seemed like an impenetrable clique, Diego said.

Matthews and Eisenberg said in interviews that they had made themselves available at all times to cast and crew.

Matthews, a former artistic director at Celebration, also issued a statement to The Times that said, in part, that he was "disturbed and saddened" by Diego's Facebook post. He said he did not witness any improper behavior on the part of Shepperd toward Diego, and he was "truly heartsick and sorry for the pain [Diego] went through, and continues to go through."

The men interviewed for this story said they had long wanted to avoid darkening the reputation of Celebration, and they don’t want the theater to disband. It’s a valuable and important company, they said, that needs to acknowledge its errors.

After finding "other credible accounts" of misconduct by Shepperd beyond the Diego allegations, Celebration's investigator recommended a number of actions that the theater said it was working to implement, including "additional policies and procedures to enhance artist safety, increase accountability, and clarify standards of conduct."

The investigator also found that Carlberg, Eisenberg, Matthews and DeMerchant "did not respond inappropriately" to Diego's allegations, "based on the information that they had at the time."

In response to the investigation's findings on the show's management, Diego said those leaders might have thought they were acting appropriately. "The reality is that they weren’t," he said, "because we were all playing in a system that was a broken one."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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