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He Makes Hard Work Play

In less than two years as artistic director, Sheldon Epps has revitalized the Pasadena Playhouse. Now he's rolling up his sleeves for the next act.

July 11, 1999|JAN BRESLAUER | 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.

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