Dreaming big

Dreaming big

Sheldon Epps brings theater to the masses — to great acclaim

By Julie Riggott 09/06/2007

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When Sheldon Epps was guest director at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1991, he remembers sitting out in the courtyard before performances of “On Borrowed Time” and being the only person under 60 and the only person of color.

Times have changed since then — mostly thanks to Epps. When he took the helm of the Playhouse as artistic director in 1997, he made it a priority to introduce some diversity to the historic theater.

“All not-for-profit companies are supported by public money, a combination of grant money from government institutions and foundations and also private individuals, so all not-for-profit companies are in some sense owned by the community that they serve. Therefore, it's important that all of these organizations should reflect the communities that we serve and all their diversity and be responsive onstage and off to all ages, all colors, all ethnic backgrounds, all religions,” Epps says.

Through outreach and education programs, diversified programming and the creation of the Theatrical Diversity Project, Epps has brought vitality to the Playhouse while making it shine as a model of diversity. “We have had more success with diversity than perhaps anywhere else in the country,” says Epps, who counts that among his greatest accomplishments.

For those reasons, Epps received a James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award and a $125,000 grant for the Playhouse in July, marking the first time a performing arts organization was a grant recipient.

“This award recognizes the fact that the arts have a huge impact on society and can be a major source of finding solutions for challenges in our community,” Epps says. “And for me personally, it's a wonderful recognition in this, my 10th anniversary year, of the work that I've done here and the vast changes in this particular arts institution — how it's become not only a world-class theater but also a huge community service organization.”

 

 

Looking at the positive
Following on the heels of that announcement, add another major affirmation of Epps' work and the Playhouse's regard: a nearly $1 million grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment. That money, Epps says, will kick off a campaign to raise the funds needed to purchase the building from private owner Greg Baron.

Though the purchase agreement includes a permanent lease of the main-stage theater spaces to the city of Pasadena, “if we did own our home and had the use of the additional spaces in the theater building itself and in the six-story tower building behind the theater, we could create a pretty remarkable arts complex here,” Epps explains.

Enthusiastic, forward-thinking statements like that exemplify Epps' dedication to theater, the Playhouse and the community.

“We are proud to have him in Pasadena,” says Beverly LaFontaine, marketing director for the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. LaFontaine, who is a volunteer member of the History Council at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and chair of the council's Conversations Committee, explains that his “phenomenal” career made him a “natural selection” for their Conversations series, which aims to record and archive interviews with significant people in California's African-American communities.

Epps has a rare place in the national community as well: He is one of only three African-American artistic directors of large-scale, mainstream theaters in the country, along with Tazewell Thompson at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut and Timothy Bond at Syracuse Stage.

Museum council member and award-winning playwright Karani Marcia Leslie will interview Epps at 1 p.m. Saturday at the museum. The public can attend this free event and learn more not only about Epps' career but also about the personal qualities that make him unique and successful, LaFontaine says. His accomplishments reveal “a person who has a certain amount of warmth and heart.”

At the Playhouse, Epps has shown a commitment to risk-taking with his visionary programming. By mixing classics and musicals with world premieres, plays by and about people of color, and unusual collaborations, like 2005's “Open Window” with Deaf West Theatre, Epps aims to defy predictability.

“There is a tendency for people of color and women to be boxed in to doing certain programming,” he said. “So I had to make a conscious effort. While I am interested in material by black writers, I wanted to also do Shakespeare, Coward and Ibsen and not be categorized or limited by my skin color. Not that I don't support and celebrate works by black artists, but I never wanted to be limited — and I wasn't.”

The past two seasons alone have included a diverse mix of productions such as “Sherlock Holmes,” “Sister Act: The Musical,” “As You Like It” and “Cuttin' Up.” Coming up in October is the world premiere of the much-anticipated “Ray Charles Live: A New Musical” (based on the book by Suzan-Lori Parks).

 

New directions
While theater may be struggling in general, the Playhouse has seen dramatic increases in ticket sales, especially over the past three years. If you saw the sold-out crowds during its production of August Wilson's “Fences” with Laurence Fishburn and Angela Bassett, it would be hard to imagine a time when the theater was struggling. But the Playhouse went bankrupt in 1969 and was dark until 1985.

When Brian Colburn, managing director of the Playhouse, joined the staff in 1997, the theater was still in financial trouble. The plays were of mixed quality and there were no educational programs, Colburn says. “Every day was kind of depressing and about how to keep the lights on.”

He says Epps' vision “turned the ship around” by insisting on quality plays and community outreach and aggressively taking steps toward achieving them. “He has a lot of artistic passion and ability — that's the first thing. Beyond that, it's an insistence on doing things the right way,” Colburn says. “It's exciting to work here now,” he says.

What Epps has been able to do, building a national reputation for the state landmark theater over the past 10 years, may seem incredible.

The secret to his success, he says, is “tenacity, stubbornness.” He laughs, adding, “It's probably a willingness to dream big, to look at the possibilities rather than the obstacles.”

Realizing the importance of breaking down barriers of access to theater and developing a young audience, Epps started New Generations for at-risk youth, Allies in Art to support theater education in the Pasadena Unified School District, and Student Matinees, among other programs at the Playhouse.

“Particularly in these days when arts education in the schools has been so cut back, it really has become our responsibility not only to offer performances to adult audiences but also to educate younger people — and by that I mean anyone from 5 to 30,” Epps says with a laugh. “Particularly school-age children who unfortunately are not getting arts education in the school system. It is definitely our responsibility to fill in that gap and, frankly for self-preservation, to develop audiences for the future of our organization.”

But reaching out to children who might not otherwise be exposed to theater is also important to him personally.

In his youth, Epps traveled from Compton, where he was born and spent his childhood, with his father's church group to see his first professional play. While he admits it would be overly dramatic to say that day set him on his career path, the experience of seeing Ethel Waters perform in Carson McCullers' “The Member of the Wedding” did make a lasting impression. On the occasion of the Playhouse's 75th anniversary in 2000, Epps wrote, “This theatre introduced that young boy to the magic of the theatre on an afternoon in 1964. For that gift I will always be grateful.”

Epps says proudly that he was encouraged and supported in his career all the way. As a teen, Epps immersed himself in Broadway shows when his family moved to New Jersey. After studying acting at Carnegie Mellon and pursuing that path for five years after graduation, he made the transition to directing by starting a small theater company in New York City with four friends, the Production Company. Epps directed off-Broadway and regional theater productions all over the country and traveled to London, Japan and even South America in his work.

Having worked at numerous major theaters, from Chicago's Goodman Theatre to San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, Epps has earned extensive directing credits and numerous accolades. He conceived the Duke Ellington musical “Play On!” and directed it in Seattle, in Chicago and again at the Playhouse for the PBS “Great Performances” series. That play received three Tony Award nominations and four Jefferson Awards. Epps also brought to the Playhouse a performance of “Blues in the Night,” which was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Musical of the Year, and the London production he directed was nominated for two Laurence Olivier Awards.

Epps says his greatest challenge has been “working twice as hard doing theater and TV.” He has directed multiple episodes of popular TV shows such as “Friends,” “Frasier” and “George Lopez,” while directing (and even producing for some time) “Girlfriends” for five years. Meanwhile, he's brought celebrities such as D.L. Hughley, David Hyde Pierce, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharon Stone onboard in support of the Theatrical  Diversity Project, a program he started not only to support diversity at the Playhouse but also to provide more opportunities for students as well as at-risk and lower-income youth.

The recognition Epps has received in his steadfast pursuit of providing outstanding and accessible theater in Pasadena is icing on the cake.

“Both the Irvine Award and this recent grant from the CCHE are just tremendous validations of where the theater is and what it's become,” Epps says, “and our reputation both in our immediate community and in the national community as one of the most important theaters in the country.”

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