White Trash, Dark Side

Playwright Amy Louise Sebelius' tangle of red hair is crammed under a fuzzy white hat that looks like a polyester polar bear toy murdered for its pelt, with more red coming from the bike-reflector earrings dangling at her lobes. A pewter medal of the patron saint of actors—Saint Genesius—hangs around her neck, gracing a black bra poking out from under a thin black sweater. A boho brown dress over black pants and purple Ugg boots finish off the ensemble.

If a person's clothing reveals their personality, then Sebelius is a little bit of everything.

Just like her new play, White Trash Catholic Circus.

Composed of a variety of different chapters performed in an assortment of theatrical styles—bookish prose, postmodernist drama, comedy sketch, game show, avant-garde performance art, musical theater and poetry—White Trash Catholic Circus allows audiences to take turns spinning a giant wheel of fortune. After the wheel's arrow lands, Sebelius, six other actors and a cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling, obscenity-spewing Jesus Christ act out the often embarrassingly honest moments from her life.

The comedy's world premiere is at the Garage Theatre this Friday.

*   *   *

“I don't actually consider myself a writer,” she says as she bites into a turkey burger at the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana. “I don't have the discipline.”

Scribbled on the backs of theater programs, bar tabs and various slips of paper whenever an idea struck her, White Trash Catholic Circus took Sebelius five years to write. “I came to the understanding [that] even if you most desperately want to be finished, sometimes it just doesn't happen. I kept thinking, 'This is it! This is it!' and then several months later [I was still writing]. It taught me a great deal of patience. When it was done, it wasn't the ending I wanted, [but] it was my story.”

Initially called Through the Eyes of the Velvet Conquistador—”Let's be glad that title didn't happen,” she laughs—White Trash Catholic Circus has Sebelius looking back at an abusive childhood growing up in Red Bank, New Jersey, a move to Orange County and an eventual estrangement from her father.

At Cal State Fullerton studying musical theater, she found she couldn't carry a tune and focused on dancing, performing for three years, from ages 18 to 21. That career was sidelined forever when she tore a rotator cuff and a hamstring while on tour in Japan.

She decided to be an actor and found the change remarkably easy. “I didn't want to be a choreographer, jealous of the able-bodied dancers. Dancing . . . I always felt like I had to push my way in. Acting, I just fit.”

Sebelius studied at the Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy (LACCTA) in Hollywood during the early '90s, joined SAG and Equity, acted onstage in LA, and spent the next several years abusing herself with bad relationships, booze and a cornucopia of drugs.

Tending bar to make ends meet and hearing a bar patron bitch about his drink was the epiphany that sent her back to school. “I can't do this anymore,” she thought and left LA. A BA degree in performance at Cal State Long Beach led to grad work in Alabama, a master's in acting, and a trip back to California, where she joined her CSULB cohorts at the Garage Theatre and struggled to make peace with her past.

*   *   *

Sebelius remembers LACCTA's chairman of the theater dapartment, Fred Fate, telling her assembled class in the early '90s, “If I didn't have such a tremendous ego, I would be where Robin Williams is. But I was an asshole. My job is to make sure that you don't make the same mistakes I did.”

She has just finished her second year at Orange County High School of the Arts, teaching young people about alternative drama, Shakespeare and acting theory, among other things. Working with the students has helped put things in perspective for her. “It's my job to make sure these young artists don't do all of the stupid things I did,” she says, echoing her mentor.

“The occupation of acting isn't about getting your name in the paper or becoming famous,” she continues. “It's about the paths you take and the heart you bring. It's not the outside forces you have to be afraid of. It's yourself. Your own choices. What do you align yourself with—the light or the dark? To use a Star Wars analogy, do you want to be a Jedi or a Sith?”

She hopes to pass on that work ethic to her students. “[Being an actor] should be humility and service. I know that sounds lofty, but you have to have strong ideas [if you want] to make a difference.”

White Trash Catholic Circus at the Garage Theatre, 251 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, (866) 811-4111; www.thegaragetheatre.org. Every Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through July 14. $20-$12.

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