“Sheldon Epps has directed major productions on and off Broadway, in London, and at many theatres across America. In addition, he has had an active television career helming some of the classic shows of recent years. He was the artistic director of the renowned Pasadena Playhouse for two decades, and currently serves as senior artistic advisor at historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. In MY OWN DIRECTIONS A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre (McFarland: 2022; ISBN-9781476688589; $29.95 Softcover), Epps recounts his rollercoaster ride of a life in the theatre, with all the excitement and occasional anguish that come with the highs and lows. The author’s journey in the American theatre has been amplified by his experience as a Black man who has frequently been ‘one of the few,’ ‘the first’ or even ‘the only.’”
What and who inspired you to become a director? What was the impetus for writing your book now?
I started out as an actor after graduating from Carnegie-Mellon University and acted with some success for several years after college. Eventually that led to starting a small off-off-Broadway company with several friends from CMU, including Norman Rene who was our artistic director (he went on to great success directing the first production of “Marry Me A Little” and several of Craig Lucas’ early plays.) Norman quite generously told me that though he thought that I was a good actor, he always felt that I really “think like a director,” so he suggested that I should try my hand at it. I did quite humbly with a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in our tiny space. I started to work frequently as a director at our theatre and others. One day I realized that I had not acted in a while and I had not missed it! So I very much felt that I was on the right path with this new found career which over the years has been so rewarding to me.
Writing the book now was the result of actually having the time to sit down and “do it” during the pandemic isolation. I was further motivated by all of the many fervent conversations about racial issues in the theatre that grew out of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. I realized that my story strongly related to those discussions and that there was something in my personal journey that might be sustaining and inspiring (I hope) for others.
Of your many talents, do you prefer directing theater, TV/film, or teaching and why? What are the different challenges? What has been your most rewarding experience so far?
Though I very much enjoy all of those endeavors and feel grateful to have had opportunities in so many different worlds, I will at heart always be a theatre baby! That is my first and greatest love. There is something about the immediacy and in the “moment-ness” of the theatre that makes it particularly thrilling. I like having the greater amount of rehearsal time and the ability to work with actors over many weeks during the process. I think that the theatre is joyful because it is such a truly collaborative art form. It does indeed take a village to get it all right!
As noted above, time [is a challenge]. Television and movie making is so fast, and it seems you are constantly driven by a ticking clock. Theatre of course is, quite sadly, always faced with economic challenges. Everything gets more expensive as funding sources diminish. That can force one to be more imaginative, true, but the cost cutting that is sometimes necessary can also be very challenging.
I loved having what I call an artistic home at Pasadena Playhouse (and now at Ford’s). It’s all about building a community and connecting with a community. I love the idea of having a great kitchen where I can do the cooking sometimes, and at other times, invite others in to make what they want to make— hopefully not leaving too much of a mess in the process. It’s wonderful for artists to have a good experience that makes them want to return. In that way, you build a great bond to them which allows the work to grow and evolve in healthy ways. Building a theatre in Pasadena, and knowing that it became a better place over 20 years, was hugely rewarding.
Tell us about your challenges being “chased by race” and particularly in turning the Pasadena Playhouse around as the artistic director. What do you see as the obstacles that still remain in professional theatre for people of color or, as some might think, have many of those barriers been broken down?
When I arrived at Pasadena Playhouse and would sit in the courtyard before a production, I would frequently be the only person of color going into the theatre and also the only person under 60. Both of those things struck me as fundamentally wrong and actually dangerous for the long life of the company. I wanted the theatre to reflect the vast diversity of the immediate community, but also that which exists in greater Los Angeles. This became central to my mission. Some thought that I was trying to “take their theatre away from them” and went running for the hills. Good! They were replaced by many others who believed in and supported this mission. This included patrons, donors, and even board members. It was challenging to bring everyone along and it had to be done slowly and carefully. It also had to be done in my mind. I am very proud of the fact that over the years, Pasadena Playhouse achieved a level of diversity onstage and off that came to be celebrated as a model for theatres all over the country.
Many of those barriers have been broken down. Now there are many men and women of color running major theatre companies and there is greater involvement by people of all colors in all areas. Is it better? Yes, no doubt! But we can and should go further. There is always more to do to bring true equality and inclusion to our field and we must DO IT!
Can you tell us about your role as Senior Artistic Advisor at Ford’s Theatre? Please tell us how you have created your unique footprint there, if working with such an historical venue has any special challenges, and what you see in the future for your collaboration there.
I agreed to join the staff at Ford’s not to initiate something, but to contribute to the good work that was already well in motion. Diversity, building new audiences, and offering opportunities to artists of color was already central to Paul Tetrault’s mission at the theatre—as it always was to mine at Pasadena. So, I was not initiating anything. I was asked to participate to keep things going in a very healthy direction and to push the theatre towards higher levels of artistic excellence and achievement. This includes directing assignments (as with the recent “My Lord What a Night”), working with our directors, and helping to initiate the theatre’s commissioning program which is focused at the moment on BIPOC playwrights. That is now well in motion and we will soon be seeing that work on the stage at Ford’s as the plays continue to develop and grow. We are quite serious about not just developing new work (which is important), but also nurturing that work into actual production as part of the season. More will be revealed about that very soon.
Working in this historic theatre does have challenges. What theatre doesn’t? There is something about its long and illustrious history that is actually quite inspiring, I think. Clearly, there is a great theatrical legacy in the very air at the theatre and we are still very much in the presence of a very great man who spent time there because he loved the theatre. It’s very moving to me that he was actually in the theatre when he met his tragic end. Tragic, yes, but also quite inspiring!
What advice can you give to young performers in theatre, especially those still finding obstacles due to race, gender, and religion?
I would reverse the title of my book and encourage young artists to “Follow Their Own Directions.” Dream ambitiously of what you want and what you can be. Don’t let those around you define limitations or restrictions for you that you accept. Know what you want and go after making it happen! Dream big and bravely, work hard, always keep learning, and pursue your art with passion. If you do that, you can’t be stopped. There are those who will try to stop you, then and now, but you must know that you are UNlimited in your potential if you believe that you can make great things happen. I know that you can! I know that you will!