In the decade since he took over as artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, Sheldon Epps has accomplished what most said could never be done — turning a moribund institutional theater with an aging, if not dying, subscriber base and transforming it into both cultural center for the region and seriously regarded generator of new works for the American stage. Epps says he’s frequently approached by New York producers but his focus remains local. “New York is certainly on our mind, but I’m choosing to do plays for this theater and for this audience. Getting a show from here to New York is not this theater’s primary intent.”
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And getting the likes of Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett in a production of August Wilson’s Fences, as he did two seasons ago, didn’t do Epps or the theater any harm.
Among Epps’ goals has been attracting diverse audiences into the theater — a playhouse for many ethnicities and, just as paramount, bringing young audiences back. He says he doesn’t overly rely on marketing data to figure out who’s coming to his shows, he simply floats in the lobby before the curtain goes up.
“I used to sit in that courtyard and be frightened for the future of this theater. Oddly, a lot were coming because it’s such a pleasant experience to come to the building — rather than coming to see the play inside it. I firmly believe in both.”
Born in Compton before moving to New Jersey as a child, Epps attended Carnegie Mellon University as an acting student. Later, he was based in New York as an actor-director until 1992, when a Pew Charitable Trusts grant funded his sojourn to San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre as associate artistic director with Jack O’Brien.
“I called it graduate school in skill sets, in how to lead and find a vision. [O’Brien] provided me access for what it meant to be an artistic director. That was when his New York career was starting to blossom.”
At the Playhouse, he’s had grief from the theater’s traditional subscribers as well as from the local black community — the former because Epps programmed too many black plays.
“I called this guy back and said, ‘Okay, of six plays we did this season, one of them was about African-Americans. Is that too many for you?’ ”
Meanwhile, others felt that Epps was “elitist” — or, as he puts it, “You mean that I’m not black enough.”
He ruminates for a moment.
“Nobody ever criticizes Andre Watts for not playing jazz,” he says. “I’m an artist. My training is in John Henry and Shakespeare, Nilo Cruz and Tom Stoppard. My father was a Presbyterian minister. He’s now 92. He started a community church on 118th Street and Avalon in Compton. He insisted on the word ‘community,’ because he felt it was his mission. Community means everybody in it. That’s what I’m doing.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon