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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

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

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