Sheldon Epps: Play it again


The Pasadena Playhouse has had more close calls than Pearl White, more farewells (and miraculous recoveries) than Sarah Bernhardt. And here we go again.

The theater, which began 93 years ago as a troupe of actors in the Crown City, switched off its stage lights again earlier this month. Its artistic director, Sheldon Epps, who has been there for more than a dozen years, pledges to resolve its finances once and for all -- $2 million would do the trick, he says -- and to open the doors of the exquisite and historic 1925 playhouse once more.

If the fate of this theater were a melodrama, love would triumph over money every time. But these are hard days for the arts, and Epps has perforce piled the rescue of the theater onto the other jobs in his repertoire. Just one more hat -- or theatrical mask (the one he’s holding is from Mexico) -- an artistic director has to wear, if the show really must go on.

For many decades there have been dire headlines about the playhouse’s money problems. At one point the IRS padlocked the place, and the city held a big bolt-cutting ceremony after the tax bill was paid. What’s with the ups and downs?

Look at it in a positive light: It’s a theater with many more than nine lives. It always seems to reemerge from this roller-coaster history. But it does shock me. Here’s a theater with an incredible history -- one of the oldest in America, the “state theater of California,” certainly one of the most beautiful in the country, this long and illustrious history of great people and great work -- but somehow always a good deal of financial stress. I think some of it has to do with the fact that it’s not in the center of the greater L.A. community.

But George Bernard Shaw said Pasadena was the Athens of the West.

And [actor/director and playhouse founder] Gilmor Brown fell in love enough to commit to building this glorious theater in the middle of an orange grove. But it was originally named the Pasadena Community Playhouse, so the level of support from donors and the city has been commensurate with a community theater rather than a first-class theater.

So the playhouse is reviewed as one identity and funded as another?

That’s exactly right. I’ve found that the perception of the theater is much greater in New York and San Francisco and other places than it is in this community. Our subscription audience covers 400 ZIP Codes. My mission is to identify the theater as a Pasadena-based theater that serves the greater L.A. community.

Does Pasadena own the Pasadena Playhouse?

It’s privately owned. The owner has to grant a lease to the city, and the theater subleases to the performing arts organization [that does the producing]. The real estate issue has been a big problem, and expensive for us. I personally think it ought to be a city-owned building -- a real performing arts center.

So the show must go on -- how?

We made the bold decision and the brave decision and the smart decision to put the brakes on. We intend to fulfill our obligations to existing subscribers. There’s been a huge outpouring, saying we’ve got to make sure the lights keep burning.

We are thinking of this as an intermission rather than a finale. What you do in intermission is, you send the audience out for a while and you work backstage to get things set and in order, and then you start the next act. That’s what we’re going to do. None of this is happening because the work has been bad. What’s on stage is valued and celebrated. As long as we can continue to say that it is our intention to return to that kind of work, that inspires people to be hopeful.

Are these cycles of financial close shaves standard for all theaters?

It’s been a little more cyclical for this particular theater than for others. That’s a cycle we would like to see stopped -- put the theater on sure financial footing so that 10, 15 years from now, it doesn’t go through this again.

Where do you go for money?

You go to people who are passionate about the theater. You knock harder on the door of the city and the state. “State theater of California” has been an honorary appellation that should perhaps carry some funding with it. In these times there are little pockets of money that would make a lot of difference to the theater.

What’s the relationship between ticket sales and the actual cost of a production?

The standard ratio is 60-40: 60% from ticket sales and subscription, and 40% from donated income. The playhouse is about at the 70-30 ratio. The level of donations has not kept up with the quality of the work.

Gloria Swanson remarked in the 1960s that L.A. is not regarded as a theater town. Could you recycle that quote today?

What surprises me is that inaccurate perception sustains itself, year after year. It’s clearly not true. I don’t think Los Angeles is second to any theater city in the world. The perception remains because there is this other big industry. If somehow the film and television industry were not here, everybody would think of L.A. as a great theater city.

You can cast a play as well or better here than anyplace in the world because of that other industry. I did [August Wilson’s] “Fences” here two years ago. Look who I got to be in it because they live here: Laurence [Fishburne] and Angela [Bassett].

Every theater’s competing not just with film and TV but with new media.

The challenge becomes making the performance special enough to make you go to the trouble of leaving home. Part [of that] is the nature of the thing itself: You are with other living, breathing beings at an experience that is special that one time.

There’s the perception that Eastside audiences will go anywhere, but Westside audiences will only go to the Westside.

[Laughs.] It’s a challenge, no doubt about it. However, this is a city where people are used to traveling to get to something they want to do. This was not a problem when we had Laurence and Angela on. This was not a problem when “Doubt” was playing here the week it won the Pulitzer Prize.

In our experience, it creates two audiences; we have our weekday audience, which is primarily from the ‘Denas -- Altadena, Pasadena, San Marino. Then we have the weekend audience, when people have more time to get here. Part of it is letting people know that Pasadena is not Pomona, and not that far away. I’ve even had actors and directors who’ve lived [in L.A.] for years say, “I got here so fast! That was easier than getting to Santa Monica!”

My editor wants to know whether you’re related to actor Omar Epps, and I want to know whether you’re tired of people asking you that?

No, and yes.

You have worked to diversify what’s on stage and who’s in the audience.

Black theater artists used to say, “You might be out of work all year, but you will always work in January and February” because every theater does a black play for Black History Month. African American audiences would go to the theater during February and not again. One of the things that has sustained this theater is the loyalty of the African American audience.

I have tried to make sure diversity is part of our mission. When I first came here, I frequently was the only person of any color, and the only person under 60. Over the last several years, no matter what the fare, you’d always see a hugely diverse audience.

How did you wind up here?

I’m from southeast L.A., Avalon and 118th Street. People think I made this up, but I actually did see my first professional production at the Pasadena Playhouse, in 1964. It was [Carson McCullers’] “The Member of the Wedding,” with Ethel Waters. I fell in love with going to the theater and really discovered the power of words to tell a story in a dramatic form.

My father started the first black Presbyterian church in California, and arts education was just a part of his church. We went to see the L.A. Phil, ballet, opera. There was a church orchestra and music lessons. When I came [to the playhouse] in 1997, there was no such thing as a student matinee. They weren’t doing anything to serve young audiences. Over the last 10 years, we developed an enormous outreach to thousands of kids.

How do you choose between sure-thing, big-money Broadway revivals and new authors, new plays?

That’s a constant juggling game. There’s a critic in town who has exhorted us all to be more daring and not to rely on revivals and commercial work. We would all love to take that advice. However, we have to sell a lot of tickets to keep the doors open. Our audiences respond equally strongly to the new work as to the revivals. Some of our biggest hits have been new plays, like the Ray Charles show; “Stormy Weather” was the highest-selling show in the theater’s history.

Does the playhouse have a ghost?

I’ve never had an encounter, but people swear the ghost of Gilmor Brown is there. I think he’s pretty friendly, pretty protective. He never seems to have done anything mean or nasty, and perhaps that’s why the theater survives: Gilmor still insists on it, one way or another.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is online at