Sheldon Epps, Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Emeritus

Renowned director Sheldon Epps champions diversity both on and off stage, including through his new memoir, My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre. Under his leadership, from 1997–2017, Pasadena Playhouse once again established a reputation for outstanding productions with artistic excellence and theatrical diversity. During his tenure, Epps received the NAACP Community Service Award and the prestigious James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award, among many other honors. Here, Epps continues the conversation of the still-existing issues within the industry and beyond.

After a successful career directing on Broadway, what led you to the Pasadena Playhouse?

I actually saw my first professional production there when I was around 10 years old, so I think I’ve been tied to that theater since my youth. I also felt it was in the center of a great theater community in greater Los Angeles and I thought we could make great things happen.

What was one of your proudest achievements during your tenure as artistic director? When I arrived in 1997, it was unapologetically a white theater. I was frequently the only person of color and only person under 60 going to see a production. So, I was genuinely bringing diversity to the Playhouse onstage and off, with the artists involved, with the programming, and bringing more people of color to the theater, and also a younger audience.


What has your experience been like as a Black man in theater—as “one of the few” or “the only”? It’s largely at the root of why I wrote the book. Sometimes when people look at a career that has a great deal of success, which I’ve been blessed with in that way, they think it was easy. But I have faced racial challenges, people telling me what I can do or can’t do, that I should only be doing plays of a certain kind, that I had no right be the artistic leader of a major theater. The book is all about my choosing to be defined by my own standards and my own desires, not those imposed on me as a Black man in America.


What do you hope will be the impact of your memoir? Racism in the American theater has been a dark little secret, so I wanted to bring that out into the open because you can’t eradicate a problem until you face it openly and honestly. But, even greater than that, for young people who hope to have careers in the arts—or any kind of careers—I wanted to write hopefully to inspire them to believe that race and restrictions toward people of color should not be something to defeat you, but you should follow your own direction and define your own possibilities and be unlimited in your choices, desires, and what you hope to do.


What does “chased by race” mean and how has it affected you? There are instances that occur on almost a daily basis that remind you that you’re being chased by race, whether that is people choosing to believe there are things you can’t do or opportunities that you don’t get unless you fight for them, places you can’t go—still. Even though there’s no legal segregation, there’s a sort of assumed segregation in our country that still exists. And then there’s the smaller things like looks that you get when you walk into certain stores or venues, or the look of slight fear in a person’s eyes if you get into an elevator with them and they’re uncomfortable being alone with you because you’re Black. Those are always factors in your life. You’re never allowed to forget for very long that you’re a person of color and there are things that you have to make an extraordinary effort to overcome.


How can industry leaders and patrons promote diversity within the arts? As people here in Pasadena did during my time with the Playhouse, support arts organizations that put a focus on diversity, support them by going to those institutions, by contributing to the work. Artistic leaders have to keep an awareness of the challenges that race still presents and have an openness to participation by people of all colors based on their talent and ability, not based on their race, and realize that diversity helps us all to live in a better and more exciting world.

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