Sheldon Epps is the director of “Christmas Party Crashes,” a forthcoming movie that will premiere on BET+ on November 17. Sheldon Epps has experience directing major productions on and off Broadway in London and across America. In addition, he has had an active television career helming some of the classic shows of recent years including “Frasier” and “Friends”. Sheldon also authored a book titled “MY OWN DIRECTIONS A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre” in which he recounts his rollercoaster ride of a life in the theatre. Sheldon is also known for his work creating and directing the Duke Ellington-inspired musical “Play On!” which received three Tony Award nominations, and was produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where it received four Jefferson Awards including Best Musical. The Pasadena Playhouse (where Sheldon served as the Artistic Director for two decades) production was filmed by PBS for broadcast as part of the “Great Performances” series.
Aside from his work in theater and television, Sheldon has taught acting, directing and theatre management at Yale School of Drama, USC, UCLA, University of San Diego, Occidental College, and Cal State LA among others. He was honored to receive the coveted Alumni Achievement Award from his alma mater Carnegie-Mellon University. He was a member of the Executive Board of the Society of Directors and Choreographers and served as Chair of the SDC Foundation Board of Trustees. He is also on the board of the Ten Chimneys Foundation. Sheldon is also proud to be a two-time recipient of the Theatre Communications Group/Pew Charitable Trust National Theatre Artists Residency Grant, which supported his four-year tenure at The Old Globe as Associate Artistic Director. Currently, he is honored to serve as Senior Artistic Advisor at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.
Sheldon Epps recently discussed his career via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in the theater and what is it about directing that so appeals to you?
Sheldon Epps (SE): I initially gravitated to theatre when I moved to Teaneck, NJ when I was 11 years old. That gave me the opportunity to see Broadway productions and to fall in love with the magic of the theatre. It was during that time that I started doing plays and musicals in jr. high school and high school which eventually led to me going to Carnegie Mellon University to study acting. I eventually moved into directing because I felt more control over my professional life as a director. Also, I realized that what was most fascinating to me was “figuring it all out”, coming up with how to make a play live on the stage. The repetition that a good actor must do over many weeks of performance was less interesting to be than “birthing the baby.”
MM: You also created a show about Duke Ellington so why was he such an inspiration?
SE: I always loved Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT. Initially I thought about doing a production of the play using Ellington’s instrumental music. But at some point, I realized that it would be more ambitious (and hopefully more satisfying) to do an adaptation of the play with a new book (which was written by Cheryl West) and using Ellington’s brilliant and diverse songs to tell the story. It was one of those lightbulb moments of inspiration which fortunately came to fruition very well.
MM: You were an Artistic Director at a theater for over twenty years! What was it like to fulfill that role?
SE: Challenging, sometimes frustrating and exhausting, but also richly rewarding and exciting. It was great to have an artistic home for so many years and to provide a home for artists of all kinds that I admired. It was also wonderful to connect the theatre more to the greater LA community which has such rich diversity on every level.
MM: How did you move into TV and what are its props and cons compared to the theater?
SE: My work in TV grew out of my work in the theatre. Many people saw my productions of plays at Pasadena Playhouse and asked me to work with them in this new area. I feel very lucky that I got to do both over many years. Both are rewarding in some of the same and different ways. Television is very fast, which can be both challenging and gratifying. I do very much appreciate the greater amount of rehearsal time that you get working in the theatre which allows things to grow and mature over several weeks. But there is also something exciting and rewarding about the fast pace of television and “getting it done”!
MM: How did you start working with BET and come across the “Christmas Party Crashes” script?
SE: I had previously worked with BET several years ago on a television series. And GIRLFRIENDS has been a big hit for them. So, I was introduced to the script last May. I thought that it was very charming, funny and romantic. A lot like some of the crazy comedies from the 1930’s which are such classics and enhanced by the holiday good spirits.
MM: What have been the biggest challenges of your career so far?
SE: Not being defined by other people’s notions of what a person of color can or can’t do in the field of the arts. I was never one to be constricted by other people’s or the fied’s notions of what was “right” for me to pursue. I think that every artist should have the right to pursue whatever fascinates them and ignites their passion. It was a fight to make that happen sometimes.
MM: What have been the greatest rewards of your career so far?
SE: I think that knowing that over a 20-year period I really made a difference in leading Pasadena Playhouse. It was my hope to make a great theatre. It’s for others to judge if it did or didn’t become that, but I do know that we had many moments of greatness and that it became a much greater theatre than it was when I arrived. That is truly rewarding.
MM: How do you hope your career evolves over the next five years?
SE: I just hope to have the opportunity to keep telling great stories on stage and screen. I think that the arts have the power to move, to inspire, to help us to grow and evolve, and even to solve problems and challenges that we face. If I can collaborate with others to tell the kinds of stories that accomplish those goals, I will be a happy man.
MM: What events, projects, or other exhibitions are coming up soon and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?
SE: “Christmas Party Crashers” starts airing on BET November 17th. A play that I just did in Houston called “Miss Maude” is hopefully headed to Broadway, so that is very exciting. It’s a great story and really inspiring. And I am always open to the next great thing that comes along.