Mike Malatesta

Entrepreneur | Author | Coach

Entrepreneur | Author | Coach

Sheldon Epps – Following My Own Directions (334)

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Sheldon Epps is one of the all-time most influential African-American theatre leaders. He has directed on and off Broadway, in London’s West End, and at many theatres across the US. He’s also a prolific television director helming some of the classic shows of recent years. He was the artistic director of the renowned Pasadena Playhouse for two decades, and currently serves as senior artistic advisor at historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

In his new book, “My Own Directions”, Sheldon recounts his rollercoaster ride of a life in the theatre, with all the excitement and occasional anguish that come with the highs and lows. The author’s journey in the American theatre has been amplified by his experience as a Black man who has frequently been “one of the few,” “the first” or even “the only.”

Sheldon is also the director of the upcoming BET+ movie week titled “Christmas Party Crashers”.

To learn more about Sheldon and his new book, please see the links below:

And now here’s Sheldon Epps.

Full transcript below

Video With Sheldon Epps – Following My Own Directions

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Podcast with Sheldon Epps. Following My Own Directions.

Sheldon Epps – Episode 334

Wed, Nov 23, 2022 11:40AM • 1:01:15

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

people, theater, book, audition, started, pasadena playhouse, called, broadway, thought, life, teaneck, sheldon, black, career, directions, play, Compton, college, years, story

SPEAKERS

Sheldon Epps, Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta  00:39

Sheldon Epps, welcome to the podcast.

Sheldon Epps  00:42

Thank you. Good to see you.

Mike Malatesta  00:44

Yeah, good to see you. I’m really looking forward to exploring your story. Let me tell you about Sheldon Epps so you can get as excited about this episode as I am. So Sheldon Epps has directed major productions on and off Broadway, in London and in many theaters across America. His directing credits include the record-breaking production of Fences, starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, Kiss Me Kate ,12 Angry Men, Blues for an Alabama Sky, Play On, which received three Tony nominations, and many, many more. In addition, he has had an active television career directing some of the classic shows of recent years like something that you may have heard of like Friends. Everybody Loves Raymond, Fraser, the George Lopez show, Hannah Montana, my daughter’s favorite show when she was growing Sister Sister and Girlfriends which he also produced, right.

Sheldon Epps  01:49

Yes, Producer Director,

Mike Malatesta  01:51

He was the artistic director of the renowned Pasadena Playhouse for two decades, and currently serves as senior artistic advisor at historic Ford’s Theater in Washington DC. His most recent projects include Personality, the musical Personality, which is the Lloyd Price story, and the BET+ movie Christmas Party Crashers which premieres on November 17. Or premiered I guess, because this will be after November 17, but premiered on the 17th. Congratulations on that. That’s awesome. And in his new book, Sheldon shares how he radically changed and reignited theater through his leadership, including his insistence on making diversity a priority, both onstage and off. That new book is called My Own Directions, a Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre. So, I start every episode with the same simple question, and that is, how did it happen for you?

Sheldon Epps  02:57

Well, it’s so interesting that I’m doing your podcast and that is your first question, because that’s sort of the question that I was trying to answer in writing the book. How did it happen that this kid from Compton, California, which was certainly a lower class, lower income neighborhood, where I grew up, wound up doing all the things that you just mentioned, you know, how did I get from Compton, California to stages on Broadway and in London and all over the world and also on soundstages doing those television shows, something like 150 different episodes of television. I was trying to answer that question. My glib answer would be, well go read the book. But to give you a short-story version, it happened because I was, as I said, a kid from Compton, grew up there until I was 10 years old, in an all-black neighborhood, great community, and Compton at that time was very community-minded, and everybody took care of everybody else and not the Compton that it is, unfortunately, become with a lot of gang violence and all of that. But it was definitely a lower income kind of upbringing, though, you don’t really feel that at the time if you have loving parents in a good community. But when I was 10, or 11, I moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, right outside of New York City. And Mike, I went from an all-black neighborhood on a Friday to the next week being the only black kid in most of my classes in a predominantly white and Jewish neighborhood, which was real culture shock and shook me up and made me sick every morning because I didn’t want to go to school. So I was lonely, and in fact, that loneliness drove me towards the drama club, just as a place to be at that time, I didn’t have any real notion that I was going to become an actor or a director. I just wanted the community, you know, something to do and to be around people because I didn’t know anybody. So I drifted into being in the drama club and started acting in plays really as a leisure activity. But then it started to get good to me over the years, and I did more and more of that and studied, acting over a summer and senior high school and then in high school, said to my parents, well, I think this is going to be my career, I think I want to be an actor. And because they were very loving and very supportive, they said, okay, but you do have to go to college, you have to go to college, and you have to get a degree. You can’t just go study at American Academy or one of those schools in New York, you have to go to college and get a degree, which led me to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where I studied for four years, and graduated with a fine arts degree. And then started a career as an actor for five or six years after graduation, which then led to my career as a director, and all of those many, many great credits that you mentioned, which eventually landed me at Pasadena Playhouse for 20 years, which at the time was a very white theater. And that’s the question that I was asking in the book is, how did it happen that this black man, you know, who had many opportunities, land at this all-white theater? And how did he change it because it needed to change? So that’s the kind of shorthand answer. There’s many more details involved.

Mike Malatesta  07:35

Let’s see if we can explore some of them. And as Sheldon said, If you want the whole story of how that happened, buy the book, right, today on Amazon,

Sheldon Epps  07:47

thank you.

Mike Malatesta  07:49

You’re welcome. So the move from Compton to Teaneck, New Jersey, that was, as I understand it, predicated by your father, who was a minister or reverend moving, getting a new opportunity, is that correct?

Sheldon Epps  08:09

Yeah, that’s right. My father was a Presbyterian minister. So I’m a PK, I’m a preacher’s kid. Okay. And his first church was a very small church in North Carolina. But that small church made enough noise that he was commissioned to go to start the first black Presbyterian congregation west of the Mississippi River in Los Angeles. And he started that church in a garage. There was no church, there was just a garage where they held services. They had five or six people in the first service, but he built it to a very large congregation that served the community in many ways and was noticed again by the National Organization of the church. So he was brought back to the administration of the Church, which was at a building called the Inter Church Center on Riverside Drive in New York that some people called the Vatican on the Hudson, because it was the location of all the Protestant denominations. So it was because of his getting that job and that opportunity that the family moved back to Teaneck, New Jersey, which is very close to New York City.

Mike Malatesta  09:36

And suddenly, as you can remember it at least you mentioned, how much different Teaneck was than Compton in terms of race. But what I’m wondering is how else did your life change? And I don’t want to get into like, Broadway yet, but how did your just family life change? Go Going from Compton to basically New York City.

Sheldon Epps  10:05

Well, as I said, and it’s almost literally true, I was in a black community in a black school environment. All-black really, perhaps some Latino people, but very few. And suddenly in Teaneck, New Jersey, I was literally the only black kid in many of my classes. And it was like being thrown into a foreign culture. You know, suddenly, people were talking about holidays, but I didn’t know what they were, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover. I didn’t know anything about any of that. People were talking about food that I had no idea, bagels, I didn’t know.

Mike Malatesta  10:54

That was so funny in your book.

Sheldon Epps  10:57

What’s that? Yeah, that’s a bagel. What’s that flat roll you’re trying to get? You know, it’s not a donut. It’s not as good as a donut. And, you know, even language, you know, words like hutzpah, so many, I was hearing a language I didn’t know, so it was a real a real culture shock. And at that tender young age, it was a lot to absorb. And also, at the time, my father traveled quite a lot in connection with his job, so he was away a lot. My sister by then had gone off to college. My brother, who was four years older, seemed to never be at home, because he made a community with friends very, very quickly, much more quickly than I did. So that’s how it turned out that I spent a lot more time with my mother, and eventually wound up going to see Broadway shows with my mother. So that’s how I was introduced to Broadway theater.

Mike Malatesta  12:12

And the way you describe it in the book is really touching that you didn’t really realize that your mother had this sort of love of theater. Right. And then she started taking you to shows but then what I really loved was how you described when you started going on your own? Tell me about that.

Sheldon Epps  12:46

Yeah, I mean, I always knew that my parents were arts lovers. When we lived in LA on the West Coast, they love music. And I had been to a couple of theater productions, ironically, one of them at Pasadena Playhouse, but other places, but there wasn’t a lot of theater in Los Angeles. So that wasn’t a regular thing to do, or we couldn’t afford it, maybe even then, we couldn’t afford it. So we didn’t go to the theater a lot. But when we moved, I discovered that my mother really loved Broadway musicals in particular. And so we would start to go on the weekend to Saturday matinees. And we would buy a balcony ticket for probably something like $5, which is amazing, considering what they are now. So that was my first taste, and I fell in love with it. And then when I was a little bit older, by the time I was a junior, maybe in high school, I started going on my own, I would save my allowance and you know, scrape together $10 for the bus fare and a hot dog and a ticket to a Broadway show and I would start to go. Almost every week, my weekend activity would be going to see some play. And as I wrote in the book, Times Square was a pretty dicey area. The theater district of now is not the theater district of way back then. It was brave or stupid for a kid to go there by himself during that time. They were at least cognizant enough of what it was like that they said Well, you can’t go into the city at night by yourself. But you know if you wanted to go to the two o’clock matinee and get home before dark, they were okay about that. I would go see, you know, all kinds of things, I would see musicals, I’d see Shakespeare, I’d see new plays old plays, you know, I had this just crazy taste to see everything.

Mike Malatesta  15:08

And after you would see these things, would you go home and sort of write up things or role play or, you know, take it further than it just being the theater experience?

Sheldon Epps  15:23

That’s a good question. And you’re reminding me of something and asing a question that I know, I didn’t, I didn’t journal things. A lot of people keep records of every show that I saw. I never did that. But I used to love to buy Broadway cast albums. So I’d see a show, and then I tried to find the cast album somewhere. And at that time, you know, department stores even had record departments. You know, I don’t think those even exist anymore. But you know, I used to go to the record department and look through the stacks. I would do that a lot. And we’d go Times Square, the theater area had places where you can even buy secondhand records, which was great, because they were cheap. Sometimes they’d have skips and scratches in them, you know, but they’d be $2. So I didn’t care. I would buy those. And I do remember often sort of sitting in the basement listening to those cast albums and replaying the show in my mind. Yeah, that’s true. I’ve worked through that.

Mike Malatesta  16:34

And you reminded me a little bit of me when you described, you know, the Jewish neighborhood. And the holidays that you mentioned, because my wife is Jewish, and I grew up Catholic, and we met in college. The first time I went to her house to meet her parents, it was, now I’m going to mess up on the holiday, but the one that’s around Easter, anyway. And I was just so out of my element. Yeah. First time, you know, like, all the words all the food, everything was so different. I grew up in like a parish, a Catholic neighborhood and everybody was Catholic pretty much that I knew of, so we never had any discussions about any of that stuff. But then the other thing my wife grew up in Connecticut, so train ride into the city, and her parents started taking her to shows when she was young. And so we’ve seen a lot of shows. She does two things. She gets the movie poster and frames them. So in our house, we’ve got several sections with a bunch of those and then the music from every musical that we see. I’m listening to it all the time on the sound system in our house, you know, it’s just on all the time now.

Sheldon Epps  18:14

The Playbill, remember playbills? I had a big collection of playbills you know, and I loved reading them so much. But I love the cover, you know and whatever the artwork was on the cover. And in the New York Times on Sunday are the Al Hirschfeld drawings. Oh, yes. Beautiful pen and ink drawings that he would do of Broadway shows. And I would love it if he would do a drawing of a show that I had seen because then I could really relate to what was there. Sometimes his drawings were so great that I would say, Oh, God, I gotta see that show. That looks amazing. He really captured the energy in the spirit of what it was like to be sitting in the audience. That was his great, great art.

Mike Malatesta  19:15

You mentioned your older sister and your older brother, Francis and Braxton. Is that correct? So I’m just curious. Where did they go with their lives? Where are they with their lives?

Sheldon Epps  19:34

My sister went to a school called Knoxville College in Tennessee. And then she moved to New York and she was a social worker for a long time in New York City. Actually not such a long time because it was it was a rough job. So she only did it for a few years. And then she became a flight attendant for TWA when there was a TWA, which later merged with American Airlines, and she did that for a really long time. She did that for like 25 years maybe. And flew mainly international flights. So she, you know, she was all over the world and then retired to Teaneck, New Jersey, where she still lives.

20:26

So she’s still there. Okay, great. Yeah. Yeah.

Sheldon Epps  20:30

My brother, my brother was for a while an endless student. Now, this is interesting. My brother was told in high school, you are not college material. You should try to think of a trade that doesn’t require you to go to college because you’re not college material. Which, of course, drove my mother crazy. And I think that guidance counselor suffered her wrath. But then my brother did go to a small undergrad school out here in California called Whittier College. But my brother then got degrees from Rutgers University, and Yale University.

Mike Malatesta  21:18

So we’re all not college material people. Yeah,

Sheldon Epps  21:21

You know, so clearly he was he was getting very poor guidance from that guidance counselor. So he was a perpetual student. And he’s, he’s studied, at every one of those places. I think he had a different major, but ended up at Rutgers getting a law degree. And he was a public defender for a while. But then, unfortunately, died quite young. And quite suddenly, in his early 40s had a quite sudden illness, which took him away. I remember the good parts of him, but we had a very, very contentious relationship for most of our lives. But fortunately, by the time he passed away, we were much closer.

Mike Malatesta  22:26

Okay, well, great. I’m glad that because there’s so many of those stories that don’t end up that way. Right. Sheldon, it’s like, we’ve got a grudge or whatever. And we’re never going to you know,

Sheldon Epps  22:36

right. You don’t have to work on it. Yeah. Yeah.

Mike Malatesta  22:41

When you were telling that story, though. This was about the guidance counselor. It made me think of Mr. Pompous in your book, Mr. Pompous was someone in your high school? I thought that was really a great little story, how, you know, you’re just sort of kicking around, you know, where people are going to school. And he mentioned Carnegie Tech, I think it was called Carnegie tech at the time. And, you know, basically said, Well, it’s the greatest, it’s the best theater program that there is, but you’ll never get it in. And that’s sort of lit a fire under you. Tell me about the fire? And why.

Sheldon Epps  23:25

Yeah, yeah. And it’s, it’s interesting, you know, both the story that I just told you about my brother and this story, you know, the book is very much about all the things that as black Americans, we were told we can’t do, and shouldn’t even try to do. As that guidance counselor told my brother and as this other kid in the drama clan, and in my high school said, Well, you know, you’re good, but you’re not good enough to get into Carnegie, you know. They audition hundreds of people and only take 40 So there’s no way in the world you’ll ever get in. I dare you to apply. Well, of course with my Scorpio hubris, that was all I needed to hear. And just took that challenge and said, Well, I’ll show you buddy. And really had very little idea about what Carnegie was, somehow it had just not come into my orbit. And if I knew more, and if I knew what the odds were really like, I probably would have been more intimidated and probably wouldn’t have tried to audition. But I did and he was right. They audition something like five or 600 people, high school grads every year and they took 40 Only 40 out of that 500 So the odds were high, but as I said, I made it

Mike Malatesta  25:00

And I was just feeling like trying to put myself in your shoes, when you describe going into the I guess it was in Manhattan or whatever, wherever they did the audition and, you know, there’s a bunch of people in there and you go in and you have to, I don’t know, I don’t know how they prep you for that. So I’m just, I’d like to get a little bit more into that. So I get a feeling like how you were actually feeling? Were you confident? Were you like, nervous? Of course, you were nervous, but were you confident going in? Or were you like, I just thought of pressure.

Sheldon Epps  25:37

Oh, all of the above. They don’t really prep you at all. You know, you’re told what you can do, what you should do, you’re told you have some six minutes or whatever it was to do two monologues one classical in some way. Which I may not even have known what that word meant. But I guess I looked it up to figure out what qualified as classical and one contemporary. I didn’t know what contemporary meant. And that’s the information you’re given, you know, and then you’re given this address. And I remember it was in a hotel meeting room. And there was a little waiting room on one side, and you’d go through a door and there would be all these, you know, half of the faculty sitting there staring at you. And they said go, and you have to do your thing. I had, by that time, acted quite a lot in in high school plays. So, you know, I have this vision of myself being okay, you know, pretty good. I didn’t think I was delusional by that time saying that I wanted to make a career as an actor. But by the time I auditioned, I didn’t know about those odds. And I didn’t know that the level of competition was really high. So I’m sure I was nervous. I’m sure I was nervous. But you know, I just sort of blinded myself to the odds in the competition and did what I do. It’s what I listen to, it’s what I now tell students who are auditioning for anything, not just schools, but in anything, an Audition is your opportunity to have fun doing what you do. You know, it’s not fun to be out of work, it’s not fun to look for work. And sometimes when you get a job, it can be not so much fun, because you might be working with a jerk or you know, with bad material or whatever. An audition is an opportunity just to have fun doing what you do. Because it’s really completely in your control. You know, nobody has told you how to do it. Nobody’s telling you how to do it while you’re doing it. So just, you know, rely on yourself and have fun. So something in me even at that young age allowed me to do that, to just enjoy the fun of doing what I had come to love to do.

Mike Malatesta  28:18

Well, I have to say that that’s a wonderful mindset or way to approach those things, because it feels like that so many people. And I’ll put myself in this camp to at certain points of my life where rather than having fun doing what I do, I worry about how I will be perceived by someone else, as opposed to just doing the best I can and being happy with it. And so and that fear of worrying makes me not do it instead of just doing it right. Yeah.

Sheldon Epps  28:52

Yeah. I mean, again, when I teach actors now or teach classes about auditions, I say there is no way in the world that you are ever going to know what is in my head. You cannot know that. But the other side of the table, if I’m auditioning you, yeah. And if I’m scowling. It could be because of I had a fight with my wife earlier this morning. It could be because I haven’t seen anybody that I liked. And most of all, I say I’m, I’m waiting for you to be great. Because when you audition, when people go into interview for a job, I the person auditioning you are interviewing you, needs you, you are the answer to my problem. So if anything, adopt that frame of mind, that I’m here to be the answer to your problem. I’m here to be the one that you need to hire. Because if if you if you go in thinking about oh, he doesn’t like me or I And he doesn’t think I’m right or all of that, as you just said, you just defeat yourself, you know? Yeah, exactly the opposite effect of what you want.

Mike Malatesta  30:10

So that makes me wonder now, now that you’ve auditioned, I don’t know how many people, 1000s maybe, who knows how many. But auditioning is still one of those kinds of there’s not much auditioning going on in the world today, right? Like you apply for a job? Well,

Sheldon Epps  30:32

there is, but it’s this way. You know, a lot of it is by Zoom, and, oh, yeah, on camera,

Mike Malatesta  30:40

where I was going with it is that when you’re auditioning for a part or role somewhere, there can be all kinds of, like you said, this, you may not be the right person I’m looking for you may not have the right voice, you may not have the right look, you may not be the right height, you make all of these things that you can still do in auditioning to weed people out that you that most you really mostly can’t do in the work. Right, in a regular workplace. Right. So do I have that right? And second of all, if I do, how much? Or how little has that changed over your areer?

Sheldon Epps  31:25

Yes, sir. Right. And I think little has changed, very, very little. I think, you know, the things that I considered as a young director are things that I still consider. Yeah, you certainly have, you shouldn’t have images in your head of what you think particular roles in the play, the musical, should sound like should look like. But sometimes a great moment is when someone comes in and completely changes your image about that, you know, and makes you rethink and reconceive the role. And maybe even the entire composition of the cast, because you fall in love with that one person. So then you begin to reshape your thinking about the rest of the cast to work with that person. So again, I think that’s what I sometimes say, again, in teaching young actors. If you’re a chicken, be the best chicken that you can. If I’m looking for chicken, that will be great. If I’m looking for steak, there’s nothing you can do about that. You know, you can’t suddenly become steak. You can only be the best chicken that you can be. However, if you’re really good, you might convince me that what I really want is chicken.

Mike Malatesta  33:03

I love it. That’s really cool. Yeah, that’s becoming an answer to a problem. You thought you wanted steak? But you really want a chicken?

Sheldon Epps  33:17

Yeah, I thought I was looking for this. I’m actually looking for you. And you’re not at all what I thought I was looking for. But now you are exactly what I want.

Mike Malatesta  33:29

But I imagine too that when that one person who changes your mind from steak to chicken walks in, it’s like, this is why I do this, right, to find people like this who can take my ideas and my creations or whatever, right? 

Sheldon Epps  33:57

Yes. Yeah, that that’s exactly right. You know, whether that’s, you know, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, or you mentioned before, or some kid right out of college, you know, that’s actually the best when you sort of discover that somebody walks in that you’ve never seen before, and they’re brilliant, they’re wonderful, you know, they’re everything you could have hoped for. And more. That’s really exciting. You know, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, you kind of know they’re gonna be good. They might be better than you thought they were going to be, and they are, but you kind of know that they were going to be good but it’s great to discover some somebody completely new and fresh, that you’ve never seen before.

Mike Malatesta  34:58

And is a person that comes to mind, Sheldon, who did that for you that, you know, just basically I don’t know if they just stand out as someone who so blew you away. And then as a result, you know, came into you and they were completely unknown and now everyone knows them sort of thing.

Sheldon Epps  35:21

I’ve had that happen a few times. Tessa Thompson who was like that, you know, he’s become now a very, very big movie star was in my production of Blues for an Alabama Sky that I mentioned before. But I met her when she was very, very young. Actually, even that same production with Fences. There’s a young actor, or was young at the time, had just gotten out of Yale. Name, Brian Clark, Brian Terrell Clark, I think is his full name. And he came into audition for this and was just great. And he’s gone on to a very prominent Broadway career. And I just saw a young woman the other night at a celebration. Joanna Jones is her name. And she had just gotten out of UCLA’s musical theater program, and came into audition for my production of Kiss Me, Kate, and just totally blew me away and was wonderful. And did Kiss Me, Kate. And then six months after that she was on Broadway in Hamilton.

Mike Malatesta  36:39

Oh, no kidding.

Sheldon Epps  36:41

Yeah, it’s great to great to see somebody like that.

Mike Malatesta  36:46

Yeah, it’s got to be remarkable to just see so many people. You know, it’s remarkable as an audience member to see someone who is unknown become known for their talent, but you see them even before that, and you’re basically making a bet that they’re going to be seen by the audience the way I just described. It’s, it’s really like seeing the future. It’s, yeah, you’re seeing the future.

Sheldon Epps  37:11

Yeah. And I should say, you know, the flip side, the sad part is, I’ve also seen people like that in auditions, who came in, gave great auditions and then cast them. And they were great to play. And then, you know, things don’t happen, you know, the luck doesn’t go their way further down the line. And I sadly find out that they’ve left the business or gone on to other things. And that’s very sad to me, you know, especially when it’s a very young person that I’ve believed in very strongly. 

Mike Malatesta  37:55

Sure. So let’s move on to the book a little bit here. Because first of all, I like the structure the book, like, it’s like a director, right. Act One, Team One Act, you know, so the parts are like, I guess the chapters are, act, and then stories within them are the subjects. Yeah, yeah, it’s really, it’s really neat. I love well-constructed, I love books that are constructed in a way that I wasn’t expecting, and that really aligns with the author’s story, and you definitely did that. So congratulations, the name is My Own Directions. What is that the name you started with? I mean, like, in my, when I wrote my book, I, I had multiple names along the way. And then after it was done, we sort of decided on a name so I didn’t go into it with the name I wanted to use, but I’m wondering how you came to see your name.

Sheldon Epps  38:58

Um, I knew that they I always wanted some reference, whether it was the word or not, but some reference to directing, because that’s how I’ve spent the bulk of my life, in the theater as a director. I think at one point, I was thinking about “Indirections,” one word, or in directions as the title. But then as I started to work on the book and got closer to completing it, I realized it was so much about choosing the right roads, choosing the right path to take, what roads you go down and what roads you don’t go down. So the play on words, My Own Directions, direct choices that I give to actors is there but it’s also following my own directions, instructions to myself, or the path that I told myself to take. You know, sometimes when I had a choice between doing this thing or that thing, or sometime when I had no choice and just had to define the direction, and say, this is where I’m trying to go, this is the road that I want to go down. So that’s, that’s where it came from. And it’s about, you know, the, the flip side of it is that I hope the reader will take from it that they should follow their own directions, particularly anybody, but particularly young artists. And specifically, young artists of color, should not have their paths defined by outside of them, but from within them, they shouldn’t allow themselves to be cold as my brother was, you’re not college material, you know, he should decide if he’s, you know. So I hope the reader gets that from the book, that it’s about defining your own course in your life.

Mike Malatesta  41:19

And one of the themes or threads in the book is this notion of you call it “chased by race.” And when you were just describing that, I was wondering if that’s part of what you’re talking about by that? In other words, you know, that’s great advice for someone, but if they’re not getting support for that advice by the community that’s hiring them or working with them, or whatever, it can be kind of tough and kind of defeating and could kind of piss you off, you know?

Sheldon Epps  41:54

Yeah, that’s true. And that’s what I meant by, I think it’s the prologue of the book titled, “Chased by Race.” Because both in life and career, I have been chased by race, it does not go away, it will not go away. And you have to not rebel against it, but accept it, and in fact, celebrate it, you know, celebrate who you are. And there have been those in my life, who have said, well, you can’t do that. You’re black, you can’t do that. You know, what would you know about doing that play Shakespeare, Moliere? You’re black? You can’t do that. What would you know about running a theatre company? You know, maybe you could run a black Theatre Company. But this is a white theater, what would you know about that? You know, so that’s always chasing me, chasing all black Americans, you know? What’s Toni Morrison call it, the white gaze, you know, the white gaze is always on you. And we people of color spend too much of our time trying to satisfy the white gaze. She said, don’t satisfy your gaze, you know, don’t rush, I cannot write to please. The white gaze and white America, I must write from my experience. And please myself as a writer, you know, I must follow my own direction. So, yeah, that’s what chased by race is all about, about the feeling of knowing that it’s always there in big ways, as we just talked about, or, or in small ways, you know, the furtive glance you get or the sly comment. I’ve a good friend that I joke about this with, you know, people often tell him and me with some surprise, Oh, you’re so articulate as if you shouldn’t be, you know, intending it to be the compliment, almost like what right do you have to be articulate? Not just how did you know, but what right do you have, you’re black? 

Mike Malatesta  44:52

What happened? Yeah, what happened? That happened for you, right?

Sheldon Epps  44:56

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Right.

Mike Malatesta  45:00

So the reason that you wrote the book I mean, why, why now? And why write it? Is it something that you’ve wanted to do for a long time and just hadn’t gotten to, Sheldon, or is it something else? 

Sheldon Epps  45:16

It was a couple of things, one of one of them more logistical than the other, more socio political, to be high-falutin, and articulate?

Mike Malatesta  45:27

Very, very well done. Yes.

Sheldon Epps  45:31

When I stepped down from my job at Pasadena Playhouse, in 2017, so a while ago, many people said, you know, you should write a book, you know? Your story is a very unique story. And you accomplished some great things in an American theater, and for the American Theatre. So you should talk about that. So if enough people say that, you start to consider, oh, maybe they’re right, maybe I should. So I started thinking about it, then. But then, and you may know this as a writer, you will give yourself any excuse in the world not to sit down and write. And, you know, I was working, and I was in rehearsal for this, or I was doing this television. And then this thing called the pandemic hit. And we were all told to stay home. And then it looked like we’re going to be told to stay home for a long time. And so, you know, my own gaze, my own black man on my shoulder said, You have no excuse not to sit down and start writing this.

Mike Malatesta  46:43

Now’s the opportunity, right? 

Sheldon Epps  46:47

Yeah, it’s the time, now is the time, logistically, now’s the time to do it. And around about that same time, the Black Lives Matter movement started as a result of George Floyd’s murder. And growing out of that conversation about racism in the theater, and in the in the entertainment industry, in much more direct and honest ways than they’d been out there before. Now, I had been talking about those things for years. But suddenly, the conversations were louder, there were more people involved, and they were more honest. And what was disturbing was to realize that some of the things that were being said, and being taken as being new things, or new issues, or new challenges, were things that I had been talking about for decades, and others had been talking about for decades. So it was a way of declaring, number one, these things are true, these things have always been true. But also, there’s no reason for them to be true. And now is the time to do something about them. And that has happened, not just as a result of my book, but also because of those conversations, you know, things have changed a great deal over the last two to three years, there’s still more work to do, more to change, more to be accomplished. But I have to acknowledge the fact that things are changing and continue to change in a good way.

Mike Malatesta  48:36

And do you feel like your experience and your career has provided a model for how not just for the possibility of that change, but how it can continue? 

Sheldon Epps  48:55

I do. 

Mike Malatesta  48:57

I think I’ll go back to Mr. Pompous, you know, it’s like, tell me I can’t do something — it’s a great way for me to get it done.

Sheldon Epps  49:03

I mean, that was what I started in 1997, as Artistic Director of Pasadena Playhouse, it was literally said, Well, this is not gonna last, this is going to be a failure. You know, a black man can’t walk into this very conservative white theater, and possibly last. And there were also people who said about me and others, Well, people of color don’t know anything about running theaters, or running major opera companies or dance companies and all of that unless it’s, you know, an ethnically-specific situation. So, you know, anybody who’s anybody who’s going to try to do that is going to fail. So we’ll just wait for them to fail. Well, if you stay someplace 20 years, and if you do make it a greater theater, you no longer have an excuse to say something like that, you know, you no longer have any justification for making that claim. So I do think that as a result of my long tenure, and blessedly successful tenure, that that is why many more opportunities have opened up for people of color? Now it goes back before me, you know, to Lloyd Richards at Yale University, and Scott years ago, and many, George Woolf and Kenny Leon and others, but the few of us who were out there early, you know, as leaders of theatres did open those doors, I believe, for the many, many people, men and women of color, who are now running major theater companies, major arts organizations, all over the country all over the world. In fact,

Mike Malatesta  51:05

yeah. The future is brighter.

Sheldon Epps  51:10

The future is brighter, the future is brighter. The one caveat to the future is brighter is we have to hope that it’s not just of the moment. You know, there’s a lot of stuff that’s happened over the last two or three years. You know, I have a little tinge of suspicion that it might be just a knee-jerk reaction to those outcries. But I hope it will be sustained, I hope it’s genuine and organic. And then it will continue. I believe it will. I believe it will. I don’t think it’s ever going to swing back to where it was where there’s one artistic director in America, I hope.

Mike Malatesta  51:55

I hope not. Yeah. So two things I’d like to finish up with. First, your movie, which comes out or came out on the 17th of November, Christmas Party Crashers that’s on BET+. How’d you get into that? What’s it about? And why should everyone watch it?

Sheldon Epps  52:15

Well, thank you for asking, we have been talking about quite serious things. And I have to say, this is a wonderfully frivolous thing. Right? And we do it because it’s sort of a Christmas rom-com that’s great, fun, and clever and charming and romantic. And then everything ends up fine, because it’s Christmas time. And it’s pretty. It’s pretty to look at for all of those reasons. I had directed a series for BET a few years ago. And then Girlfriends, the show you mentioned before, was syndicated on BET. So I was sort of in the BET family. And I was sent this script of a holiday movie. And I thought it was all of those things, charming and funny and witty and clever. And fortunately I had the time on my schedule to do it. So I was able to jump into it. I didn’t realize what a huge industry holiday movies can be. My sister loves them. She watches every one. So, you know, it was great to sort of discover this whole new world of moviemaking, and make this movie, it was very fast. It was very intense. And the most ironic thing is because of production schedules, you have to shoot Christmas movies in the middle of the summer. So we were shooting this Christmas movie in Augusta, Georgia, when it was 105 degrees you know, so people would drive by these houses that had been all decorated for Christmas and everything and they were just so confused about what was going on. But you know, you kind of make fun of this crazy situation of sweating like crazy as you’re talking about Christmas

Mike Malatesta  54:25

that’s gotta make it tough, right? Because everyone’s dressed up and coats and everything. 

Sheldon Epps  54:30

Yeah when you do an outdoor scene in the middle of the day and it is literally 104 and 95 degree humidity. And you have to put a coat on, a winter coat on, you know, everybody walking with these little portable fans like this just tried to blow away all of the sweat and everything but it’s a as I said, it’s a very sweet, very charming movie with Skye Townsend and Jaime Callica; they’re both really wonderful. So after it showed on BET+ it’ll be on regular BET in December. So people can watch that way.

Mike Malatesta  55:10

Okay. Wonderful. And, and let’s end with Personality. I happen to have a connection to Jeff Madoff, so I’ve been aware of the show. And in fact, I went to one of the performances at the People’s light. in Malvern, I did. Yes. It turned out to be the very last show. Being cut short with COVID.

Sheldon Epps  55:38

COVID. But not by planning. 

Mike Malatesta  55:41

Yeah. By necessity. And? Well, I’m not gonna say what I think of it, because I’ve, because I think I, it was an amazing production, my opinion. How did you and Jeff get together to put that show together? And what do you think of it? Are you staying with it? I understand it’s going to open in Chicago in the spring.

Sheldon Epps  56:11

It’s just been announced so we can actually talk about it openly. Okay. It’s going to open at a theater called the Studebaker Theatre in Chicago, which is a beautiful, newly renovated theater, right in downtown Chicago. Opening in late May of next year. I think it’s great. Number one, I appreciate being able to tell this story of an unsung hero, Lloyd Price. So interesting. Whenever you people say, Well, what’s it about? And I’ll say it’s life story of Floyd Price. People say Who’s that? Nobody knows his name. But everybody knows Personality. Yeah, everybody knows everybody, Latinas. Everybody knows those songs. They go Oh, so you know, that’s sort of the basis of the show is, you know my name, but you don’t know me. So the show is about who he was, and, you know, not only the great artist that he was, but the great man he was and the survivor that he was, and the challenges that he faced similar to those things that we’ve been talking about, but it’s full of great music, great dancing, great visual style. And both songs that you know, well. But then a lot of great songs that you’ve probably never heard before. Because Lloyd really touched every base number one, he had this incredibly long career, decades-long career where he just hung in there, kept coming back, and also kept adapting to musical styles. So you know, there’s old school R&B, but there’s jazz, there’s rock, you know, he was just so eclectic. But it just leads to a great music-filled evening. And then, you know, a great life story. So, as I say, there’s meat on that bone.

Mike Malatesta  58:22

Yeah, it’s, it’s a fantastic show. So, you know, if you’re in the Chicago area, you know, when it comes out next day, you have to see it, it’s, you’ll be blown away. And if you’re saying I’m a musical, don’t think that if you’re one of those people who just like, don’t like, you know, musicals aren’t your thing. This will be your thing. I can tell you, though, because I’m one of those people. I go to a lot of musicals, but they’re not my thing.

Sheldon Epps  58:48

But, but your wife likes them now. Yes.

Mike Malatesta  58:51

And yes. My older daughter loves lots of them as well. But this is my thing. So I think people will love Personality.

Sheldon Epps  59:00

Thank you. 

Mike Malatesta  59:01

Well, Sheldon, thank you so much for being on the podcast and sharing your story and telling us about your book and all the other things that we got into. It’s really an honor to have you on, and I’m just happy we were able to put this together. I wish you tremendous success going forward. 

Sheldon Epps  59:23

I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thank you .okay, all right.

Mike Malatesta  59:51

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. 

Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta

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