In the Loop With: Theatre Director Sheldon Epps
The stage director talks about "12 Angry Men" and the NAACP Theatre Awards.
Los Angeles’ theatre landscape is more diverse than ever before, and Sheldon Epps has a lot to do with it. An L.A.-native who serves as the Creative Director of The Pasadena Playhouse, Sheldon set out to bring more African American works to the famed theatre when he joined more than a decade ago. With his upcoming production of 12 Angry Men set to debut (Sheldon cast six of the lead roles made famous by white actors with black actors) and an NAACP Theatre Awards nomination for Best Director, Sheldon opened up to Loop21 about the current state of black theatre and what it really takes to make it in the industry.
Loop21: What was your break in the theatre arts?
Sheldon Epps: There were several things along the way that helped me. One was a show I did called Blues in the Night many years ago. That was my first Broadway show. I got a grant to go to The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego as Associate Artistic Director in 1992, and that’s where I started my training working in a leadership position at a theatre rather than just as a freelance director, which lead to my going to The Pasadena Playhouse four years later as Artistic Director.
Loop21: How would you describe the current state of black theatre?
SE: What’s great is that black theatre, and theatre in general, is very strong artistically, as proven by the number of African American winners at the last Tony awards. Productions like 12 Angry Men are happening all over the country with strong talent. Some of the biggest hits The Pasadena Playhouse has had are shows that appeal to an African American audience, so artistically and aesthetically, I think black theatre is very strong.
Theatre companies are just challenged by the economy being a little slow and less government and foundation money going around for support of the arts in general. The theatre has always had to overcome these challenges and we’re still doing that.
Loop21: Why did you want to bring 12 Angry Men to The Pasadena Playhouse?
SE: It’s a great play. It’s a real American classic that has stood the test of time. I felt there were always racial issues at the center of the play for the time it was written in 1955. In re-reading it, it was shocking but also saddening that some of the issues that were being dealt with over half a century ago, we’re still dealing with.
The play felt so contemporary and much of the dialogue felt like it could have been written last week. I had this concept of doing it with six black actors and six white actors, and those themes became even more resonate and hard-hitting because of that casting idea.
Loop21: What goes into deciding what will make it to the stage?
SE: My theatrical taste is all over the map. I love August Wilson but I also love Shakespeare. I love Duke Ellington but I’ve also done musicals with white and Latino composers. It’s what I call “theatrical diversity” which does have to do with color, but it also has to do with my very wide-ranging taste and also a desire not to be in a pigeon-hold. It’s very easy in the entertainment industry to say “Oh you’re a black director, Latino director or a woman director” and get sort of pigeon-hold into doing projects other people define as being right for you. I just never wanted that to be the case, so I worked very hard to touch all of the theatrical bases that I could.
Loop21: Why is it so important for the tech-centric generation to become more engaged with theatre?
SE: There’s so many great thing you could get in your home that just exist between you and a screen, whether it’s a computer screen or something you hold in your hand. You can’t do a play that way. Plays are alive, they are “of the moment” and different every night. They represent an opportunity for people to come together rather than have an experience alone, and I believe very much the whole process of going to a play has to do with the audience gathering. The fact that you’re sitting with people all around you, it becomes a very collective experience rather than a singular experience. The performing arts offer one of the few opportunities where you are required to be with a group of people. No play is done for just one person at a time. A community gathers and it makes that experience what it is at that time.
Loop21: What makes the NAACP Theatre Awards so special?
SE: I fought hard to diversify the work here at the Playhouse and to make sure that we represent artists, actors and writers of color each and every season, and I’ve done that. The NAACP has been enormously supportive of my work in that area. Supportive of that I’ve committed to as a producer, but they are also very supportive of me as an artist.
Loop21: What other theatre companies do you admire?
SE: There’s another theatre here in Los Angeles called Ebony Repertory Theatre. Their production of Fraternity is nominated for several awards this year. It’s run by a gentleman named Wren Brown, and we’ve co-produced with them. We co-produced Crowns, so I’m very proud of what Wren has done to build the company over the past few years.
Loop21: What advice do you have for someone looking to break into the theatre arts?
SE: Try to associate yourself with a theatre company like Ebony Repertory Theatre or The Pasadena Playhouse. Realize that may mean that you have to do it on a volunteer basis. The best advice I can give to a performer is to go and study and to prepare yourself. A lot of people make the assumption that performing is all about natural talent and ability, and a lot of it is, but it has to be honed and educated. Go take classes and then act wherever you can as often as you can, because after good training you only learn to become a great performer by doing the work.
When was the last time you saw a stage play? What did you see?