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Monday, January 30, 2023
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Courtesy of Jonathan White PR

Q&A: Director Sheldon Epps talks new book, career as a Black artist in theater

In his new book, Sheldon Epps discusses his career highs and lows in the American theater as a Black man in a predominantly white industry.

Sheldon Epps has been a prominent face in the American theater for decades. He conceived and directed the Tony-nominated musicals “Play On!” and “Blues in the Night.” Additionally, he directed episodes of classic shows like “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Sister, Sister” all while working as the artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, occupying the role from 1997 to 2017.

Epps’ new book “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in American Theatre” was published in September, and his holiday movie “Christmas Party Crashers” was added to BET+ last month. 

Ahead of his book signing event in Milwaukee on Dec. 11, Epps talked to The Daily Cardinal about his new memoir and his career in the arts.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Your book “My Own Directions” was published earlier this fall. What inspired you to sit down and write this book?

When I left Pasadena Playhouse in 2017, a lot of people started saying, "Oh, you should write a book," "It would be great if you would write a book," and when enough people say that to you, you start to think about it more seriously. It did occur to me that I had a kind of unique story in the American theater, one that was “of the moment” because around that same time, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, and some very deep and very honest conversations about racism in the American theater started to happen.

It also occurred to me that I was hearing a lot of things in 2020 that I've been talking about for years and years before. So, that really instigated me to write the book and tell my story, with the hope that people would understand that some of these things have been around for years and, in fact, do need to change, and change more rapidly.

I think that's very important, it’s a very topical conversation, especially within a state where there are a lot of racial issues. [For instance], Milwaukee is still one of the most segregated cities in America. 

It was a conversation that was sort of under the wraps in the theater, you know, sort of pretending that there wasn't any racism in the theater field [that is] supposedly very liberal, very open minded. But, these conversations expose the fact that that just was not true and has not been true. The American theatre field needed to really face that honestly and squarely.

In your book, you use the phrase "Chased by race," which I find really impactful. Do you mind expanding on that?

What I mean by that is that if you're a person of color in America, race is always chasing you. It's either not too far behind you or right in front of you, but it's always somewhere in your world and ultimately, somewhere in your consciousness. It's not that you talk about it all the time or think about it all the time. But you do become aware of instances of racial bias springing up in big ways; employment opportunities or trying to buy a house. But also in smaller things, when you walk into a fancy store and someone gives you “the look” as if you're not supposed to be there. Or you step on an elevator and the lone white woman suddenly grabs her bag as if she's afraid of you, just because you're a person of color. 

Race is always there in your life and you have to accept that. You have to be aware of it so that it doesn't take you by surprise, which it often does. You shouldn't let it inhibit you, but you've got to be conscious of it. You've got to know that it's going to be something that you're going to be faced with.

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You brought up the Pasadena Playhouse earlier. You were artistic director there for 20 years. [In that role] you largely helped to reestablish the theater as one of the most prominent in the country. But, from the get go, you faced a lot of racism and resistance from the theater community and the greater [Pasadena] community. How did you overcome that and rise above in that situation?

Well, I'll put it into two words: stubbornness and determination. When I got to the theater, I recognized that the theater was an overly white organization, both in terms of what was on the stage and in the audience. I was frequently the only person of color going into the theater. I felt that that did not at all reflect the community of Pasadena, and certainly not the city of greater Los Angeles or America. To me, it just seemed completely logical and necessary that that should change. I determined that I would try to facilitate that change until they ran me out of the place. I defined the mission very clearly. I articulated the mission and just went after it. Fortunately, it met with success and a lot of support. It did meet with resistance from some people, and I prepared everybody for the fact that there were going to be some people who just did not want to get on board the train, and those people were going to have to go away. You had to be prepared for some losses, some loss of subscribers and donors, but you hoped that those who went away would be replaced by others who were very supportive and in greater numbers, and that was the case. The success of the efforts was difficult to argue with.

How do you think your time at the Playhouse affected your ethos as a director?

I learned how to be an artistic director by being an artistic director. They remit many jobs, particularly in jobs in the arts, where the only training really is on-the-job training. You can't direct a play by reading about how to direct or even by taking directing classes. Sooner or later, you have to go into the rehearsal room and you have to direct a play. I think I was prepared in a good way to be artistic director by being associate artistic director at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego for several years before I went to Pasadena, but there was still a lot that I did not know. 

It was an experience of growth and learning for me, as well as the theater. But again, determination came into it because, at the time that I started, I was one of the few Black artistic directors in the country. I was determined not to fail, not just for myself, but for others who had come after me who have dreams and ambitions to lead arts organizations. I knew that my success or failure would be a gauge for those coming behind me. It was important for people in my generation to be successful.

You've been really a pioneer for a lot of Black artists within the theater industry. During your time working in entertainment, how have you seen cultural and demographic changes?

I think I've seen a lot of [changes], as I said, specifically at Pasadena Playhouse. I was frequently the only Black person in the theater. I think we've, for many years, seen Black faces on the stage and on-screen, meaning the performers, but what we did not see, until recently, is people in leadership positions: artistic directors, executive directors and managing directors. That has changed a great deal, even over the last five years. Now there are many theaters, all over the country, run by men and women of color. So that's a huge change.

I've seen a huge change in audience makeup. The theaters have really taken audience outreach and the building of new, diversified audiences seriously. I think we still have a long way to go. There are theaters that I go to, even in New York City, where I will be one of a few faces of color in an audience of 1,000 to 1,500. So, we still have a long way to go. We have a long way to go with more people of color in leadership positions, in decision-making positions. As I said, we have more practitioners: directors, writers, producers, actors. But in terms of the decision-making and the ownership of movie studios and television networks and all of that, we still have a long way to go.

In your book, you talk about the “white gaze.” As an artist and person of color in the entertainment industry that has largely been focused on the “white gaze,” how have you been able to make space and amplify BIPOC voices?

Well, the thing is to learn to ignore the “white gaze.” That's what Toni Morrison and James Baldwin wrote about. You can't sit at the laptop, or in their day, at the typewriter, with a little white man looking over your shoulder at what you're writing and worrying about, “What is white society going to think about what I'm writing?” You have to write from your own truth, your own experience and your own desires. Tell whatever story it is you want to tell, based on your experience, not on what you think is going to be pleasing to what was, at that time, the majority of America or what was deemed to be culturally important to America, which is approval from white society. 

You gotta knock that off of your shoulder and tell your own story. Now, you still have to tell it with skill, artfulness and craft, but the heart of the story, the emotions of the story, have to come from you and be motivated by what you're trying to accomplish. Rather than trying to respond to the white gaze, you got to shut down the “white gaze” and follow your own path.

The Daily Cardinal is a student-run college paper. Do you have any words of wisdom for students who wish to work in the theater/entertainment industry?

The first thing I would say is to do what you're doing. If you're in college or university, study. Study the craft, learn the craft and the techniques. I'm always saying that film, television, and theater should be magical, but it's not magic. It becomes magical because of technique, hard work and knowing what you're doing, so learn the craft. Be passionate about your work and follow your own directions. Don't let your path be determined by other people who tell you what you should do or shouldn't do, can do or can't do. Be brave about setting your own path. Don't think in any limited way. Think in unlimited ways about your potential.

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