Sheldon Epps Talks Diversity and LA Theater

Sheldon Epps has been the Artistic Director of the Pasadena Playhouse since 1997. He came to that position with a great many credits, including being the Assistant AD at the Old Globe, the founder of several theatre companies, and a noted director on and off Broadway. His television credits read like a who’s who of Hollywood.  We talked just before his announcement to step down as Artistic Director.

Sheldon Epps Pasadena Playhouse Footlights headshot
Sheldon Epps

FootLights: As The Pasadena Playhouse is about to turn 100 years old, getting close to the centennial.  Any plans or celebrations?

Epps: Well we’re figuring out the best way to celebrate the long history of the theater. But I always want to remind everyone that while I honor this theatre’s history, a theater’s reputation is based on what you’re doing now. So you know you can be awed by it, but you’ve got to keep your eye on what’s going to happen when the curtain goes up at eight o’clock.

Absolutely. But by the same token there’s also a gravitas that comes with being the cornerstone of theater in Los Angeles.

The Playhouse has been around twice as long as the regional theatre movement. I mean, I think it’s astounding, what Gilmor Brown (the founder of the Pasadena Playhouse) did. Somehow he came out here to Pasadena – this particular area of Pasadena was orange groves back then – and actually said, “I’m going to start a theater company.”

First he opened in Old Town in 1917, but then six years later he said, “I am going to build a first class theater in the middle of nowhere,” and he got it done. He was that kind of mad genius.

And if you go back and you look at the list of plays that Gilmor Brown did. the full canon of Shakespeare, which again is quite a thing still for any single American theater. Some were daring and dynamic.  Some was summer stock fare,  A lot of it was experimental and courageous theatre. Did you know Gilmor premiered one of Eugene O’Neill play’s here, Lazarus Laughed. That was back in 1928, with 151 actors playing 420 roles.

Pasadena Playhouse Footlights

The Pasadena Playhouse is, I believe, the oldest, and certainly the longest operating theatre in greater LA. It sort of makes you the cornerstone of our theatre community. In your tenure, what do you see as your greatest achievement and contribution to the LA Theatre Scene?

Well I think the thing that I most pride myself on in this theatre is clearly not just attempting, but achieving genuine diversity, on the stage and in audience development. Proving that an affirmative effort at diversity can be an economic boon to a theatre company.

It’s nice to do, produce a show, emotionally, artistically and conceptually, all of that, but the real achievement is to say, to a proven, “if you do it they will come.”

If you produce works as we do, with audience development in mind, say for the African-American audience, and the production is as good as any other to be found, then the African-American audience will come. If you do work for the Latino audience, if you do work for the Asian-American audience, even if it’s as specific as the Thai audience, they will come. The delightful surprise is that the work will not only be artistically beneficial to your theatre, but economically beneficial. So by broadening your perspective, and genuinely making new audiences welcome, you will achieve something that I believe should not only be at the center of your artistic mission, but you’ll also sustain yourself economically.

I’m glad you brought up the subject of diversity. Because it begs the question, precisely what does it mean?

Well, it is a very complicated, multilayered, loaded conversation.

Recently, there was a production of The Mountaintop at an Ohio University. The role of Dr. King was played by a white actor. How does that fit in your vision on diversity?

As much as you or I can say “we are color blind,” I don’t believe that people can be colorblind. And as artists, we cannot expect the majority of our audiences to be colorblind. The audience is going to come in and see the differences. And sometimes that will load them up with meaning. Or they’re going to come in with their knowledge and experience and impose that thinking, which will have a different effect. Any audience that knows anything comes to a show and they see a white actor playing Martin Luther King, they are going to react to that choice going in.

Similarly, any audience that comes into a show these days and sees a white actor portraying a role in racial makeup, they are going to rightfully react to that imposition. So while I applaud strong choices, I think artistically, you have to be responsible to your audience. At times, that will dictate what you do. But you have to really be responsible for what those choices mean, what messages they convey, what is going to be perceived by an audience, whether that is your intention or not.

The other thing that I would say is that it is to me it is also a kind of an employment issue. For a white actor to take the role, I mean that specifically, take the role of Martin Luther King, when the black actors still are not being cast in Chekov nor cast in Neil Simon plays, not cast in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, becomes an employment issue. You know? I don’t think it’s right for you to take one of the few roles I’m likely to get, when in fact the range of roles that you will be offered is still far greater than the range of roles and I will ever be considered to play as an artist of color.

Twelve Angry Men Pasadena Playhouse FootlightsI’ve got the widest range of tastes of any theatre person, as wide as anybody else. You know I love August Wilson, but I also love Noel Coward. I love Shakespeare and I love Cheryl West. I love Sondheim. And I equally love and worship Duke Ellington. So much of it’s to my taste.

But as a person of color, I do feel a responsibility to a diversity mission. Too much of my theatergoing is still an all white experience. Whether it’s me being the only person of color in an audience or sitting in a theatre and all too often seeing only white faces on the stage. We have to get beyond that.

And if I, as a person of color, don’t advance diversity in some ways with concepts like Kiss Me, Kate  or Twelve Angry Men.  If I don’t do it, it’s not going to happen. And hopefully the success of those productions will encourage others to do it, and I believe it does.

What’s been the response to your efforts?

Believe me, I’ve had a great deal of applause for it. I’ve also had real condemnation and people saying awful, awful things about me.

When the theatre closed in 2010 for that short period they said “Well, of course they were going to go broke.  He only does black plays!” [laughs]  You think I’m joking? I’m not!

They also said, “It was bound to happen, you know, because he only cares about black people.” Now, how ridiculous was that? If you just look at the body of my work between 1997 and 2010, you know, it’s ridiculous. But it was said and said over again. Frequently.

Taking this back to the world of intimate theatre or LA Theatre, you have fostered something I think is very important. How do we expand that, or apply diversity to the conversation for the rest of the community?

Having this very conversation is the way. It seems to me the theatre has always been about playmakers reflecting the society in which they live.

You know the Greeks did that, Shakespeare did that. They reflected the culture they lived in. A realization that this L.A. community is truly one of the most diverse communities in America and is soon to be a city where the majority of the population will not be white.

It requires theatre makers to begin to reflect the reality of the community in which they’re functioning. Otherwise you’re only mirroring yourself, not greater L.A. If you want to take on one of the primary responsibilities of theatre, which is to reflect your community, then you’re going to have to diversify your program. Otherwise you’ve shirked that responsibility. And you’re playing to yourself for yourself.

The imperative of the theory is obvious. The application of the practicalities not so much. When I was working with a production of Tracers, we had a very, very hard time in getting African-American actors to even come and audition.

It is a challenge. No doubt that is a challenge. But every challenge has to be met with dedication with harder work with communication. By letting artists of color know, “I’m serious, I really want you here.” “Let the audiences know. I’m serious. I really want you here.”

But it’s not just “if you build it they will come.” You have to be into sincere conversations with communities and woo them. You know. You have to woo the artist, the audiences if you really want it to happen. When a door has been closed to you for so long and every time you walk up to the door and you turn the handle and can’t get it in, you’re probably going to say, “Well, I’m just not going to walk over to that door again.”  Somebody’s got to fling that door open and say, “Really, I want you to come in.”

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge in Kiss Me, Kate (Photo: Earl Gibson III)
Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge in Kiss Me, Kate (Photo: Earl Gibson III)

Do you see any shift in that within our community?

Yes, yes. I certainly think that while I’m congratulating the Playhouse for doing it. I certainly think that all of the theaters have broadened their efforts in the area of diversity and they sincerely recognize the responsibility to do that. But it’s also reflected in programming choices and hiring choices and in audience development choices. Can there be more of that? Should there be more of that? Absolutely but it’s certainly changed. You know it certainly is. To borrow from a sage saying, “We ain’t where we want to be but thank the Lord we ain’t where we was.”

If you had a magic wand and there was something you could do to have a lasting impact, what would you like to see happen?

Looking for the richness of the experience that comes from being more open minded about the casting of plays, the directing the plays, to the choosing of plays.

Listen. I think every time we do a production we’re throwing a party. The party is better if all the people aren’t the same, you know. Different colors. History. Experience. Taste. Opinion. It’s all that makes for a better party. So I would wave a magic wand and say “You know, let’s all have a better party.”

So, since 1997 you have shepherded this institution in time, you have seen some significant challenges. What do you see as the future besides continuum? 

Well actually I’m truly at a point in my personal life, in my professional life, where I start to think about passing it on, transition, and it’s really sort of stabilizing and preparing the theater for whoever the next artistic leader is going to be. And for the next century. Hopefully the life of the theater itself, which I constantly say to people does not necessarily have to continue my point of view about the theater or the mission that I followed it could be completely different.

But I want there to be a place, a stable strong still beautiful place, where theater can be created under a new artistic director with perhaps fewer of the fiscal pressures then I’ve had to struggle with. And most artistic directors have to struggle with. I don’t necessarily know how to accomplish that.

But if a part of this centennial anniversary celebration can be the creation of a stabilization fund that will make it a little easier for the next person. I would love to see that happen.

The theater in Los Angeles has grown up with you and around you. We are long past the days of showcases or a host of vanity productions.

Still a few of those around. Even on Broadway and the West End. But what has developed is a genuinely rich theatrical community where people are passionate about the work. Not just about, “Let me do this play so I get an agent.” They’re doing really interesting plays, either old or new, because they’re really interested in the art of theatre.

I have been directing here since the early nineties, and I certainly feel a real change in this theater community. Very sophisticated and broad changes. You know the range of the work is pretty impressive, and as I think it’s as interesting as any city in the world.

Well first of all I think we still, despite all of the growth for the change in the involvement that we’ve talked about, I think as a theatre community we still have a real inferiority complex. And we think of ourselves not just as a second city here or a third city, but as a fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth city, as a theatre community. So we need to get over that just because I think it’s a widening of consciousness about possibilities.

I think we need to reduce our inferiority complex. About our cultures, about our theatre. I think we need to stop questioning whether there’s a theater community here. I mean I can’t believe that question still gets asked, but let me just say, there is a theater community here. And it is a good theater community as any in the world.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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2 comments

  1. To you Sheldon – I haven’t nor am I ever to walk in your shoes; but I have been fortunate enough to follow some of your foot prints and I find a kinship. Love you.

  2. I admire you a lot Sheldon. It shows that you love and happy of what you are doing that is why the Pasadena Playhouse Theater is still rocking the floor show. I wish the theater more success!

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