Ron Celona got bitten by the acting bug in the first grade.
“I played a spider in Little Miss Muffet … and refused to take off my costume afterward,” he says. “I walked all the way home from school in my spider costume, and have been on the stage ever since.”
Celona, 59, the founding artistic director of the Coachella Valley Repertory theater company, is a Rancho Mirage resident, along with his husband and partner of 32 years. Celona was born and raised in Philadelphia. He and his older sister lost their mom when Ron was just 7.
“My father was a tenor-sax player,” he recalls, “and although he gave up his career to have a family, he always encouraged me to follow my dreams.”
Celona’s professional career began when he was in the sixth-grade, after he had already performed in many theater projects at school and at his local playground.
“I continued my education after high school in New York,” he says, “at American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I graduated high school in June and moved that same September. After a few years working on East Coast stages, I moved to Los Angeles and continued theater studies at Cal State Los Angeles. While doing theater, I added television and film to my credits.
“But it wasn’t until I moved to the Coachella Valley in 1999 that I began my career as a producer and director. I produced the Joslyn Players in Palm Desert, and that turned into a successful community theater that thrived for nine years.”
How did CV Rep come about? In 2008, the stars were apparently in alignment.
“Frankly,” says Celona, “I was waiting for the right time in the valley’s growth. I modeled it after other companies, like South Coast Rep and Seattle Rep—companies that started out small and grew to be respected institutions in their communities. The board planned strategically so that we could grow slowly and successfully. The big goal was always to own our own theater building. … In the coming year, this dream is coming true, and we will be taking the next step toward creating a nationally recognized and respected theater company, for our communities’ residents and visitors alike.”
I love theater, and have been pleased to see the growth of several local theaters—each presenting a different experience that goes well beyond the old standard retreads. However, I became increasingly interested in CV Rep specifically because of its Youth Outreach Production program. Each year, CV Rep presents a play with a subject that is of particular interest to young people, and makes it available to students through the Coachella Valley—some of whom might otherwise never be exposed to live theater.
“This year, for the first time, we didn’t just bring students into the theater,” says Celona. “We were able to take the show on the road to local schools and reach over 3,000 students.”
This year’s show was Bully, a one-man show written and performed by actor, writer and producer Lee J. Kaplan, who explores his own struggle with bullying. Kaplan discovered his sixth-grade journal among some old boxes, and recalled the verbal, physical and emotional abuse he endured. His play includes him as several characters—his teacher, classmates, bullies, and himself—and examines how bullying can affect someone even well into adulthood.
The audiences are always able to talk with the cast and ask questions after the performances. Often, these questions don’t only explore the message of the play; many audience members share their own experiences.
The show I attended was not for students; it was an evening performance for the public. I was struck by those who shared their own memories and feelings.
Kaplan made it clear that bullying goes way beyond hurting someone’s feelings. It is the activity of repeated aggressive behavior intended to hurt or gain power over another. It is emotional, verbal and social abuse, and those bullied don’t know how to make it stop.
Kaplan’s lessons on how to defeat a bully: Stop caring about him. Tell somebody; don’t be ashamed, and don’t back down. Stop blaming yourself—it’s not your fault.
The one question Kaplan had to pause and think about was why bullying happens to one person and not another, even within the same family. He finally said, “I’ve known some people who seemed so sure of who they were, they seemed to walk straight forward through it all toward their own future. Somehow, bullying never affected them.”
Ron Celona, who clearly knew who he was and how to walk straight forward into his own future, had some influential mentors along the way. He first names the renowned Gordon Davidson, of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles: “His wisdom and advice gave me the confidence in myself that I needed.” Then he acknowledges Sheldon Epps, of the Pasadena Playhouse: “He is always there for me when I have a question or need advice on our growing pains. I’m very grateful for his friendship and support.”
The Coachella Valley should be grateful for Ron Celona’s vision and dedication to our burgeoning theater community—and particularly for his commitment to its students.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.