He Makes Hard Work Play

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Rome wasn't built in a day, nor has anyone been able to revive a theater that quickly. But Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, has come closer to doing just that than anyone might have thought possible--particularly given that he also maintains a busy career as a stage and television director.

At the moment he's wearing caps of both artistic director and director at the theater. "Play On!," which he conceived and directs, with book by Cheryl L. West and featuring the songs of Duke Ellington, opens next Sunday at the Playhouse. Based loosely on "Twelfth Night," the musical transposes Shakespeare's gender-bending tale of mistaken identity into the vibrant world of swing-era Harlem.

The show, which earned three Tony nominations, is currently staged in a new co-production with the Arizona Theatre Company. It's timed to celebrate the centennial of Ellington's birth, but as one of Epps' signature works, it also provides an occasion to reflect on the director's progress in Pasadena.

At his post for less than two years, Epps has been responsible for a striking renaissance of the landmark venue--increasing audiences, creating a new board of directors, garnering unprecedented contributions, initiating an outreach program, putting on strong and varied seasons and, most of all, giving the theater the kind of local and national profile that has enabled it to begin to attract top-drawer playwrights, actors, directors, designers and others.

That's no mean feat, and even the 46-year-old Epps, who isn't given to singing his own praises, knows it. "It's very encouraging and gratifying to me that we've been able to move the theater right to the center in a very short amount of time," says the unfailingly charming artistic director in his mellifluous baritonal voice during a relaxed conversation in the Playhouse offices.

"I think this has once again become a highly respected and desirable theater, and an attractive theater, both for artists and for audiences."

Until Epps arrived in September 1997, the Pasadena Playhouse had been without an artistic director since 1992, when Paul Lazarus resigned. During the intervening years, the theater was managed by executive director Lars Hansen, who functioned as the de facto artistic director but was, of necessity, mostly concerned with business matters.

Widely considered to be lacking the consistent vision an artistic director can provide that is essential to a theater's aesthetic identity, during the mid-'90s the Playhouse presented a grab-bag array of familiar plays and occasional new projects, but the menu tended to be more miss than hit. Subscriptions fell from 22,000 in 1992 to roughly half that by the time Epps was hired.

Since then, not every recent play has been a hit, but the consensus is that the overall quality of work at the Playhouse has risen sharply. Epps has himself directed a range of pieces, including the recent "The Importance of Being Earnest," as well as Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" and John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler."

So far, none of Epps' offerings has been particularly edgy or avant-garde. Neither has the fare departed in any dramatic way from the Playhouse's long-standing image as a fairly traditional or conventional venue. Yet under his aegis, the theater has been presenting a surprising amount of new work, including musicals--one or two premieres in each six-play season, far more than most comparable theaters would ever attempt on a regular basis--and at least one work by an artist of color each season.

What's particularly striking is that Epps' achievement rests on a faith in the putatively old-fashioned notion that if you do good work, they will come. "I have to do and want to do some plays which will challenge the audience, give them some things that I believe they need to see, and also give them some plays that they're more comfortable with," he says. "However, I don't apologize for doing 'The Importance of Being Earnest.'

"I think to maintain those great plays from the repertoire of the English-speaking theater is very important," he says. "So as long as I'm advancing that, doing really good productions of the plays that make them comfortable with enough healthy challenges in the season, then I feel all right. I'm pushing the boundaries, but I will admit that I'm pushing them carefully. I do think you get a national identity primarily from a standard of excellence."

Yet even excellence is not enough.

When Epps first became artistic director, he received a great deal of attention as the first nonwhite man to hold such a post at a major Los Angeles venue. And while his success has rendered this distinction something of a nonissue at this point--he does not use his own race as a front-and-center issue--it's also true that Epps remains conscious of and committed to bringing more work by artists of color to his theater.

"Play On!" is part of that program. "Fortunately, this seems to be the second time in my life when there is something that I've created that has real legs, as we say," says Epps of the show he premiered at the Old Globe in San Diego in 1996. He is also known for his breakthrough hit "Blues in the Night," which he also conceived and directed. The latter musical revue won both Tony and Olivier award nominations in the early 1980s, toured nationally and has received numerous stagings since, including at the Globe in 1994 and at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1995.

" 'Play On!,' for something that's largely devised as a fun evening in the theater, does push a little bit," Epps says. "The fact that 'Play On!' is part of the season is a way of my declaring that as long as I am the artistic director of this theater, you are going to see work by artists of color, and I don't mean only black artists."

Epps' presence at the theater encourages new audiences in other ways, too. "There are certain members of the black community who are much more willing to come to this theater to see anything and everything that we do, because they feel a sense of ownership of this theater, because the director is a black man," Epps says. "So they come not just to see those plays that directly reflect their life, they come to support me."

And that matters to Epps, because he was once one of those newcomers himself. "I do feel a certain motivation to pay attention to that, because I did travel all the way from Compton when I was 8 years old to see a play at this theater," he says. "And while that was not the day that I decided that I was going to spend my life in the theater, it was one of the days that helped me to have a lifelong affection for the art of the theater. So to a certain degree, I'd like to think that there are other kids from Compton or from Altadena or Watts or wherever who would come to this theater and have that same experience. I don't think I feel that way because I'm from Compton. I feel that way because I feel that way about the theater."

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The son of a Presbyterian minister, Epps was born in Compton and lived there until he was 11, when his family moved to New Jersey. He studied theater at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh before beginning his career in New York.

In 1978 he co-founded the off-Broadway Production Company, which became his creative home base. After a few years, however, he left and struck out on his own, soon making a name for himself directing classics, musicals and contemporary plays.

The success of "Blues in the Night" in the mid-to-late 1980s paved the way for Epps to work at the top regional theaters, including the Old Globe, where he became associate artistic director in 1993, supported by a National Theater Artist Residency grant from Theater Communications Group/Pew.

During the early and mid-'90s, Epps directed and consulted at Pasadena on a fairly regular basis, on the musical "Sisterella," among others. He stayed in his job at the Globe, however, until the Pasadena offer came along. "Sheldon remains enormously important to me," says Old Globe artistic director Jack O'Brien. "He did that thing that very few know how to do, which is to fit in between and among disparate personalities, and he did it with such grace and such charm."

O'Brien is not the only peer who waxes nearly rhapsodic about Epps' skills. "I always feel with him that he's a colleague and a friend," says Geffen Playhouse artistic director Gil Cates. "There's a cheerleader aspect to him that I genuinely like and connect to. He's very smooth and charming."

Those diplomatic skills have enabled Epps to work in both theater and television, and, more to the point, to forge a symbiotic relationship between the two. Epps has directed episodes of "Frasier," "Encore! Encore!," "Sister, Sister," "The Smart Guy" and "Evening Shade," and he's also used his Hollywood contacts to help the Playhouse.

"Sheldon has been responsible for forging strong links between the entertainment industry and the Playhouse," says trial attorney Ralph Hirschmann, who has been on the Playhouse board for five years and who recently secured a $1.2-million donation, the largest in the theater's 83-year history, from philanthropist Rao Makineni. "We've always appealed to actors and actresses, but a more recent phenomenon is members of the board who are in the entertainment industry [and who] mentioned Sheldon as a factor in their decisions [to join the board]."

Among the new members is David Angell, a Pasadena resident who is also one of the creators and executive producers of "Frasier." "Sheldon is an actors' director, although he certainly knows the technical side too," Angell says.

Revamping the board has in fact been a priority for Epps. "Though for a long time this has been a not-for-profit theater company, unfortunately it's been a not-for-profit theater company that did not concentrate very much on fund-raising," he says. "But we have, as of the beginning of this year, a board whose interest is in supporting my goal to turn this into a really first-rate arts institution."

And actors also praise Epps' working ways, suggesting that some of the same skills he uses in the rehearsal room may also account for his success in running a theater. "I feel the director sets the tone for everything and everyone, and Sheldon brings a good feeling," says Yvette Cason, who has been in every staging of "Play On!" since its premiere. "He makes a very comfortable atmosphere [in which] to work."

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Change is, of course, the only constant in a business such as this. And with the new board members and contributors have also come challenges, including the departure, in May, of Hansen, who served as the Playhouse's managing and then executive director for the past 11 years. Hansen left to become the president of Theatre LA, the city's principal organization of theatrical producers and companies.

"Lars Hansen deserves a lot of applause for the not-simple act of keeping the theater alive at a time when every year we hear about more and more theaters simply shutting down," says Epps. The search has already begun for a replacement.

Meanwhile, the audience is growing. The subscriber base, which was around 11,000 when Epps came on board, is now more than 13,000. Yet Epps is all too aware that the audience that most needs to be cultivated is not the subscribers, but rather younger people and others who tend, at least initially, to be single-ticket buyers.

One way to do that would be to develop a second stage where more adventurous fare might be presented. And the Playhouse is already investigating the possibility of just such a place, in the Old Town section of Pasadena. "We have looked at a space over there and are scrambling now to get the money together to do that," Epps says. "And because we recently had a very big pledge and are talking to some other people about substantial gifts of that size, it's not as farfetched as it was two years ago when I got here."

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"Play On!," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Opens next Sunday. Regular schedule: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m. Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. (next Sunday at 5 p.m. only). $13.50-$50. Ends Aug. 22. (800) 233-3123.

Bard's Staying Power

* Shakespearean musicals, now and forever. Page 4

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