Sheldon Epps may be the quietest man in the Pasadena Playhouse‘s green room this morning, but it’s a room he knows how to play to great effect with a few words. He‘s here for the meet-and-greet held with his staff and actors prior to the cast’s first read-through of Linda Kline and Lonny Price‘s musical tribute to Edward Kleban, A Class Act, which Price is directing. “When someone tells me,” Epps says, “that ’This play is perfect for the Pasadena Playhouse,‘ I tell him he doesn’t know what we are, because you won‘t see the same kind of play twice here.”
The room — traditionally a gathering place for performers before a show — is a warm space that reflects the Moorish style of the theater upstairs, more lavishly appointed than many black-box theaters in L.A. A couple of German coffeemakers keep the caffeine brewing; bagels and fresh fruit cover a buffet table, along with pastries, which, perhaps because the place is full of figure-conscious actors, no one has touched.
When Epps, a stocky man in his late 40s, took over the foundering Playhouse in 1997, he became the first African-American to head a major L.A.-area theater. He may as well have been the first man on Mars, as far as some blue-blazered Brahmins were concerned — forget his Broadway and Guthrie credits; forget his acclaimed musical and Shakespearean adaptations, Blues in the Night and Play On, or that he’d been associate artistic director of San Diego‘s Old Globe Theater; forget even that he’d first visited the Playhouse the long, hard way — as an 8-year-old kid who took a bus from his home in Compton one day to see Ethel Waters in The Member of the Wedding.
Looking back today, Epps downplays the hubbub, although he does mention the time a subscriber wrote to announce that he was canceling his season‘s tickets because the Playhouse “was presenting too many black plays.” Epps replied, “From your letter it seems that one black play this season is one play too many for you.” The man wrote back and apologized, realizing that his reading of the season’s schedule had been clouded by an irrational assumption.
In the five years that he‘s headed the Playhouse, Epps has miraculously turned the theater around from being a Goodwill box for fuddy-duddy middle-class fare to a place where one might see the L.A. premiere of Warren Leight’s Side Man or David Schweizer‘s staging of David Hare’s controversial Blue Room.
Epps counts his introduction of diversity to the Playhouse‘s stage as his most satisfying accomplishment. “There were times in the early ’90s,” he recalls of his directing gigs here, “when I‘d be the only person under 60 standing in the courtyard, and the only person of color.” He’s also trying to cultivate an appreciation for theater among young people, as well as to engage adults in dialogues about the season‘s plays through seminars. Recalling the words of his father, a Presbyterian minister, Epps says, “The church isn’t just open 90 minutes on Sunday. It has to be open much longer. It‘s the same for this theater.” Ever the realist, however, Epps admits that he cannot push the artistic or financial envelopes too far at his theater: “I don’t want to stretch too fast.”
The 77-year-old Playhouse, which once fell into such disrepair that there was talk of tearing it down in favor of a parking lot, has benefited from restorations and the loving attention of Epps, who refers to it as “the baby.” “When I first came here, I knew that my goal had to be to make the work deserving of the theater.” Even more important to him are the artists who perform under its roof: “Remember, I‘m from Los Angeles. I want to take this beautiful facility and offer it to Los Angeles artists, to make them feel valuable and respected. What I like most about the theater in L.A. is that most people do it purely for the joy.”
SHELDON EPPS, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse. High points: Sisterella and Play On — the two most successful productions in the Playhouse’s history.