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THEATER

Pluck of the Irish

Valley Village's Celtic Arts Center has weathered its share of calamitous times, but nothing has weakened its backers' determined resilience.

October 30, 2005|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

ONE sultry night last summer the air conditioning at the Celtic Arts Center conked out, turning the tiny Valley Village theater into a sauna. Undeterred, an overflow crowd packed inside to see Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," lured by glowing reviews and the roguish humor of executive director Barry Lynch. (Not to mention the promise of liquid refreshment -- imbibing is allowed during and after each show.)

Despite the heat and a power outage, playgoers soon were transported to stormy County Galway, where they were drawn into a game of cat-and-mouse between a monstrous mother and her, as it turns out, equally monstrous daughter. Afterward, actors and audience gave each other a standing ovation and retired to "the snug," the cozy lounge modeled on a pub's backroom.

Call it the luck of the Irish, or the Irish knack for turning even bad luck into something to celebrate. "We're a people who've been oppressed for centuries," Lynch says. "That's why we've become a people of resilience and why we've always held the poet to be more powerful than the king. What makes us so attractive to others is that we offer a sense of community, of love, lust, shelter and spirituality."

That's a potent combination, one that has carried the center through two decades, its current renaissance after a series of setbacks and one calamity -- a 1992 fire that nearly led to the group's demise. "Fortunately," Lynch says, "the spirit has kept going."

The Celtic Arts Center (known in Irish Gaelic as An Claidheamh Soluis -- "sword of light") was the brainchild of Brian Herron, the Dublin-born actor and activist who founded New York's Irish Arts Center in the early 1970s. Shortly after moving to L.A. in 1985 he created a showcase for the cultures of not just his homeland but Scotland, Wales and the other Celtic nations.

Herron rented an old porn movie house in Hollywood and quickly established a following with Monday night seisiuns -- traditional music jams that often lasted into the morning. His inaugural stage offering was Sidney Michaels' "Dylan," a look at Welsh writer Dylan Thomas' final years. The first few performances were held in San Pedro because the Hollywood renovations ran behind schedule. "We had to gut the place," says Lynch, a Brooklyn utility worker-turned-actor who starred in the play. "We weren't just building the sets, we were building the seats, the walls, everything."

A review by veteran critic Polly Warfield is credited with igniting interest in the fledgling theater. Despite this boon, some members lamented the lack of money for marketing -- a problem addressed with typical irreverence and ingenuity. "We were sitting on top of the building one night," Lynch recalls. "One of the actors, Sean Walsh, saw the billboard up there and said, 'Let's paint over it and put the name of the play and an arrow pointing down.' So that's what we did."

After a year, Walsh succeeded Herron as stiurthoir (steerman), or executive director. He expanded dance, history and language programs and tried to tap into the large local Celtic community while urging people of all backgrounds to brave the seedy neighborhood. The adjoining space was converted into a coffeehouse. Over the years, productions have included works by O'Neill and O'Casey and dramas about a Northern Irish Protestant and a Welsh boxer but also a play about Irish Americans in the Mexican-American War and Jean Genet's "The Blacks."

On New Year's Eve 1992, a fire ravaged the old movie house and sent the Celtic Arts Center into exile. Things looked so grim that in February 1993 Walsh told The Times that survival was in doubt. "I am still hopeful," he said, "but if it doesn't work out, it will be a very sad passing."

Walsh and a few stalwarts refused to give up. The seisiuns continued, wherever the musicians could gather, and plays were presented on borrowed stages. Eventually, activities were based at the Raven Playhouse in North Hollywood. Even so, many members drifted away.

In April 2000, the 65-year-old Walsh lost a battle with cancer. A handful of old-timers and recruits vowed to preserve what he and others had built. Led by the new stiurthoir, television executive Thom McNamara, they found a home in a Laurel Canyon Boulevard strip mall. "We did what we did 20 years ago," Lynch says. "We walked in on a wing and a prayer, laid the money down for a lease with just two months' rent in our coffers and started over."

The revived center rode a wave of public fascination with all things Celtic sparked by two 1995 pop-culture phenomena: the Irish stage extravaganza "Riverdance" and Mel Gibson's Scottish epic, "Braveheart."

"People were suddenly interested in much more than Lucky Charms and Irish Spring," says artistic director Dan Conroy. "Right from the start we were going 24/7 with language, dancing, music, plays."

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