BWW Feature: Sheldon Epps Brings Diversity And Socially Conscious Theatre to TUTS
From the Tonys to TUTS we're witnessing a much needed shift in the aesthetics of American theatre. Theatre Under The Stars has been a cornerstone of musical theatre in the city of Houston for 48 years and now it has a new vision, a new presence, and a new artistic advisor -- Sheldon Epps.
Epps has deep roots in theatre, from his work as Associate Artistic Director at The Old Globe to his extensive tenure at The Pasadena Playhouse. He has also worked as an actor, produced plays and, no stranger to the Great White Way, his two musicals PLAY ON! and BLUES IN THE NIGHT were both nominated for Tony Awards.
Recently, BroadwayWorld sat down with Epps to talk about his plans to bring theatre to the people. - Bryan-Keyth Wilson
Epps was a man with a plan when he arrived at TUTS, and the first order of business was to review the programming for the upcoming 2016-2017 season. Though he acknowledges that there was already much to admire, he saw room for improvement, ways to craft a "more dynamic, vibrant and diverse season."
The artistic advisor likens his approach to a restaurant menu. "If all of the food on one menu is of one type, you're only going to attract people who like that food ... but if the menu of options is really broad and really theatrically diverse -- not ethnically or colorwise -- but theatrically diverse in style, content, subject matter, etc., then hopefully there's something on that menu that will appeal to everybody at some point in the season."
Theatre companies such as The Ensemble Theatre and Gente de Teatro have catered to broader audiences for decades. Now, with Epps as Artistic Advisor, so will TUTS. "Houston is a very diverse city," says Epps, "rich in all kinds of different people - different colors, religions, sexual persuasions. So the theatres here have an obligation to serve all of those communities and reflect this great city."
In the video above, Epps talks about his selection process as Artistic Director of Pasadena Playhouse at a 2012 press junket. It was for him then, as it is now, about theatrical contrast. Noel Coward belongs in season with August Wilson, he says. As does Lorraine Hansberry, Shakespeare, and Tom Stoppard. (Quencie Thomas, Studio Q/Youtube)
Epps calls this a "joyous obligation." He sees his efforts to reflect the city in the season programming not as a burden but as a celebration of Houston. (Epps is no stranger to the Bayou City; he traveled to Houston after training at Carnegie Mellon University to work as an actor at the Alley Theatre.)
Epps has another source of motivation to combat stage and audience homogeneity: In addition to being an actor, director, producer, leader and overall creator, he is an African-American man. By necessity, he is aware of the dearth of minority representation in theatre and the need to counteract that dearth when programming a season. "The course of my career, both as an actor and director colors my coming to that position," says Epps. "I've never wanted to be a black actor or a black director. I wanted to be an artist, who has the good fortune to be a black man. ... I never wanted career-wise to be restricted in that way, and I would not want any organization that I was connected with to be restrictive in that way."
Often the theatre world does not know how to address that desire (and right) for parity with nuance. So to clarify: Epps is much more than the sum of his parts. And yet his parts are significant. "Those experiences [as a black actor, director, and artist] and my background contribute to my artistry and contribute to the breadth of my knowledge," says Epps.
Moreover, contrary to popular opinion, when Epps refers to his experiences and the breadth his knowledge, he is speaking of more than social identity. Epps' mother sparked his interest in theatre. "Because my mother loved the theatre ... I started going to the theater when I was a teenager. Apart from working in the theatre, I'm a long time theatre lover because I started going at a young age."
Grand ideas aside, however, Epps still cares about the bottom line. He is at the helm of an organization that counts ConocoPhillips and United Airlines among its corporate sponsors. Even during the interview, it is clear that he is an old pro. Unlike many interviewees, he is unfazed by the tiny, shabby voice recorder that sits before him documenting his every word. And his responses to even the stickiest of questions come out clean.
But there is frankness and sincerity in him as well. He admits that his commitment to community outreach is more than altruism. "It's a way to build new audiences for the theater.
If you give people a reflection of themselves on the stage they're more likely to come." He chuckles at the statement, underscoring the obviousness of the strategy.
It is a comically apparent concept. Audiences are dwindling for performing arts like theatre, opera, ballet, and the symphony. Counterintuitively, companies respond to decreasing attendance by aggressively appealing to a static, stagnant base instead of widening the pool of potential patrons and attendees.
INTO THE WOODS is one of Epps attempts to buck this trend. He contends that INTO THE WOODS will draw in younger audiences. Then he corrects himself. The fairy-tale musical will draw in very young audiences. "Unfortunately, when you talk about theatre audiences and you say younger audiences, you are talking about 20, 30, and 40 year olds."
Forty isn't "old" and over 40 audience members are just as desirable as the youth demographic, but the inability of the modern day theatre company to appeal to an under 40 audience combined with its insistence upon retaining its core (and aging) audience at all costs creates a situation wherein theatre, by definition, is dying.
With this in mind, Epps replaced SHREK THE MUSICAL, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, and GREASE. The previously announced FUN HOME and new additions IN THE HEIGHTS and DREAMGIRLS not only feature an ethnically diverse cast, but tackle relevant issues in minority communities - from three young black girls searching for a better life to children of Dominican immigrants searching for the American Dream, to a young lesbian trying to navigate through the complexities of her gay father's life.
Epps has faith that shows like DREAMGIRLS and IN THE HEIGHTS will revive the theatre and the company. The music in DREAMGIRLS is irresistible and, if HAMILTON is any indication, Lin-Manuel Miranda's IN THE HEIGHTS will be bringing them in as well. "[IN THE HEIGHTS] is a great way to come out of the box," says Epps. "Lin-Manuel Miranda has proven he can ignite a real passion for going to the theatre in [young] people."
His plain speaking pragmatism inspires confidence. Epps recognizes that change is challenging. First you must choose your approach, he says, then you build the change and, finally, inform the public. "If you don't do all of that work, then you can't blame people for not getting here," says Epps. "It's not true that 'if you build it, they will come." He laughs. "They can't come if they don't know you built it."
Whatever the intentions and methods behind Epps aims, the 2016-2017 TUTS lineup ultimately embodies his lofty aspiration: a season, "better than ever" for the Theater Under the Stars, that reflects the rich, multicultural tapestry of not only Houston, but the entire country. Reno Sweeney's words are downright prescient. Times are changing.
Header Image photo by Melissa Kobe/ m. kobe photography (mkobephotography.com)