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Sheldon Epps: Play it again

The artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse talks about finances and the future.

February 26, 2010|Patt Morrison

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?

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