Epps Brings the Curtain Down

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By EDDIE RIVERA | Photography by JAMES MACPHERSON

5:35 am | September 18, 2017


Bathing in the rich glow of applause from a packed theater whose vision he personally helped to redefine, Sheldon Epps, retiring Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director, was unabashedly proud Sunday night at an event staged in his honor.

Standing on the stage of one of the great American playhouses, he quoted from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, calling his life in the theater “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Epps will be retiring from the Playhouse at the end of the year after 20 years as its Artistic Director, and the celebratory evening was an opportunity for the theater itself, now filled with friends, family, collaborators and co-conspirators, actors, producers, writers, political leaders and others, to thank him for twenty years of a job well done.

Since 1997, when he first arrived at the historic theater, Epps produced over 100 plays and productions, personally directing thirteen of them. During that time, he chose and oversaw the direction of plays both traditional and controversial, or chose to create controversy with casting (See “Pygmalion”), or perhaps just by a production’s timing. His plays ranged from the resonating sentiment of holiday productions, to dark explorations of racism and violation in the American landscape.

The theater was also close to shutting its doors more than once, when it was unable to garner the funding it needed to continued to stay open, most recently in 2016, when expected State funded—since re-established—had failed to materialize.

Epps saw the theater through it all.

“We’ve become a great American theater,” he said, from center stage. “That was my aspiration and my arrogance. So, I sought such works that deserved such a beautiful theater.”

Epps told the audience that he long ago walked away from a career as an actor when he realized that he sought to “put the focus not on me, but on the work. This attention tonight is overwhelming,” he said, “but it’s about the work. And now,” he said proudly, “we are a better theatre than we were two decades ago.”

Numerous directors, singers and actors who performed for Epps in his career delivered rich and heartfelt thanks in person and in video messages, with the evening’s host Wayne Brady veering off-script more than once to tell his own personal reminiscences of Epps, as far back as Epps’ days on Broadway.

Among numerous tributes, singer Nina Whitaker thrilled the house with a jazzy but inspirational “Impossible Dream,” following Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek’s description of Epps as one of the City’s “human treasures.”

Incoming Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman said in a statement, “It is so thrilling to join such an esteemed theater as the Pasadena Playhouse, with its vast and rich history and its deeply rooted ties to the community,” and said Epps “created a legacy that goes beyond anything that anyone at the Playhouse has accomplished since Playhouse founder) Gilmor Brown.”

While Epps has been mum about specific plans, it was revealed during the evening that he will be writing a memoir of his Pasadena years. In addition, the theatre has commissioned a portrait of Epps to hang in its library, and the theatre’s artist entrance, through which all actors, directors, and crew walk to reach the stage, will be renamed in Epps’ honor.