Has been Artistic Director of the renowned Pasadena Playhouse since 1997. Before beginning his tenure at The Playhouse, he served as Associate Artistic Director of the Old Globe Theatre for four years. He was also a co-founder of the off-Broadway theatre, The Production Company. Mr. Epps has directed both plays and musicals at many of the country’s major theatres including the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Guthrie, Playwrights Horizons, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Arena Stage, and the Goodman Theatre. He conceived the highly acclaimed musicals “Play On!” and “Blues in the Night,” both which received Tony Award nominations. He directed productions of both of those shows on Broadway, in London, and at theatres around the world. His directing includes “Scenes and Revelations,” “Blue,” “Showtune,” “Purlie,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” “Unchain My Heart,” “Twelve Angry Man,” “Intimate Apparel,” and “Breaking Through.” He directed productions of both of those shows on Broadway, in London, and at theatres around the world. Mr. Epps has also directed episodes of TV shows including “Evening Shade,” “Smart Guy,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “George Lopez,” and “Girlfriends.” For more than a decade, he served as a member of the Executive Board of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. Mr. Epps received the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for his efforts and accomplishments at The Pasadena Playhouse. Under his leadership, The Playhouse has earned distinction for productions of artistic excellence, critical and box office success, and highly praised theatrical diversity.
How would you describe the current exciting season at The Pasadena Playhouse which includes “Real Woman Have Curves,” your directing the musical, “Breaking Through,” “Peter Pan & Tinkerbell,” “Fly,” and “Casa Valentina,” and other surprises to come.
Peter Pan and Tinker Bell
It’s been a really wonderful prime example over-all because of the diversity of artists in every area in our main stage seasons, including both of the shows we’ve done. We had our most successful run with “Peter Pan” this year. We always hope the tradition would sort of seed here at the theatre and people return year after year, and it went through the roof.
In the tradition I spoke of, is in no doubt due to this particular group of actors, including Sabrina Carpenter as Peter Pan, who has a big following because of her being a cast member of “Girl Meet World,” and on the flip side, John O’Hurley, whom audiences know him from “Seinfeld.”
Aladdin and his Winter Wish
What has it meant to your personal growth as a director to helm The Pasadena Playhouse?
As I’m into my 19th year here – this very long run at this artistic home has been a really great achievement of my life – in a very blessed career. I’ve gotten to do things on Broadway and Off-Broadway, at many theaters regionally, here as a singular experience. It’s truly meant so much to me with the re-building of the theater, and bringing it back to a place as a very highly respected theater on an artistic level. It’s respected for its community series, its contact with young people; we’re building new audience which is so important to me.
What makes a director creative?
Well, I think the first thing is the ability to tell a story clearly, and in a way that is both moving and compelling to an audience, and that is contractual relationship. I never like to feel the audience is remote to an experience. In a theatre production, the best real circle of energy flows from the stage to the audience and back again, and that’s what keeps it alive and vital. I personally think directing has to do with eliciting the best work from the actors – to help them have their talent available to share, to create a sense of security for them so they can be daring, with an adventurousness, to allow them take chances and fly.
Do you prefer working with a living playwright on a new work, or on a revival of a classic play?
Honestly both. I certainly think there’s a tremendous advantage dealing with a classical piece of material. It doesn’t mean it has to be a hundred years old, it may be August Wilson or Shakespeare, or a more recent play by David Henry Hwang. There’s a wonderful security in dealing with that kind of material.
There’s also no doubt about the great joy and satisfaction that comes from helping to be part of creating something new. I believe writers do have a part in the creation of a new play or a new musical they’ve created, and I value their input. Things are learned during rehearsal and if the author is open to them in the rehearsal process, it contributes to the material become even better. During the collaboration, whether it’s a play or a musical, I also value the input from the actors and all the designers.
Did you originally start out knowing you wanted to direct?
No, I was an actor initially. I went to Carnegie Mellon and graduated as an actor and then I worked as an actor for about seven to eight years. Then I got together with four other people from Carnegie Mellon – Norman Rene being the chief of that group, which became The Production Company. He was sort of the titular artistic director, and as we were working together, he said to me at one point when we were having a discussion: “I might not want to admit it, but I think your point of view is right on. Have you ever thought of being a director since we have a hard time finding good directors? Give it a shot.”
Loren Lester, Katie MacNichol, Elijah Alexander, Pamela J. Gray and Mike Ryan in Noel Coward's Fallen
So I began with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a simple little project, and it took off at The Production Company, and I began directing at other Off-Broadway theaters, at MTC, Playwrights Horizons, and I found myself two years later realizing I hadn’t acted for a while and not really missing it. I didn’t make a conscious choice, but the theater led me to where I was supposed to go.
Have there been certain directors whose work has particularly inspired you?
I can think of Harold Prince. He certainly has a great way of story-telling through music and design. Some of the most interesting designs I’ve ever seen have come from Hal’s productions.
Bob Fosse was a great influence. First as an actor, I was moved by the work I saw, then as a director watching his use of movement and color – it was true theatrical magic.
Lloyd Richards. I got to know him a bit at Yale. I certainly saw all of his productions of August Wilson’s plays. They taught me a great deal about the art of creating ensemble on stage. There was a kind of daring audacity in the performances he’d get from the actors he’d work with.
Today we see many productions which use a great deal of technology. Is this something you prefer to use in your productions or do you prefer it when it’s just the actors on stage creating magic?
Both actually. I think the greatest magic of all is the actors’ creation. The actor’s ability to both woo and lead an audience, where he or she wants them to go. I feel the most magical things happen in my mind when two actors sit on a chair and we see their truth, the acting and listening.
I just did a show which had a big use of projections, and I was fascinated by that – the ability to completely change the environment literally in the blink of an eye. I love working with lighting designers. You really see where you want the focus to be. There’s a simple magic that happens with a good design team. The ability to make the audience look in a certain place while you’re doing it, out pops another set, literally out of thin air.
Comedy can be one of the most challenging things to pull off well. What have you learned are the keys to making comedy work on stage?
It’s got be truthful. It’s got to be honest. Comedy comes from being truthful in the given situation based on the structure of the storytelling. The language then creates in the audience the desire to laugh. It’s very true, you can’t make something funny by playing funny.
One of my favorite acting lessons is the conversation between Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. He had gotten a huge laugh at the beginning of the run of a show when he said: “May I have a cup of tea?” But after six months he gradually got less and less of a laugh, and he threw a fit. Finally, Lynn said: “That’s because you’re not asking for the tea, you’re asking for the laugh.”
Actors have to be in the moment, playing the moment honestly – that’s a big secret. You have to allow the audience to participate. It’s also a technical skill. I give the audience their level of listening so the audience participation is there, to give them time to think about what they just heard.
What would you say has allowed you to become a better director?
Like everything else – practice. But script analysis very important. Part of that is actually learning to pay a lot of attention to the music of the play, both rhythmically, tempo-wise, even sound-wise. Knowing when things should be loud and when they should not be. Knowing what needs to be set up clearly in order for the story to be told. Harold Clurman said once, in order for something to pay off, be it suspense or a laugh, you have to build the tension – it’s all part of the story-telling.
How does a director know what their strengths are in knowing which plays they should attempt to direct? Harold Clurman turned down directing “1776” because he felt he wasn’t the right director to attempt his second musical.
As an artistic director, I sometimes have to make those choices. I think I may not be the right person to direct a particular show, so I invite another director.
I hope I have gotten better in knowing more from my life experiences. I do love plays with good strong stories. I know I may not be as good as other directors working on the abstract plays. I have seen and enjoyed Beckett’s plays but I’m not sure I want to rush into a room and wrestle one of them to the ground. I’m much more the ‘story-telling guy.’ I think I’m more adept in working on straight plays and musicals. That’s where I can ‘hang my hat’ as a director.
What are you looking for from actors who audition for you?
I’m seeking their audacity, a kind of fearlessness, an originality of choice, to do the unexpected in terms of going beyond. All of those things define whether the actor is a good actor, and which I’m attracted to seeing in the audition process. I give adjustments to those who have nailed the monologue. I want to them to experiment, I want to see if we can speak the same language and play together.
At this point in my career, I think about I’m going to be in the same room for four weeks with this person and I want to know if it’s going to be a mutually pleasant experience, creatively and enjoyable for both of us. More and more I see good actors and they’re wonderful so that’s why I spend a lot of time in call backs, talking to actors. I want to find out if we can be friends. If we can get through this process called the rehearsal process and enjoy the process.
I think love plays a great part in the outcome of what we do artistically.
I think it’s a very important part of the process. I think you have to love what you do. You have to love the art of making plays. It’s hard work to do what’s necessary. I also love going to the theatre seeing other people’s work.
Discovering and respecting your audience is a large part of it. It’s a very important part of what story-telling is and I care about that. It’s a wonderfully gratifying long journey bringing a play alive for an audience, and I’m doing this so it will be a mutual loving experience for both of us; it’s very important to me. We have to care about the audience.