Sheldon Epps and Phylicia Rashad
Today, we sit down with two legendary figures in the entertainment industry, director Sheldon Epps (Frasier, Girlfriends) and Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show). Epps discusses his tenure at the Pasadena Playhouse, his favorite pieces he directed, and what it takes to tackle important issues through art. Rashad provides her advice to young actors and details her first acting experience.
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Michael Taylor: Hi, welcome to "Theatre Corner."
I'm your host, Michael Taylor.
As a lifelong theater enthusiastand a board member for one of
the top theaters in the country,I've seen firsthand the positive
effects that diversity and inclusion could have on the
stage and the theater seats.
This interview series was created as a way to share my
passion for theater and promotediverse voices throughout the
national theater scene.
We sit down with some of the top professionals in the
entertainment industry to discuss training, careers,
advice for young actors, and howto make theater matter to
Today I had the opportunity to sit down with two legendary
figures in the entertainment industry, Sheldon Epps and
Sheldon Epps served as the artistic director at the
Pasadena Playhouse for over 20years and directed TV shows such
as "Friends," "Frasier," and "Everybody Loves Raymond."
We sat down in the PasadenaPlayhouse library to discuss his
tenure, favorite pieces, and tackling important issues
So silence your cell phones, folks.
You're entering "Theatre Corner."
Michael: It is such an honor to have you here on
I really appreciate you, youcomin' to come visit a brother.
Sheldon Epps: Thank you, my pleasure to be here.
Michael: What's goin' on right now as you're ending a
20-year tenure here at the Pasadena Playhouse?
Sheldon: Yes, I started whenI was 15, so--sometimes I think
about it, and I'm not reallysure how I got to two decades in
one place and running a theaterinstitution, but it's a source
of a lot of pride.
I landed here the week after I left San Diego, and I always
intended to, sort of, do it in five-year increments.
Well, I'll go for five years,and after the first five years,
I decided to stay for another five, and somehow those fives
all added up, and I find myselfat the end of a 20-year tenure,
which is--these days in the American theater, after the
founding fathers of these theaters, who stayed for 25
years, 35 years, most people don't stick around quite that
long in one place, so I'm proudof the fact that I've hung in
there for better and for worse for all this time.
Michael: During this time, you're still doing tons
How are you balancing all of that?
Sheldon: I don't know, Michael.
I don't know.
Sometimes when I look back on those days, my first 10,
12 years here, when, in fact, Iwas running the theater and also
had a busy television career, doing situation comedies like
"Friends" and "Frasier," and for 5 years, I was the primary
director and producer of"Girlfriends," which I was very
proud of, but when I look back on that and think about what
those days were like where I would go early in the morning
and have my full-time televisioncareer, and then run over here
at the end of the day in theevenings and all weekend and try
to run a theater, I say, "What was I thinking, you know?
Were you insane to be trying to do all of that?"
I think being younger probably had something to do with it.
Michael: That always helps.
Sheldon: And having more energy,but when I think back on it,
I really kind of marvel that I was able to keep the balls up
in the air like that, but one served the other.
I think that's really whatmotivated me to do it, that the
work in television and thepeople that I met and the actors
that I was able to attract to work in the theater,
the directors and designers and all of that really,
really served the playhouse andhelped to reestablish it.
Michael: So what would be the most enjoyable and fulfilling
television production that you were involved with?
Sheldon: Well, I'd have to say two.
Doing "Frasier" was tremendouslyfulfilling because the quality
of the writing was so good.
I always said that doing an episode of "Frasier" was like
doing a well-made French farce in 22 minutes, and then
But, yeah, the writing was justamazing, and then a great cast
with Kelsey Grammer, David HydePierce, and all of the others
who were like a wonderful theater company ensemble who
just understood, you know, whattheir roles and responsibilities
were the moment they read the script and, sort of, walked
in and did what they did so beautifully.
So I was very lucky to have the opportunity to do over
20 episodes of "Frasier," so that was great.
But the other would be the series "Girlfriends," because
during the first 5 years of thatshow, I directed the majority of
the episodes, 15 or 16 every season.
First of all, I started on the show early on, so I was there
for the growth and development of the show, and we became a
kind of family working on it week after week--sometimes a
dysfunctional family, but generally a very happy family.
But particularly for a show which had its basis in black
culture about this group of black women friends, it was
funny, but we also went intosome dark corners and some very
serious subjects: class differences, gender issues,
economic issues, drug issues, violence in black communities.
So, for a sitcom, we covered a lot of bases and a lot of
territory with the show, and so I was proud to be a part of
that, and because I did so manyepisodes, I felt like I was able
to help shape the show; "Frasier" was more or less the
great show that it was by thetime I started working on that.
I felt, with "Girlfriends," thatI really had the opportunity to
make it a great, classic show.
Michael: Just last month,"American Theatre," there was an
article about successions in artistic directors.
There's 20 theaters, actually, where they're trying to fill
And, yourself, it talks about yourself and two other persons
of color really heading major theaters right now.
Michael: Why are there so few persons of color
Sheldon: Well, it's a really,really important conversation in
the American theater right now.
It does seem that, as with me, there are suddenly a number of
artistic directors who havedecided to step down from their
positions, so suddenly thefield is going to be looking at
filling not just 1 or 2 positions of artistic director
but 20, 25, 30, maybe, over the next couple of years.
And while theaters have certainly concentrated on--
and, in fact, I believe, beensuccessful like this theater--at
broadening the diversity of theprogramming and the audiences,
it is true that there are stillvery few men or women of color
who are actually leadingtheaters as artistic directors,
and some of the few are about to step down.
So I think it's vital that, asboards and search firms look at
filling these positions, thatthey really broaden the field of
candidates, you know.
A problem is not that therearen't people out there who have
the skill, the intelligence, andthe vitality to do these jobs,
but they're not in the current pipeline, you know?
A search committee, a board at a theater, only has the
opportunity to evaluate what's put in front of them.
You know, here's ten candidates for this job.
If none of those ten is a personof color, that's probably gonna
be the end of that conversationfor that particular position.
So two things have to happen: Those directors who are
interested in leadership of a theater, you have to knock on
the door yourself.
You have to keep up.
You have to read "American Theatre" magazine.
You have to know where those positions are gonna be
available, and come knocking loudly on that door.
Get yourself in front of the search committee.
Get yourself to the search firms.
Insist on being seen.
And the search firms have to do their job.
They have to hear the knocking.
You know, they have to openthat door and get more people of
color into those pipelines.
It's often--it's what I call"passive segregation," you know?
I don't think boards and search firms are saying, "No,
We will not consider a person of color."
It's just that it's not put before them, you know?
And often, many times, selectionof a new artistic director is
based on who's worked at the theater before, who's directed
at the theater before, and frequently there are not a lot
of people of color with the additional ability to run a
theater, who have worked at that theater.
So that passive kind ofdoor-slamming is not deliberate,
but the result is just as odious, so it has to change.
Michael: So you're doin' a phenomenal job in that regard
here at the Pasadena Playhouse.
You think there's a direct correlation with who's at the
top in terms of person of colorand what the staff--how diverse
the staff looks, the permanent staff of the theater?
Sheldon: Oh, definitely.
I think it affects everything about an arts institution.
When I first came here, as I've often said, I was down
in the beautiful courtyard.
I was often the only person of any color and the only person
under 60, to walk through thecourtyard and into the theater.
So, certainly, that was changedby the programming, by the work
that was on the stage, but I think that the theater became
a more diverse institutionoverall: the work on the stage,
the audiences, the staff.
The overall community of thetheater changed because a person
of color was in a leadership position.
This theater has very much survived, in part, due to the
loyalty of the African-Americancommunity in Greater L.A., who
said, "I'm gonna go, and I'm gonna support this brother.
And, of course, I'm gonna go when he's doing the August
Wilson play and when he's doing a black musical.
But I'm gonna be there at othertimes when he's doing an Oscar
Wilde play, or when he's doing a Neil Simon play, or the full
canon of theater."
I recognize the fact that manypeople in the black community in
this town are coming to supportthis artistic leader because
he's a brother.
He's part of the--I'm part of their family.
I'm part of their community.
So as American communitieschange, that's definitely got to
be a key to the hiring in leadership positions for
Michael: Next, we made our way over to the Mark Taper Forum
to sit down with Phylicia Rashad.
Miss Rashad is known across theglobe as Mrs. Huxtable on "The
Bill Cosby Show."
She gives us advice for young actors, her first acting
experience, and why she loves the stage.
Shelah: If that's the sacrifice,then,
then I lay down on the altar.
I'm layin' down, but my mind's stayed on you, Lord.
Glory, that's it.
These banging and clanging skies, these winds and rains,
they matchin' and equal to the rubbin' and burnin'
in my thundering sides.
I don't mind the black and the blood cookin' up.
Let them come, Father, let them come.
I see now.
I see you.
Michael: Welcome, Phylicia Rashad.
You're so welcome to be here at "Theatre Corner."
Phylicia Rashad: Thank you.
Michael: Thank you so much for coming by to see us.
You're performing in "Head of Passes," at the Mark Taper.
Michael: And so tell me a little bit about
Phylicia: This is Tarell Alvin McCraney's play.
It was commissioned by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
There was a production that followed at Berkeley Rep, and
then last year, last spring, we were in performance at the
That was when I joined theproduction for that and now here
at the Mark Taper.
It's an inspired text, andlike all inspired texts, it's a
living text, and so it's thegift that keeps giving and that
keeps demanding, but it's good.
Michael: Millions of people know you as the delightful
television mother, ClairHuxtable, but let's take--can I
say, contrast that with the newcharacter, Miss Diana DuBois, on
Fox television series, "Empire."
I suspect you're having fun with that character.
Phylicia: Oh, it's--you know, being naughty can be so much
fun, especially when nobody really gets hurt, you know?
Interacting with the Lyon clan has brought out some of the
not-so-apparent qualities in her character.
They're deeply rooted in thepast, past generations, that she
sought to overcome.
Oh, but they're bringing it out.
Michael: So what did you think when they first brought
this role to you?
What did you think about that?
Phylicia: I thought it would be so much fun.
I thought it would be so muchfun to work with Terrence again
because we had performed on Broadway together in "Cat on a
Hot Tin Roof," and Taraji is a graduate of Howard
University--and very proud of her and her work--and I just
thought it would be great towork with this cast, and it has
It really has been a lot of fun.
Michael: For you, I mean,you've done television and film
Which one of those that makes you feel the most complete?
Phylicia: Theater is certainly the original
discipline, and I'm very happy that I've continued working in
theater all these years, evenwhile working with Mr. Cosby on
"The Cosby Show," never left theater.
And following that show, back in to theater.
I've never left it, and I'm so happy to be able to say that.
Michael: What came about that brought you into the
Phylicia: Mm, there was a call from Constanza Romero.
August Wilson was her husband.
And she called to say that therewas going to be a production of
"Gem of the Ocean" at the Seattle Repertory Theatre,
and she asked if I would direct it.
I had never considered directingbefore although Geoffrey Holder
had told us in understudy rehearsal, "All actors should
I'd not really given that much thought, but I called
I said, "Kenny, what do you think?"
He said, "Go for it, girl."
And so I did.
That was quite a learning experience for me.
And then some years passed.
I was invited to direct at EbonyRepertory, "A Raisin in the
Sun," and from that, just, moreand more things began to come.
Michael: And you directed "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" here at
the Mark Taper as well.
Phylicia: And "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
Michael: "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
Phylicia: And "Immediate Family," Paul Oakley Stovall's
"Immediate Family," both here and at the Goodman in Chicago.
Michael: So there's a August Wilson love story with his
Michael: What is it thatspeaks to you about his pieces?
Phylicia: There's so much depth in what he's written.
I mean, there's that which isreadily apparent, but there's so
He has a way of telling a humanstory in few words, and if
you're willing to do the work and plumb the depths of the
experience, then you begin to arrive at the heart of
Phylicia: Oh, sure, youcould, you know, give a good and
decent representation by playingthe rhythms alone, but those
rhythms can lead you to where he's comin' from if you're
willing to go.
Michael: Can you recall whatage that you felt like you were
gonna go into this direction of performance?
Phylicia: Oh, when I was 11.
Michael: Wow, 11.
Michael: Wow, was there--I don't know--maybe a church
performance, or what gave you that clear indication?
Phylicia: I wanted to be beautiful because my mother is
very beautiful, and my father is very handsome.
I thought of everybody in the family.
I was the one who was, like, left out of all that, and I
always wanted to be beautiful.
And when I was 11 years old, Iwas selected to be the mistress
of ceremonies for a music festival that would take place
in the largest hall in Houston,and it would be elementary
schools from across the city,and that was great auditions and
everything, and I was selectedbecause of my speech patterns to
be the mistress of ceremonies.
Well, my teachers, Miss Woodruff and Mrs. Brown, they
made me rehearse every day before and after school.
It seems interminable.
It went on forever, and then,when it came time for the actual
program, I had to go on a littleshopping trip downtown, and they
selected a beautiful yellowdress with a white pinafore with
lace, mm, and a bow in the back,and I had a tiara with flowers
and Shirley Temple curls, whitesocks with ruffles, and white
shoes, and all dressed up and everything.
You know, just felt so pretty.
And I stood in the spotlight forthe first time in my life, and
the light was so bright.
I couldn't see anything but thelight, and I held the script in
They prepared a lovely folder for me so I could hold it up,
and it had musical notes andsignages on the back, consistent
with the theme of the program; but to my surprise, I didn't
need to read it.
Because we had rehearsed it so much, I knew it by heart.
So instead of reading it, I stood and talked to the light.
And I'd, all evening long, I'dget up and talk to the light and
just talk to the light.
And when it was over and motherswere coming to collect their
children, I heard these two women say, "Oh, there she is.
There's the little girl who spoke so beautifully.
Isn't she beautiful?"
And I heard that, and I thought,"Okay, okay, when I grow up, I'm
gonna be an actress, and I'm gonna be on a stage, and I'mma
be beautiful and play in the light and be beautiful all
But it was gonna be a longtime before I realized what the
beauty really was, and it had nothing to do with what I was
wearing or how my hair wasarranged or how I looked at all.
I had learned that script, and I knew it by heart, and that's
where I spoke from when I talkedto the light, and that's why I'm
Michael: That is incredible.
Phylicia: Yeah, teachers are very important people.
Teachers really do help shapeand frame the direction in which
young people can go.
Whether they are advocating forthe child or mitigating against
them, they're helping to shape a young person's life.
Michael: You're giving that backcause you teach the master
classes as well.
Phylicia: Yeah, I do, I teach a master class.
Michael: How's that experience?
Phylicia: I learn more than I teach.
And I really enjoy it, and I enjoy working with other
performers, whether they'recollege students or whether they
are, say, Lunt-Fontannescholars, 'cause I was a master
teacher there at Ten Chimneys.
So I enjoy working with artists.
I really do, I enjoy working with people.
Michael: If you were to give them one piece of advice, what
is that one piece of advice you give to young actors?
Don't be afraid to live becausethere's much that's learned in a
classroom, and there are thingswe learn in performance and in
rehearsal, but it's what we live that we bring to
Phylicia: And don't be afraid to live.
Now, I don't mean for them to go jump in the gutter or put
themselves in harm's way, butwhen I say, "Live," I mean just
You know, take in nature andsurroundings, and observe people
as you're interacting withthem--and your own thoughts and
Michael: I hope you enjoyed this season.
I'm Michael Taylor, and thank you for tuning in to
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