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Pasadena Playhouse goes dark; Epps & Eich speak out

February 8, 2010

Artistic director Sheldon Epps stood on the empty stage last night, not too coincidentally under the reassuring gaze of Merlin the Magician and said, “The truth is, this is a glorious day because twice today this theatre, this beautiful theatre, has been filled with the art of the theatre. And as always, I am grateful to all of you for being here for this performance.”

It was the end of “Camelot” and possibly the end of the Playhouse itself. Epps said a wise person, a sort of personal Merlin, told him to “think of this not as a grand finale, but as intermission. That is very good advice because, what happens during intermission is, we all go out, some of us stay behind, we do things, we get things in order, we accomplish tasks, and then we come back and the magic begins again. I believe with all of my heart, with all of my passion, with the fire and the lust of my very artistic being, that this is an intermission. So we are all going to take a bow, and then we are all going to go out and do some things that need to be done and we’re going to invite you back in. And then we are going to begin the next act.”

Everyone in the audience knew, in this intermission, there would be plenty of time to use the restroom, even the ladies’, whose line notoriously snakes out the building and down a breezeway. But none of us knew when we may return. The Playhouse, nearing the century mark, went dark a few minutes later, after Epps, executive director Stephen Eich, and more than 30 (former) Playhouse employees held hands and took a final bow.

I caught up first with Stephen Eich in the courtyard and asked him how long he believed Epps’ “intermission” would last.

“We’re not exactly sure. We have to evaluate the place financially in almost a forensic manner, and we then have to figure out how to deal with that, whether it’s ceasing operations and trying to find a way to pay off the debts; going into bankruptcy is an option as well. We have to make sure that we obviously find a scenario to take care of our subscribers and our funders and this community and our friends, so there’s a lot to be done. I mean, our problem was that the clock was really ticking, and with no money in the account, what can you do, pretend? No. We’re not going to write checks to people and have them bounce, so we just had to be really responsible with it.”

There had been rumblings of a capital campaign and whether any of those funds could be used as a stop-gap measure. Eich told me there was not an active capital campaign.

“About four years ago, maybe five,” he said, “there was a capital campaign. But the only monies remaining in that are monies that are pledged, so they weren’t monies we could call in to necessarily solve the operation of the place. Perhaps when we come back, and we have grand ideas to reinvigorate the infrastructure here, we can.”

And, Stephen, best case scenario? “Best case scenario,” he quipped, “is we will be back. I don’t know when.”

Since Sheldon Epps had recounted the notion that this dark period was merely break in the action, I asked him how far away he thought the next act might be.

“Well, we’re going to make it as brief as possible. I hope it’s not too long. I think this is a very brave, a very smart thing for us to be doing. There’s just some stuff that needs to be straightened out, cleaned up, and taken care of, so we can get back to doing what we do exceedingly well, which is making theatre.”

I aksed whether it is merely a need to fundraise. 

Epps said, “It is fundraising. It’s also sort of getting rid of this horrible debt load that has been with us frankly since before I took over as artistic director, 15, 16 years ago. And then some fundraising to jumpstart the operation, I always say we need to bring more power into the building so we’ve got to get some fuel.”

“Is bankruptcy  inevitable?”

“That would probably take far more legal minds than mine,” he said.  “I know that we are exploring several different forms of that. I would say that it is a possibility. On its own, the debt right now is about $2 million. If you add the subscriber liability – what we owe our subscribers for this season – brings it up to $3 million, but we intend to meet our subscriber obligation.”

Monette Magrath witnessed an uncomfortable view of these final days of the Pasadena Playhouse. She’s appeared on stage, most recently in Mauritius, and is Sheldon Epps’ wife. It’s been difficult, she said. “Very difficult to be here and see the dichotomy between the brilliant work on the stage and the bank balance. It’s challenging, you know?” How long does she anticipate the theatre being dark? “It’s a pause. We don’t know how long; hopefully shorter than longer. We have to keep hope alive, we really do. This organization really is a family.”

Next door to the Playhouse, Elements Kitchen waitress Joanna Kaminski saw a theatre that failed to serve local residents. “Pasadena is very diverse in culture. And they should have reached out a little more in terms of economic statuses, different cultural aspects of Pasadena – you need to include everybody.”

“Do you believe it was a divide along lines of class or race?” I asked.

“I think it’s definitely economic. I think they could have looked at the demographics of their community – students, middle income, perhaps different cultural groups – and included them into their program.”

Furious Theatre Company, which has occupied the Carrie Hamilton stage on the Playhouse site, is in production for an opening later this month. Maybe. Director Damaso Rodriguez said he isn’t yet sure whether Furious will still have access to the space named in honor of Carol Burnett’s daughter. Rodriguez is looking for another space in case Furious will be locked out.

Photos by Felicia Friesema

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Rebecca permalink
    February 9, 2010 9:07 am

    Why is it that Berkeley Rep and Oregon Shakespeare Festival have thrived despite past set backs and a tough economy while the Pasadena Playhouse has stumbled? There were questions about the long term future of the company in the years preceding Sheldon Epps appointment as artistic director, stories now buried in the archives of the Pasadena Star News. The current situation is sad proof that it never changed to keep up with the changing times.

    • julianabroad permalink*
      February 9, 2010 6:27 pm

      Any thoughts, Rebecca, on what direction(s) Sheldon and Stephen Eich should have taken the Playhouse to have retired the debt by now?

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