Throughout his prolific theater career, Sheldon Epps has always been a trailblazer, the words “the first” and “one of the few” following him throughout his journey directing on and off Broadway.
In his new memoir, “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in American Theater,” Epps points to civil rights activist John Lewis’ iconic phrase “good trouble” as a point of inspiration for how he approaches theater. “I don’t think you can make great art without making good trouble,” Epps said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “Good art should stir people up and should always be stimulating. And sometimes that stimulation is to smile, to laugh. But then it can also be to think — you can stimulate people to be angry, to realize their own prejudices, to put the mirror up to mankind.”
Epps has always seen his work for the stage as a catalyst for action; stewarding the Pasadena Playhouse, diversity was prioritized throughout his productions. The former artistic director considers the playhouse his “artistic home” and shepherded what was once seen by many as a “white theater” into a new era of productions.
“If you walk into an arts institution as I did, where some things were just fundamentally wrong in terms of the art on the stage and the audiences that were being served, then it becomes not just a responsibility, but a joyful responsibility to be in a position to actually make change happen,” he said.
Epp’s memoir is a textured, personal dive into his career, from catching buses into Manhattan to filling a voracious theater appetite and eventually to directing the stage. Armed with years of experience, Epps was ready for a new artistic hurdle: the Playhouse. He writes how a local writer published a piece reading, “Is Epps the man to satisfy the geezers, galvanize the hipsters, placate the board of direc-tors and keep the closet racists at bay? If so, this Black artist leader in a racially complicated community has his work cut out for him.” Epps responds with laughter in his memoir, pointing to the truth in the comment yet remaining determined to face the challenge.
Dynamic and confident, Epps channeled this energy into the Pasadena Playhouse, steering the historic venue into new waters with resounding success.
“When I started at the theater, I would frequently sit in the courtyard, as people were going in, and I’d be the only person under 60, and the only person of any color going in to see the play,” Epps said, reflecting on his tenure at the Playhouse. “And I was certainly aware, even three years later, five years later, 10 years later, as I would sit in the courtyard, that that had completely changed, and that our audience really did reflect the community, the community being Pasadena and greater LA, but also the national community, that our audience really looked like America.”
While diversity in theater has certainly improved over the past few years, Epps doesn’t hesitate to point to the potential precarity of the heightened attention. “I do think we’ve seen changes and there’s been a lot more hiring of people of color in leadership positions,” he said. “My concern is that it’s not just a knee-jerk reaction, that it’s not just of the moment, but it’s really a movement….You know, it’s an ongoing battle.”
For Epps, theater is perhaps at its most powerful when it reaches a local level, connecting with audiences who can call the theater home. Though he’s spent time directing productions and television shows throughout the country, Epps stresses that every stage, no matter its price tag, should be a community theater ingrained in its city and environment.
“A smart theater doesn’t feel above its community,” Epps said. “It feels of its community.”
While the attention frequently falls on the stories that grace the theater stage, Epps also emphasizes how vital the sharing of information is behind the curtain for young creatives of color coming up in the industry.
“Personal stories are really important,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. I’m not trying to lecture or hand down guidelines to success, but just to say, ‘This was my experience and perhaps knowing that someone else has gone through these things will make you feel less alone and will make you feel more hopeful.’”
Hope is something he often had to turn to while pursuing a career in an overwhelmingly white theater industry. For Epps, it’s no surprise that he found that inspiration on the stage. All-black cast productions on Broadway such as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Hallelujah, Baby,” shine particularly brightly in Epps’ memory.
“The fact is that they might have left the theater and had a hard time getting a cab on the corner,” Epps said. “But for those two hours, they were kings and queens of the world. And it was something about seeing artists of color at the top of their game and at the top of the field that was inspiring in helping you to believe that anything and everything was possible.”