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Good Times in Pasadena

Or: The State of the State Theater of California logo
The Pasadena Playhouse is a fascinating institution, with both intrigue and optimism as part of its history. Considered one of the most beautiful venues in the country, the Playhouse has experienced a rebirth, and is again enjoying a reputation as a place that boasts exciting new work and major names on its marquee.

It was founded in 1917 by Gilmor Brown as an amateur company performing in a former burlesque house. By 1918, turmoil was already brewing; the then-unknown humorist Will Rogers pleaded for the Playhouse to continue, even though a flu epidemic was devastating the community and everyone--including the actors--had to wear white gauze flu masks to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

Once its current, permanent home was built in 1925, the Playhouse flourished for decades, surviving mismanagement, the Depression, and neglect following the mid-century death of its founder. At times, there has been more high drama behind the scenes than on its classic proscenium stage. (A non-theater-type who led the Playhouse at one point raged at invoices for "gels," because he thought the technicians were eating exhorbinant amounts of gelatin; he had no idea that the word refers to the colored plastic used on stage lights.)

Fine acting has been a trademark of the Playhouse since the heady days when its College of Theatre Arts was known as Hollywood's talent factory, launching the careers of such performers as William Holden, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, and Gloria Stuart ("Old Rose" in James Cameron's Titanic). In its first four decades, the nonprofit Pasadena Playhouse offered 477 world premieres, and it was the first American theater to present all 37 of Shakespeare's plays. This led to its being named The State Theatre of California. Yet economics and a changing community caused the Playhouse to be shuttered in 1969; it fell into disrepair, and very nearly became a parking lot. Thankfully, enough people were determined to bring it back to life. A massive, costly renovation project ensued, and the theater was reborn in 1986. Improvements continue today: New carpeting and seats were recently installed in the historic, Spanish-style structure.

Since 1986, more than 100 award-winning productions--including 27 world premieres--have been staged at the Playhouse. Keeping the focus on fresh work is Sheldon Epps, artistic director since September 1997. New plays are one of his passions. (In fact, he's currently guest directing Charles Randolph Wright's Blue at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C.)

Sheldon Epps
"I'm lucky to bounce between new plays and classics," says Epps. Born in Compton to a Presbyterian minister, he studied theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh before beginning his career in New York and working around the country as a freelance director of theater and television. At the Playhouse, he's made it a point to present one or two new plays and musicals, as well as one "play of color," each season. Among his credits are the Tony and Olivier-nominated Blues in the Night and Play On!, an updated version of Twelfth Night incorporating some of Duke Ellington's greatest songs.

"I took the job because I sensed an enormous amount of potential," Epps says of his work in Pasadena. "Also, L.A. now has one of the richest theater communities in the country. I felt that, if we could combine our beautiful facility with the talent and commitment to be found here, we could build the theater into a first-class entity. There was a time when people in L.A. did theater primarily because it was a step to other things. But now, there's a huge variety of activity going on here. World-class artists are doing very important plays. I'm pleasantly stunned when I see the diversity of work being done by really interesting people."

That's one of the fun elements of running a theater--you can choose the people you want to "play" with. Epps sees it as an opportunity to demonstrate his admittedly good taste by serving up stylish productions. "Running a theater is like having a really terrific kitchen," he says. "I can sometimes decide on what I want to cook, mix the ingredients, and serve a great meal. But I also offer the use of the kitchen to other people I trust. So when a great director like Andy Robinson comes along, it's great to provide him with a large stage and solid resources. We do have financial challenges, but we have a good size budget for each production. As one of the three major theaters in Los Angeles, I feel a responsibility to serve the community by making this kitchen available primarily to L.A. artists. So I do very little outreach to Chicago, New York and elsewhere."

The Playhouse board, which includes many members of the entertainment industry, is supportive. "They understand that this is an arts institution, not a business," says Epps. "And they know that one of their main functions is to raise money for it."

Shirley Knight (center) and cast
in The Importance of Being Earnest
at the Pasadena Playhouse
The stage was set for Epps by former executive director Lars Hansen, who ran the theater for eight years before departing to lead Theatre L.A. "When I came here in 1988, we were doing three shows for three weeks each, and we had 6,000 subscribers," Hansen remembers. "By 1992, we were doing six shows for seven weeks each, and we had 22,000 subscribers. Then the Northridge earthquake, the riots, and the economy took their toll, and we lost a lot of ground. I brought Sheldon in [from the Old Globe Theater in San Diego] to create an artistic policy for the Pasadena Playhouse."

One of Epps' goals is to satisfy the Playhouse's older subscription base, the diverse cultural elements of the community, and younger people who aren't regular theatergoers. Over the last two years, he has presented The Real Thing, The Importance of Being Earnest, Flyin' West (a new black historical drama), and the recent Kiss at City Hall. Coming up next is The Glass Menagerie.

What words of wisdom does Epps have for those who think they want to run a theater? "You've got to learn the job," he says simply. "I was lucky to work as associate artistic director at the Old Globe, because I got to observe everything and participate without having all the responsibility." Though he's not planning to leave the Pasadena Plahyouse anytime soon, Epps wants to be remembered "for making a difference in theater, having left it a better, more exciting place. And for helping the Playhouse to earn a reputation as one of the best theaters in the country, attractive to both players and directors."

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