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Gay Woodside music teacher shares controversial story in powerful solo performance

Sep. 21, 2023 By Tammy Scileppi

Love is love.

Something happened to Woodside resident Matthew LaBanca that changed his views about humanity. So, he decided to write and star in his own powerful play, which chronicles that life-changing event.

Don’t miss his moving performance in “Communion,” in which the passionate actor and musician shares his troubling experience as a gay Catholic school music teacher and choir director, who was fired when the church discovered that he married a man – his longtime boyfriend, Rowan Meyer.

LaBanca’s controversial termination from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn in 2021 led to a media firestorm and became the inspiration for his new solo show, which runs from Sept. 22 to Oct. 1 at The Cell Theatre in Chelsea. Opening weekend is nearly sold out.

teacher

Photo courtesy of The Cell Theatre

The actor noted that this unexpected turn of events caused a crisis of faith, not only for himself but for his entire community, and told QNS that “Communion” is his “effort to move the needle toward inclusivity.”

The play shines a light on thought-provoking themes of spiritual trauma, delusion and hope, reminding those who would use religion to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people that the most basic tenet of spiritual life is that we are called to love one another. After all, love is said to be the fabric of our universe.

“After a neighbor heard me practicing piano in my apartment, he introduced me to his local Queens pastor,” LaBanca recalled.

That led to jobs as a music director at Corpus Christi Church in Woodside from 2012 to 2021, and elementary music teacher at St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Long Island City from 2015 to 2021, where he worked during school days.

“The work was fulfilling. I became more rooted in and connected to my community, and the best part was that I was able to keep my acting career alive through it all. My bosses even gave me a leave of absence when I booked a Broadway show,” he said.

“Years later, when I was fired for marrying my husband, the Diocese of Brooklyn (which encompasses the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens) simultaneously offered me money to keep quiet about everything,” LaBanca added. “Exchanging three months of salary for a lifetime of silence felt very wrong, especially as an actor who’s trained to express himself. I turned their money down and wrote a play about the experience instead.”

How could this happen in 2021?

“I’d be lying if I said I thought this kind of discrimination could never happen, but here in New York City, I felt relatively immune,” LaBanca shared. “The parish communities knew that I was gay. Rowan came to school concerts and church parties. People even bought us wedding gifts.”

“The decision to fire me actually came down from the bishop,” he added. “It apparently took his committee over six weeks of deliberations (something unprecedented) to decide to go through with it and it made me think: If high-ranking Catholic officials are wrestling with these teachings, maybe there’s room for change.”

Currently, the hardworking actor has also been teaching music to K–5 kids at P.S. 151, an elementary school in Woodside. He no longer plays music at church on the weekends.

“I began working at the school in November 2021, less than six weeks after I was fired from my Diocese of Brooklyn positions. My new principal and many of my Woodside neighbors were guardian angels. They threw me a much-needed lifeline and now I’m connected to a whole new segment of the community,” he noted.

Associate producer Mara Jill Herman —an Astoria resident — shared her thoughts about “Communion,” her latest play.

“During the first read-through, I turned to our director, Kira Simring, and said, ‘What year was this? Surely this was before marriage equality!’ And she said, ‘No, this happened during the pandemic, in 2021.’ I was shocked. Matthew’s story reminds us that intolerance and legal discrimination are pervasive in society. In 2021, there were 984 reports of gay (male) bias in the U.S., which was up 41% from the previous year, making gay men the group with the most attacks for their gender or sexual orientation, in that year.”

What are some highlights from the show?

LaBanca told QNS that Simring helped him create “a sense of community” in the play.

“We treat parts of ‘Communion’ like a choir rehearsal and the audience is encouraged to sing. They are beautifully involved,” he explained.

Sound design is another highlight.

“I was fired in private meetings, but I made audio recordings to reference those meetings on my phone. Our production designer, Julianne Merrill, helped recreate them for the play and the audience gets to hear exactly what church officials say to an employee when they are fired. Those scenes are quite stunning,” Labanca said.

“Matthew’s play is a provocative call to action. As the great activist Heather Booth says, ‘Sometimes, you have to stand up to illegitimate authority,’ and Matthew achieves this in an artful way,” Herman said. His performance is honest. His words are raw. His play is a human rights story with love at the center.”

LaBanca performed on Broadway in the original companies of “Young Frankenstein,” “White Christmas” and “A Christmas Carol.” His solo show “Good Enough” played Off-Broadway at the United Solo Festival, winning the festival’s Best Musical Award in 2014. His story is also portrayed in the documentary “May All Be Wed,” which makes its debut on the film festival circuit this autumn. TV credits include “Broad City,” “Live from Lincoln Center” and the upcoming season of “Severance” on Apple+.

Dates and times: Sept. 22, 23 and 28 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 29 at 8 p.m., as well as Sept. 23, 24 and 30 and Oct. 1 at 2 p.m.

Nancy Manocherian’s the Cell Theatre, is located at 338 W. 23rd St., in Manhattan.

The show’s run time is 65 minutes. Tickets are $20. For the most updated ticket sales information, please visit tickettailor.com/events/thecelltheatre/984305.

“Communion”is directed by Kira Simring and features projection, music and sound by Julianne Merrill; additional projections by Ryan Belock; set and costumes by Rodrigo Hernandez; lighting and technical direction by Julian Singer-Corbin; and production stage management by Richard Urquiza. Brian Reager is associate director and Mara Jill Herman is associate producer. Ron Lasko (Spin Cycle/NYC) is the press representative.

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