BACK STAGE WEST
January 28, 1999
DIRECTORS' DIALOGUE: Sheldon Epps & Shirley Jo Finney
by Rob Kendt
If Sheldon Epps hasn't exactly revolutionized the programming at the venerable Pasadena Playhouse since he took over as artistic director in 1997, what he has done there is built on its strengths and delivered a standard of excellence which has kept this occasionally faltering LORT theatre on the same playing field with the Mark Taper Forum and the newer Geffen Playhouse, L.A. County's only other LORT theatres.
One way Epps, who came to Pasadena after years as an associate director at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, has kept the quality high is by directing plays himself. His productions of The Real Thing and The Old Settler were recently honored with a Back Stage West Garland award, and his Old Globe-originated musical, Play On!, which has played regionally and on Broadway, will at last come home to Pasadena in July, in a co-production with the Arizona Theatre Company.
Epps can't direct all the plays, though, so in addition to programming the season, he's got to "cast" the artistic staff for the shows he doesn't direct. Recently he asked Shirley Jo Finney to direct Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West, which opened recently at the playhouse and runs through Feb. 21. Finney has directed regionally, including at New Jersey's historic Crossroads Theatre (such productions as Crumbs From the Table of Joy, Oak & Ivy) and the Goodman in Chicago (Ties That Bind and Escape From Paradise). Locally, she helmed From the Mississippi Delta, both in its Mark Taper Forum and its Fountain Theatre production.
The two directors sat down recently at Zona Rosa near the playhouse to discuss their work. They began with reflections on the popularity of African-American "period" plays, of which Flyin' West--along with other plays by Cleage, Lynn Nottage, John Henry Redwood, and August Wilson--is one.
Sheldon Epps: A lot of times these plays are described as old-fashioned, but that is sometimes a bad euphemism for well-made. I can tell you, as an artistic director, going through piles and piles of scripts every year to try to choose the season, you're just looking for plays that are well-made, well-crafted. If these plays get done a lot, it's because people recognize, and I recognize, that the writers of these plays--John Henry Redwood, Pearl Cleage, August Wilson--are good storytellers. They know their craft.
Beyond that, specifically in the case of a number of black playwrights, they know individual character language like nobody else. I mean, they are the masters of that in American playwriting. That's sort of the joy of rehearsing one of these plays--just going in there and listening to all that great music all day long.
Shirley Jo Finney: The other thing about these plays is that they're all based in a period of time. You get historical lessons from these plays, and they're culturally specific, so you also have a window into another culture, another tribe. Like you can go to an Israel Horovitz play--he writes a culturally specific play, so you get all the nuances of that particular tribe or culture, so you're learning about a people at the same time. I think that's the other draw in these kinds of plays.
Sheldon: And I think these writers are writing these "retro" plays, if you will, to discover how we got where we are today in America. So that while the plots and the subject matter of the play may be from the turn of the century or the '20s or the '30s or the '40s, the thematic explorations that are going on have to do with a discovery of why America is the way America is right now.
Shirley Jo: In the early '80s, I had a project that I took to all the theatres. They knew me as an actress, so they were like, "Oh, a frustrated actress wanting to direct." So I took it upon myself--they tell you never to do this, but I did--I scraped my little pennies, and a friend of mine who had a photography studio said, "I close the doors at 5:00 and you can have the space." So some friends of mine and I got together and got chairs and I put on a show. Sometimes you have to get started just by your own initiative, saying, If nobody's going to do it for me, I'm going to do it for myself. A great way is of course through school, and you can do that, but I learned by doing, and that's the only way the craft can be taught.
Sheldon: I did a very similar thing in New York, where four of us who went to Carnegie-Mellon scraped together $500 each and madly said, "We'll start a theatre company." If we'd known any more than we did, we never would have tried to do that, but because we were a little bit ignorant and young and crazy, we did it. And the fact was, at that time, with $2,000 you could find a little space in New York and start a theatre company. It's much harder to do that now because everything's so expensive.
It's also tougher in terms of LORT theatres, resident theatres like the Pasadena Playhouse; the number of slots available to a young director are dwindling, because theatres have cut back on the number of things that they do and increased the number of things that staff directors do. So between an artistic director, an associate artistic director, and sometimes a resident director who is on staff, the slots go quickly, so there are fewer opportunities available, even in the second spaces.
At the playhouse at the moment, and I lament this, we don't have a second space right now. That would really give me a place to let a young director practice. When you only have six mainstage slots, it's terrifying to say to a young director, "OK, come direct one out of these six." It's hard for me to take that kind of chance. But if we had the second space, I'd be much freer about that, and I'd love the opportunity to get to know younger directors that way. Because finally that's the only way you truly get to know a director; you gotta just say, "Come on in here and direct something."
Shirley Jo: That's why I'm so thrilled to be here. 'Cause this is home, you know? I've seen shows at the Pasadena Playhouse, and you come in this space, and it's so rich with history and has so much character that any artist coming in here goes, I gotta work here! It's just something that gets in your bones. You and I met, and then I was walking across the courtyard at Old Settler and you said, "I wanna talk to you. Do you know Pearl Cleage's work?" I said, "Yeah." You said, "I'd like to talk to you about directing a piece." I'm in the courtyard, all nice and subdued, and I started screaming.
Because it's a gift, and you still don't know what a gift, and what it means to me. Sometimes you work in this business and you're in your own city, and sometimes our theatres don't look at the artists that are here. You get passed over sometimes. So to be recognized and validated this way really means a lot at this point in my career.
Sheldon: It's an odd thing. A wonderful lighting designer I've worked with now five or six times named Michael Gilliam tells the story: He's from here, he grew up here, was trained here, and he says he never really got a job here as a designer until he went to New York and designed there. Then people started to hire him in Los Angeles. I must say I'm taking it as a real responsibility as fairly new artistic director here to take advantage of this incredibly rich theatrical community that we have here. We have some major theatre artists in every area--wonderful actors, wonderful directors, terrific designers--and I think it's part of my responsibility to serve those artists by inviting them into this treasure of a space that I have.
Better Than DVD
Shirley Jo: I would love to hear what you think about the future of the theatre, because of the position you hold. We're in an information age, a mass media age, and the organic experience of theatre, and the trying to find money, trying to do experimental work, and trying to get people into the theatre--it's a question. People go, "Oh well, theatre is gonna die, because the television is in our homes; we've got the Internet." So I'm really curious what your thoughts are about that.
Sheldon: Well, in an odd way, I'm somewhat comforted by the fact that people have been saying that the theatre is gonna die forever. And here we are, sitting and talking about the theatre, and at 8:00 we'll go over there and the theatre will be open and the play will go on, and that's happening at hundreds of theatres all over the country. So I'm comforted that the theatre has the potential to survive and has proven that it is a survivor.
I do think that as the world of technology brings more and more into people's homes, we have a specific challenge in this day and age to say, What is it that we can do on our stages that makes it worth them leaving all of those choices they have in their living room? How we can make them understand that no matter how sophisticated a television set or a DVD or whatever is, it will never be the same as being in the presence of the live actor? I'm convinced that if you can get audiences in here, they'll discover that magic, that vibrancy, and that immediacy; it is contagious, and they'll wanna come back.