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Pasadena Playhouse keeps artistic director, hires new executive

Sheldon Epps has a 'multi-year' extension of his Pasadena Playhouse artistic director contract, and Elizabeth Doran will take over as executive director from Charles Dillingham.

September 13, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, left, and Executive Director Elizabeth Doran. Photo Credit: .
Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, left, and Executive… (Jim Cox )

Sheldon Epps has renewed his contract as artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, and Elizabeth Doran will join him as its new executive director after nearly four years as managing director of the Actors' Gang in Culver City.

Epps has led the company since 1997 and helped see it through the 2010 financial crisis in which the playhouse closed for eight months, then emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. After shedding more than $1 million in debt, it has regained its balance with two successful seasons, winning good reviews for four of the five plays staged in 2011-12.

"It was just about as strong a season as one could hope for," with all the shows exceeding their sales targets, said Epps, 58, who didn't disclose how long his new contract extends, other than that it's "multi-year."

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He said he's glad that Doran, 39, who will be in charge of business operations, "is going to have the opportunity to walk into a theater that is far more stable" than her predecessor, veteran theater manager and producer Stephen Eich, encountered when he arrived in 2009. The playhouse never had been able to retire debts incurred in the mid-1990s.

Epps said that he and Doran "will have the opportunity, together with the board, to focus on growth and perhaps dreaming bigger dreams" — possibly including laying groundwork for a campaign to buy and renovate the historic 1925 theater and the six-story building behind it, which Epps envisions as an arts center with offices and rehearsal spaces for a number of organizations.

That, he acknowledged, might require some significant and hard-to-come-by funding from the city government, which doesn't own the building but controls the 684-seat auditorium and provides it to the playhouse rent-free. "If you're an artist, you've got to be a dreamer, so why not?" Epps said.

The new season opens Wednesday with the world premiere of Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser's comedy "Under My Skin." This fall, Epps will direct a revival of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel." He said he's also trying to secure Broadway runs for new musicals about Ray Charles and Lena Horne that premiered at the playhouse in 2007 and 2009.

"Sleepless in Seattle," a stage musical adapted from the hit movie, is scheduled to premiere at the playhouse next June, with backing from commercial producers who hope to take it to Broadway.

Doran said that Charles Dillingham, the longtime former managing director of L.A.'s Center Theatre Group who signed on in February as the Pasadena Playhouse's interim executive director, called her a few months ago and urged her to apply for the job. She said she hadn't considered it because she was immersed in her work at the Actors' Gang, the company that artistic director Tim Robbins founded in 1981, well before he became a movie star.

"Opportunities like this are rare because the economy is so hard," said Doran, who starts her new job Monday. "The pieces are in place for someone like me to come in and help take it to the next step."

The Actors' Gang's most recent tax return, for 2010-11, showed that no employee earned as much as $100,000. It's a 99-seat theater company whose budgets can reach $1 million in seasons when it sends productions on national or international tours. The Pasadena Playhouse spent about $7.5 million in 2010-11 while posting a $227,000 budget surplus; Doran's predecessor, Eich, was paid $181,154 and Epps earned $261,538.

Doran, who has a masters degree in business administration from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., was finance director of the La Jolla Playhouse from 2004-06 and interim general manager at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 2006, helping it open the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Before joining the Actors' Gang in 2008, she spent two years as managing director of Albany, N.Y.'s regional stage company, Capital Repertory Theatre, helping it shed its own lingering debt.

The Pasadena Playhouse also announced that it has raised $1 million through a challenge grant last fall by two longtime supporters, Ed and Connie Foster. Their $250,000 pledge depended on the theater being able to raise an additional $750,000 from other sources.

Epps said the initiative aimed not only to bring in a large sum, but to help the playhouse build its fundraising muscles. He said the Fosters stipulated that they would match only gifts of at least $10,000 from past donors, or $5,000 from new ones — prodding the company to broaden its pool of significant patrons while winning bigger commitments from some of its established ones.

mike boehm@latimes.com

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