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Sheldon Epps' Plans for the Playhouse

August 24, 1997|Don Shirley

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer. — Throughout its long history, the Pasadena Playhouse never paid much attention to black playwrights or themes.

It's difficult to be sure that none of the playhouse's first 1,059 shows--from 1917 until a dormant period began in 1969--were by black writers, because some of those playwrights have faded into obscurity. However, a scan of the list of those productions reveals no recognizable black writers.

Since the playhouse returned to full production in 1986, the only mainstage production that was conceived by an African American was the musical revue "Blues in the Night" in 1995. There have been several other shows with primarily black characters since then, but none written by blacks. The playhouse's first non-musical play written by an African American is scheduled for next May: "The Old Settler," by John Henry Redwood.

So last week may have been a historical turning point, as Sheldon Epps--the African American director who conceived "Blues in the Night" and will direct "The Old Settler"--took over as the playhouse's artistic director. He is the first nonwhite to hold that title at any of Southern California's professional, larger-than-mid-sized theater companies.

"Every theater in every city should reflect and serve the entirety of the community in which it's located," Epps said. "More and more, major American cities are colorful." (Pasadena was 18% black in 1996 estimates.) "The work on the stage has to represent all of those colors."

"I don't recommend material because it's black," Epps emphasized. " 'The Old Settler' is wonderfully moving, beautifully written. The characters' emotions are without color. At the same time, because the characters are black, it can appeal to people of color, because they like to see people like themselves on stage."

Epps acknowledged that the Pasadena subscription audience has a reputation for being white and conservative, but that description fits most of the major theaters in the country, he contended: "Every theater grapples with getting younger and more mixed audiences." Single-ticket sales sometimes do the job, he added--the audience for the playhouse's hit musical "Sisterella" last year was "young and hot. To me, vibrancy and energy are more important than color."

"The challenge is to attract new audiences while continuing to appeal to those who have supported the playhouse for years."

For five years, the playhouse has managed without an artistic director. Executive director Lars Hansen made most of the artistic and business decisions in recent years.

When one of the former artistic directors, Stephen Rothman, was informed of Epps' hiring, he responded: "That's great! That's terrific! Sheldon will bring back an artistic vision to drive the theater."

Epps said he's convinced that Hansen "wants a partner whose focus is on the artistic matters" and who can "open the doors to co-productions and certain writers" because of professional associations. In fact, the playhouse is now discussing doing "The Old Settler" as a co-production with Epps' former employer, the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and Epps also is talking to Seattle Repertory Theatre.

However, don't look for the musical "Play On!," which Epps staged at the Old Globe and on Broadway, in Pasadena. The next production of "Play On!" has been scheduled at Chicago's Goodman Theatre next year, and it then will go on a national tour. Epps doubts that the 686-seat playhouse would be "large enough to support the cost of a show that big." The tour would be likelier to play L.A. at a venue like the Wilshire Theatre, which is nearly three times as large as the playhouse, Epps said.

One of Epps' more famous productions at the Old Globe was a "Hedda Gabler" with black actress CCH Pounder "nontraditionally" cast in the title role. Epps said he hopes to encourage some of that kind of casting here as well; he disagrees with playwright August Wilson's zero tolerance for it.

Yet Epps also cautioned that "I don't believe in 'colorblind' casting--not until we live in a colorblind society. Creating opportunities to allow actors of color into those classic roles can add new resonances to classic plays"--not the same thing at all as being "colorblind," he said.

That word cropped up again when Hansen was asked in a separate interview if recent black-themed shows and Epps' appointment signal a conscious attempt to change the playhouse's image and attract black audiences. "I'm colorblind," Hansen responded. "I don't pay any attention to any of it. I just try to do good work." Referring to "Sisterella" and the recent "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting," he said they weren't done "because they were black [themed] but because they were good opportunities. What's a black play? I don't think it matters anymore."

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