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AMERICAN THEATRE | Sheldon Epps: Making the Case for Diversity in All Directions


One Sunday when he was 12 years old, a young Angeleno named Sheldon Epps was taken by his parents to see a performance of Carson McCullers’s Member of the Wedding at the Pasadena Playhouse, where Ethel Waters was reprising the towering role of Berenice she had originated on Broadway more than a decade before. In his new memoir, My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre, Epps vividly recalls that day, in particular Waters’s indelible performance, but admits that he had no theatrical ambitions at that point or immediately after, let alone any inkling that one day he would lead that very theatre through two tumultuous and at times triumphant decades.

My Own Directions spends a good number of pages on the dramatic tale of his tenure at that storied nonprofit theatre, with actionable lessons for arts leaders aplenty (as well as a certain amount of spilled tea). But the book also gives a stirring portrait of a young artist-administrator finding his voice as he moves through the field, both in cahoots with the scrappy Off-Broadway outfit the Production Company, where playwright Craig Lucas and director Norman René, among others, cut their teeth and gave Epps a leg up, and under his own steam, as the creator-director of the internationally successful revue Blues in the Night, and later in a fruitful apprenticeship at various American regional theatres, most crucially Jack O’Brien’s Old Globe.

At the Playhouse, where the first decade of his run roughly paralleled my beginnings as an L.A. arts journalist, Epps made history by diversifying its programming to include works by artists of color, including himself (he added another musical feather to his cap with the exhilarating Duke Ellington-Twelfth Night mashup Play On!). He also steered it through an almost unbelievable death and resurrection as the theatre, facing a funding shortfall, literally closed its doors for most of 2010 while it regrouped. And he faced all-too-believable coup attempts from white colleagues and board members who found even his incremental efforts at change to be beyond the pale.

At a moment when the nation’s resident theatres are facing pressure to diversify both their work and their workers, as well as simply trying to stagger back to life amid the ravages of COVID, Epps’s book arrives with a mixed but hopeful story of artistic resilience and resourcefulness in the face of misfortune, hostility, and the most insidious enemy of all, indifference. I spoke to Epps a few weeks ago about his career, his memoir, and where the field stands today. Though still based in Southern California, he is consulting various theatres, including Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. (To read an excerpt from Sheldon’s memoir, go here.)

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Reading your book, I feel like I learned lessons about being a nonprofit arts leader, which I sometimes think I am. I mean, this magazine could use a spokesman to keep making the case for why it should keep going, even come back into print. It just seems like that’s a big part of the leadership requirement for any nonprofit—not just to make the work but to make the case for supporting it.

SHELDON EPPS: I know a lot of artistic directors who are thinking about that right now. Leaders are just struggling so badly at the moment. Their work is good, but I’m hearing that they’re just having a hell of a time trying to sell tickets. It’s a real struggle at the moment, and there’s a lot of fear about this season and next season. It’s changing the thinking about what people are going to do next year; they’re thinking about much more commercial popular titles, which is such a devil’s game.

Sorry, we sort of backed into talking about the book. It’s a wonderful read, and I learned so much about you and the theatre. What made you want to write it now? Did you feel like you wanted to set the record straight, or that you just had a unique story to tell?

A little of both. When I stepped down from the Playhouse in 2017, a lot of people said at the time, “You should write a book, your story is so unique. You were often one of the few, if not the only, Black artistic director of a major theatre in the country.” Enough people said that I started to think maybe I should. There were things I’d never really talked about during the time that I was there that I felt were important to talk about. Then I got busy with other stuff, as we do, but then we got to 2020 and everything shut down. And I said: Okay, I have no reason not to sit down and do this now.

And at the same time, all of the conversations started, with Black Theatre United and many other groups, about the still existing racism in the country and in the field. And I thought, it’s really necessary for me to tell this story now, and to point out that some of the things that are currently being said are things I’ve talked about for the last two or three decades, and that it really is time for major substantial change in our field.

Right, you weren’t the first or only leader of color at a major theatre, but there were precious few when I started covering the field in the 1990s.

When I started, George C. Wolfe was at the Public, and it was the last couple of years that Kenny Leon was at the Alliance. But they both left while I was still at the Playhouse. So I think there were a few years in there when I was the only Black man running a major American theatre, which was always shocking to me.

It is shocking. One thing that really struck me about the book is how much the conversation the field is having now about diversity and inclusion is not new at all, as you note. I look back at issues of American Theatre and I feel like a version of this conversation was going on 30 years ago, with August Wilson’s famous speech, among other things. But it didn’t quite penetrate to the level that it has had in the past couple of years.

Yeah, I remember being at TCG conferences, being on panels way back in 1990, and having those discussions—heartfelt and honest discussions, but lonely discussions. And nothing really happened. In 2020, when the voices were louder and coming from stars, from Broadway people telling about their own experiences with racism even at that level—some change has really started to happen. And there are several leaders of color at major theatres now. That’s a good thing. But let’s hope and pray that it’s not just about the moment—that it’s really a systemic change that will continue for years.

I have heard from a number of artists and even journalists of color who are bit cynical about this—they feel like it’s cyclical, and the pendulum may swing back.

I’m suspicious about that too. All of these choices are being made now as a response to those voices being raised, but my fear is that, though times are bad for other reasons, the Black leaders will get blamed for the problems and people will say, “Well, we tried and that didn’t work, so we don’t have to do that again.”

But while all those conversations were beginning, you were in it, finding your way, and making the case that you’re not a Black director—you’re a director who is fortunate to be Black and to bring that perspective to all your work. It seems like that always had to be a two-part conversation: First, to get in the door in the first place and say, yes, I can direct work that reflects my background, and then to say, but I should also have the same range of opportunity as any white director.

Right, I should have the same right to pursue my passions for all material as a white director does. White directors can be interested in Stoppard; so am I. White directors can be interested in Noël Coward; so am I. White directors can also be interested in August Wilson, and so am I, but it’s just assumed that I’m going to have the right to pursue the August Wilson passion and desire, while it was a fight for me to follow all of those others. I tell that terrible story, an absolutely true story, with someone you know, an artistic director, calling me and saying she wanted me to do a play by a Black author in February, and I asked what else they were doing in the season, and I said, “I’d rather do Twelfth Night.” She said, “I don’t know about that.” I said, “Why is that a problem?” And she said, “Well, that would mean I’d have two Black directors in the season.” I was astounded. Flabbergasted.

But is strikes me that it’s a different conversation for you as a freelance director to say, “I can direct anything, not just Black work,” and then as a theatre leader, to be the one putting that menu of programming together.

Well, I also say this in the book, but quite honestly, there was an emotional desire and an artistic desire to have diversity at Pasadena Playhouse at long last—but frankly, it was also just good business. I knew that in Los Angeles, if there was a major theatre that would do work that would appeal specifically to the Black audience, to the Latino audience, that it would sell well. And it did! And frankly, if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have been there for 20 years; they probably would have found a way to get rid of me. Frequently those shows were the highest-selling shows in the theatre’s history, and that’s what allowed me to keep going.

You write about how you caught the theatre bug, which wasn’t until your family moved to the East Coast and you started going to theatre in New York City, and at a time when there was historically a lot of Black representation on Broadway. Now that there’s suddenly a lot of Black representation on Broadway, at least relative to most seasons, I don’t hear many folks look back at those days, when you could see things like Purlie and The River Niger on Broadway.

And David Merrick’s landmark production of Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey, and Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr., Hallelujah, Baby. This was when I discovered the theatre broadly, but I also got a chance to go and see all of these incredible, beautiful Black people on the stage, being brilliant and in charge. Psychologically as well as theatrically that just did something for me—that just made me think in a different way about being a Black person in America. You could literally shine in the art form, in the way that all of those great Black casts were doing. That changed my theatrical life, but changed my emotional perspective as well.

So there were people who did that strongly and bravely. But then came this weird time when, for a while—and this still exists today—there was this excuse, “Oh, Black people don’t go to Broadway.” Whenever anybody said that in the ’70s, I would say, “Have you stood outside of Dreamgirls to get tickets?”

Going back to your time transitioning from the freelance life to the artistic director job: You write about how tiring and enervating it was to keep traveling to do your work, so that’s one reason to put down roots. But did also start to have real ambitions of being an artistic director and running a big regional theatre?

That was something I came to yearn for during my time at the Old Globe. It was a TCG grant that that sent me there, and we created this associate artistic director position. That was where I learned what the job really was—what it really meant to be defining the identity of the theatre. That started to become attractive to me during that time.

I’ve always wondered about the balance of art and administration in a job like that. How much of it is being in a rehearsal room and working with artists versus being the face of the theatre, glad-handing people and asking for money? 

It was sort of the deal, that to have the joy, the excitement of all the work with the artists and planning a season, getting to choose what you wanted to direct, you also had to do all the other stuff: Go out and raise money, go to marketing meetings, to subscription meetings, all of that. For a long time, I actually didn’t mind that, because that was such a new world. I’d never dealt with all of that as a freelance director. I had dealt with it in my smaller theatre company in New York City, but not on that kind of scale. And when Jack O’Brien took off for extended periods of time to work in New York, I did a lot of it at the Old Globe. So I learned, No. 1, what it was you had to do, but then I also learned that I was pretty good at it. I didn’t mind. I relate that my father’s work as a minister. I once asked him, “How do you get up into the pulpit every weekend and ask for the offering?” And he said, “Well, son, I’m not asking for myself. I’m asking for the glory of God.” That’s a good lesson. I always thought of it that way.

I have heard from leaders over the years, like Bill Rauch and Zelda Fichandler, about how the work of running a theatre is an art unto itself, and that if you keep your eye on what the mission is, then it keeps you focused on what you’re asking for, even all the way down to the marketing meetings, designing the posters, etc.

It’s about defining the identity of the theatre. Certainly you do that with what’s on the stage, but there are many, many other ways that that is defined—as you say, right down to the artwork, and who are you marketing to? Who are you meeting with? What’s the community you’re inviting into your theatre? All of that is how you define the identity of the place.

It’s a little bit like being a salesman, or does that sound a bit too mercantile?

I use the word ambassador. Like an ambassador for the United States goes to other countries and woos people to believe in the U.S.A., as an ambassador for the theatre, you should be doing that, getting out into the community and wooing people into loving your theatre and the work that you do. But you also better deliver on the other side, keep your eye on the artistic ball and make sure that when they get there, it’s worth seeing.

One thing I don’t think you got enough credit for, and it’s reinforced by the book, is how much local L.A. talent you employed, not just onstage but backstage. You had Andy Robinson direct there, and David Lee—he’s a great musical director. Was that a connection that happened through you directing episodes of Frasier?

Yeah, I met David first that way. And at a certain point, he said, “I’d love to have lunch with you one day and talk about working in the theatre,” because that’s where he started. Until that moment, I had no idea that was true. And then he came did several things brilliantly, I thought. But there was always a desire to serve local artists, because I knew I was in a community where the local artists were brilliant. And it was true not just with the actors and directors, but I really felt that way about designers—people like John Iacovelli, Jarey Sayeg, all these great designers who were L.A.-based. I knew I wasn’t gonna do any better by schlepping people out from New York, so why do that?

On the other hand, you also detail a couple of cases where you pulled off programming coups: Getting the L.A. production of Warren Leight’s Side Man before Gordon Davidson at the Taper could nab it, and even getting Shanley’s Doubt before Manhattan Theatre Club. But I didn’t get the sense, then or in reading the book, that you were using New York interest or involvement as a yardstick of success.

No, that was not central to the mission. It happened sometimes, but I also was pretty strict about the rule that I would never do anything just for enhancement money. It had to be something I really believed in that was worth doing. I didn’t want to be wooed by a big check, and there were times when it was really hard to turn down. But I really did try to stick with that.

Later in the book you say that one reason you got a little tired and wanted to leave was that you felt that people were thinking of theatre too much as a business. You mentioned David Merrick earlier, so I’m curious, in what sense is theatre more of a cutthroat business than it was, say, 40 years ago? Has it changed in some fundamental way since then?

Everything became more expensive, and continues to, including lumber. At the same time, the amount of outside money, certainly from the government but even from foundations and corporations, all of that was diminishing. So that wonderful ratio that Zelda and Gordon had in the early days, where it was 40 percent box office revenue, 60 percent donated—that was completely reversed, to the point where it became 80 percent box office and 20 percent donated revenue. So that put, and continues to put, an odious demand on the selling of tickets. I have no problem with the selling tickets, but that should not be the basis on which a theatre exists. I would literally go into board meetings and say, “I’m accepting this budget because you’re telling me that I have to, but this is not the way this theatre should operate.”

I was struck by the story of how you started to raise money specifically off your diversity efforts, but almost against your will, and you definitely didn’t want to call it “The Sheldon Epps Theatrical Diversity Project,” as your development director did.

You know, the fundraising was not the thing that inspired our diversity efforts; the diversity project was started in celebration of the fact that we had achieved that, and were now sort of saying boldly to the world: “Look, what we’ve done, we’ve done something that American theatres either are struggling to do or should be struggling to do, and we’ve achieved that with great success, and those of you who believe that should continue, should reward it by becoming donors.” It did become a great fundraising instrument for the theatre, but it was not about starting something, it was about kind of celebrating and sustaining something that was already very much in motion.

I want to ask, now that more theatres are being run by people of color, have you been in conversation with them, and if so, what are talking about with them?

The main thing I’ve heard from them is that even though it’s 25 years now from when I started, many of the struggles are the same. I mean, these horrible stories we’re hearing now, even worse than what I faced, about Nataki Garrett in Oregon receiving death threats. So shockingly, while things are changing, we still have a long way to go. The old Negro phrase, “Thank God we ain’t where we was, but we also ain’t where we want to be,” comes to mind. They are still dealing with the same things; they’re being hired by boards, but then the boards are suspicious, as if they’re saying, “We gave you this job because we sort of had to, because of what was going on in the country and in the field, but we’re not really sure we want you to be here. And are you really up to it?” A lot of my conversations with current artistic directors is what Lloyd Richards taught me: Keep your eyes on the prize and don’t allow yourself to be defeated by that kind of suspicion and those assumptions. And hold on.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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