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Sheldon Epps gears up for his final year leading Pasadena Playhouse

Sheldon Epps

In this October 2013 photo, Sheldon Epps, who was directing “12 Angry Men,” gives actor Robert Picardo direction during rehearsal of a scene at the Pasadena Playhouse rehearsal studio. This week, Epps spoke with Marquee about his final season and his two decades at the Playhouse.

(Tim Berger / Staff Photographer)

Sheldon Epps is about to mark his 20th and final year as artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, which has seen both its popular success and universal respect across the U.S. theater community soar during his years. There were bumps along the way, including a dire financial crisis, but also spectacular high points including his revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” in 2006, directed by Epps himself.

Last week, the Playhouse announced the schedule for his final season, which is set to have the Tony Award-winning play “M. Butterfly.” This week, Epps spoke with Marquee about his final season and his two decades at the Playhouse.

Marquee: Was planning for your final season any different than other seasons over the years?

Sheldon Epps: Not wildly so, in that it’s similar to other seasons that we’ve done. But we’re certainly mindful of the fact that it was going to be the last season and we want it to go off well. It’s made up of styles of theater that I really love and feel strongly about. It represents what I hoped to do with the theater, which is being diverse, exciting and eclectic — and touch a lot of bases.

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You’ve said that “Twelfth Night” is your favorite Shakespeare play.

In that regard, that was certainly something I was conscious of. It’s the perfect conglomeration — it’s a comedy, but it’s also got darkness. It’s very musical. It’s romantic and mysterious. Shakespeare did everything well but it combines all of the elements of the theater really beautifully.

What were your original ideas and plans when you arrived at the Playhouse in 1997?

I always thought the theater was a beautiful theater — and a theater with a very long but slightly roller-coaster history, but certainly a long and illustrious history. But at the time that I arrived, I think the work was adequate at best, and the theater’s reputation was not very strong. It was open, it was producing — that was important. But I don’t think it was greatly admired in the theater field either locally or nationally.

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So I really wanted to work in the theater to strive to make it a theater that was really desirable for artists, for directors to work in, for actors to work in — both in our community and that would get attention from New York as well. I knew that if there was real focus on the artistry of the theater — the richness of the building itself but also the L.A. theater community — I believed it would be possible to achieve that.

It’s understood now that Playhouse now does have that kind of reputation and respect.

It wasn’t always the case.

When did you feel like that was turning around, that you were getting to where you wanted the Playhouse to be?

Certainly the most illustrious of the early-year productions was “Fences,” with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. We were doing a great American play with extremely well-known actors who were right for the roles and up to the demands of that play. They were supported by a really great supporting cast. I believe we did that play as well as could be done. That production got a lot of attention obviously in the L.A. community, but also nationally — representing our possibilities.

For this coming season you have “M. Butterfly,” which is another play that has got a lot of attention in recent years.

It has not been produced in L.A. in a long time, which is one of the reasons that I chose it. David Henry Hwang is one of the best of our contemporary playwrights. It really interested me because it’s a play about the clash of cultures and the intermixing of cultures and the misunderstanding that can go on between cultures and how it’s necessary to work through those with open eyes.

During your time at the Playhouse, there was a period of financial difficulty that actually threatened its future. What was that time like to deal with?

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Very, very hard. The majority of those financial problems went back far prior to my being there. The theater carried a heavy debt load that extended all the way back to the early ‘90s. It was exacerbated by the downturn in the economy. I compared it to running in front of a snowball — you keep running and the snowball keeps getting bigger, and you get tired.

Finally with the advice of the board and managing director at the time, it seemed the most logical thing to do was stop for a while and solve the problem rather than just running and getting into more danger. We did that and that was probably the hardest time of my 20 years at the theater. It was a difficult decision but the right decision to make. Fortunately, many people came along who cared and wanted to make sure that the theater did remain open and remain viable, so we were able to get through it. But it was challenging and stressful.

In recent years, there have been some major popular successes, including “A Night With Janis Joplin.” Now you have a world premiere musical called “Shout, Sister, Shout!”

Yes, the creator of “Janis Joplin,” Randy Johnson who really showed his hand before creating shows built around great American music figures — but in this case someone most people don’t know, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who influenced Little Richard and Elvis.

What led you to decide that this was the time for you to sign off?

Well, 20 years is a long time in the theater. And I strongly feel there comes a time in an art intuitions’ life when a new energy and point of view is good for everybody to be shaken up. I’ve had the privilege to be there for 20 years, which is a long time and accomplish much of what I wanted to do. So I’m at a point where I can leave with a real feeling of satisfaction.

Is it easier to go when things are going well?

It’s certainly better when people are actually moved by your leaving as opposed to relieved.

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It must also be difficult because you worked so hard to build things to this point, where productions are respected and popular.

Listen, you work just as hard when things are going badly as you do when they’re going well. Nobody’s ever working towards failure. People talk about the magic of the theater and there is something to that. It’s also work, planning and science and technique, but some of it is chemical, magical. You’re going to have good times and rough times.

What will you be doing after?

We’ve been talking about having an ongoing relationship with the theater, which I hope to have and that serves everybody in a comfortable way. I haven’t made any definitive plans yet. I’m open to what the universe may bring.

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Steve Appleford, steve.appleford@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveAppleford


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