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SHELDON EPPS IN THE SPOTLIGHT; ARTISTIC DIRECTOR USHERS IN NEW ERA AT PASADENA PLAYHOUSE.

Byline: Reed Johnson Daily News Staff Writer

They say you can't go home again, but in a way Sheldon Epps already has.

Some 36 years ago, Epps was a schoolkid heading to see Carson McCullers' ``The Member of the Wedding.'' His destination was the Pasadena Playhouse, a Spanish-colonial architectural fantasy nearly as impressive as Disneyland to an 8-year-old boy from Compton.

But what Epps remembers best about that occasion was the star attraction, the legendary African-American actress Ethel Waters.

``If I ever needed an education of what an actor was, this lady was it,'' Epps recalled recently.

Then pausing, he added with a meaningful smile: ``From Compton to Pasadena at the age of 8 was quite a long trip. Still is.''

Last week, the distance between Epps' past and future grew a lot shorter when he was named artistic director of the 80-year-old Pasadena Playhouse. In taking primary responsibility for the theater's creative endeavors, Epps, 44, who is African-American, will become the first nonwhite to hold such a position at any of Southern California's major regional theaters.

The position has been open since 1992, when previous artistic director Paul Lazarus resigned. Since then, Playhouse executive director Lars Hansen has overseen most artistic as well as financial duties.

Epps brings a variety of stage experience from his previous job as associate artistic director at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. Since 1992, he has helmed productions there of Shakespeare's ``All's Well That Ends Well,'' Noel Coward's ``Private Lives'' and a nontraditionally cast version of Ibsen's ``Hedda Gabler'' starring African-American actress CCH Pounder.

Though his Globe position was subsidized by a Theatre Communications Group/Pew Charitable Trust grant, Epps has shown he can compete in the private sector, too. He directed the Globe and Broadway premieres of the musical ``Play On!'' an adaptation of Shakespeare's ``Twelfth Night'' with a Duke Ellington score, and he conceived and directed the original production of the Tony-nominated revue ``Blues in the Night.''

At the Pasadena Playhouse he directed last season's ``Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting'' and was a production consultant on the hit musical ``Sisterella.'' He has directed on Broadway, off-Broadway, in London and at many major U.S. regional theaters including the Guthrie, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Playwrights Horizons and Manhattan Theatre Club. His TV directing credits include episodes of ``Sister, Sister,'' ``Evening Shade'' and ``The Smart Guy.''

`A very broad palette'

``Sheldon has a very broad palette in terms of the work that he likes to do, so it appeals to a lot of audiences, not only in age but in terms of taste and background,'' said Old Globe managing director Thomas Hall.

In an interview earlier this week, Epps said that he sees his new main task as retaining the Playhouse's loyal longtime subscribers - a predominantly white, largely conservative audience - while also attracting ``that young, hip audience that I see standing in line by the hundreds at the movies.''

For any artistic director these days, that's a delicate assignment. To illustrate, last season a number of Playhouse customers canceled their subscriptions in the wake of ``Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting,'' a fictional piece about Jackie Robinson with a mostly African-American cast.

While Epps said that incident ``concerns me, it also excites me (because) that means people are being stimulated.

``I don't have any problem taking the hit if somebody says they're canceling their subscription because the work is not good,'' he elaborated. ``If somebody says, `I'm not coming to this theater because there are too many black people on stage,' then maybe they shouldn't be coming to this theater. Maybe I'd rather have somebody else in those seats.''

Epps said he eventually hopes to develop a second, smaller theatrical space to augment the 686-seat main stage. This could be used to workshop and produce new plays and to host script readings, among other purposes. He also hopes to create an infrastructure of educational and artist-development programs. A new works festival might be nice someday, but he cautioned that those things take time.

With a $4 million annual budget, about half the Globe's, the Playhouse has relied primarily on box-office intake to pay its bills. In the future, Epps said, the theater may need to solicit grants and private donations, as nonprofits do. Toward that end, last year the Playhouse hired its first-ever development director.

Epps intends to direct at least two shows every season. This year he'll be doing Tom Stoppard's existential comedy ``The Real Thing'' and John Henry Redwood's ``The Old Settler,'' a nonmusical play about a Harlem widow.

Whatever play combination it produces, Epps doesn't want the theater to be easy to typecast.

``Nobody criticizes Andre Watts for playing Chopin, Gershwin and Thelonius Monk,'' he observed, referring to the classical pianist.

``I would liken it to traveling. I would hope (by the end of the season) you'd feel like you'd been in six different countries.''

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

Photo: (1) In his new job at the historic venue, Sheldon Epps is the first nonwhite to hold such a position at any of Southern California's major regional theaters.

(2) `If somebody says, ``I'm not coming to this theater because there are too many black people on stage,'' then maybe they shouldn't be coming to this theater. Maybe I'd rather have somebody else in those seats.'

Sheldon Epps

on customers' reactions to ``Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting''
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 30, 1997
Words:893
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