Big changes behind the scenes at Theatre Under the Stars are leading to huge changes on stage, including a surprise, revised 2016-2017 season. As CultureMap recently reported, half of the upcoming TUTS season has been scrapped to be replaced by what officials at the nearly 50-year-old theater institution are describing as a more diverse selection of musicals. We’ve already taken a look at what the TUTS new, new season will bring, so perhaps it’s time to get a glimpse behind the curtain at some of the drama singing in these transitions.
In April — approximately a month after the retirement of John Breckenridge, the company’s former CEO and president — TUTS announced that Sheldon Epps, the current artistic director at the Pasadena Playhouse would be joining the organization as artistic advisor.
Missing from the official statement was the acknowledgement that director Bruce Lumpkin would no longer be acting as artistic director, his position at TUTS since 2012. (Early in June, downtown theater company, Kaleidoscope Theater announced that Lumpkin as well as former TUTS associate artistic director Marley Wisnoski, will be joining their company’s creative team.)
Past and Present
Sheldon Epps, a long-time theater and television director, has been praised for bringing theatrical diversity to California's Pasadena Playhouse while raising its reputation. Within that first announcement welcoming Epps to Houston were several statements describing the continuing evolution of TUTS, with Amy Pierce, chair of the board of directors stating that the organization “must evolve,” and chair-elect Randy Stilley saying that along with the Epps partnership, “we plan to evolve our entire organization.”
So when I had the chance to speak directly with Epps after a recent TUTS press event covering the new version of the 2016-2017 season, the first question I asked was how he saw this TUTS evolution.
While he prefaced his comment that it wasn’t meant to be a disparagement, but rather his understanding as a historical truth of the organization, Epps said he believed that TUTS has had production leaders but not an artistic one for some time.
“TUTS has not had an artistic leader for a while. The people who have been the leaders of the organization, at the high end, have been mainly from the area of production, specifically meaning not directors,” Epps said.
“John Breckenridge had worked in the organization for a long time but mainly on the production side. Frank [Young], going back further, was perhaps closer to that during his time, in that he was a musical director. He was a director of productions. In some ways, I think that TUTS is headed towards a model where there is more artistic input into the programming and of the overall outlook and composition of the organization.”
This emphasis on community and diversity was something Epps continued to repeat throughout the interview, stating that TUTS should have a mission that “emerges primarily from an artistic imperative” and that through “its artistry, make this connection to the community.”
The New New Season
“When you look at this season now it does have a greater eye towards artistry towards diversity of theatrical experiences and towards reaching a more diverse and a younger audience,” Epps said, referring to the revised season with his selections of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical In the Heights; Sondheim’s Into the Woods as the December/holiday show and the classic, Motown-inspired Dreamgirls; as well as keeping the controversial Fun Home in the lineup.
Something that makes TUTS unique among Houston theater companies is that its seasons contain both self-produced musicals as well as nationally traveling productions, which for this coming 2016-2017 lineup will be An American in Paris and the Tony Award winner, Fun Home.
Earlier in his general statements to the press Epps had praised the selection of Fun Home in the first version of the season. Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, the musical deals with sexual orientation, gender roles, father/daughter relationships, emotional abuse and suicide, yet is described by many critics as joyful and uplifting.
While not referencing the tragedy in Orlando directly, Epps made it clear that TUTS should be very “proud” for bringing this particular show to town because “there are events in a society which make it even more necessary for us to do certain things with our art,” and Fun Home is one of those works that also “promotes understanding, compassion and community.”
When I asked about potential directors for the TUTS productions, Epps wouldn’t name names yet, but said some Tony-nominated directors were ready to come aboard, though contracts had not yet been signed.
“TUTS shouldn’t underestimate its history, its recognition in the country. I think there’s a lot of artists around who are thrilled to be asked to come here, to work in Houston,” he stated, but would only say “I hope to” when I asked if he would be directing himself.
Into the Future
One of the big questions about the changes at TUTS still unanswered is the state of TUTS Underground, the two-year-old additional series of smaller, edgier musicals chosen for the Zilkha Hall stage, which was created during Lumpkin’s tenure. This season's roster included musicals based on the edgy teen horror movie, Heathers, and The Sweet Potato Queens. Though Epps promised an announcement in July, the only thing we know for certain is that some variation on the idea will continue, but it will no longer be called Underground.
Many of the self-produced, Sarofim Hall shows and those shows produced under the Underground name used Houston actors and artists, and Epps did say he thinks that will remain an important component.
“I sense there are some really top notch artists who make this their home. I think that one way we can continue to connect with the community, as often as possible as often as it allows the work to emerge in a first class way, we can and want to continue to work with local artists and people from the community,” he said.
While TUTS doesn’t seem to be ready to talk about anything beyond this next season, Epps did give hints that this artistic advisor position is not necessarily a one (season) and done gig. He said that the nature of selecting a theater season means he’s already thinking ahead to 2017/2018.
During his decades at the Pasadena Playhouse Epps helped develop shows that later moved to Broadway, including Sister Act and Baby It’s You, so when I asked if he thought TUTS had the potential to do the same, which it has done in the past, his opinion was that it’s hopeful, though noting that its a long, expensive process that requires a lot of resources.
“A big substantial theater like this, I feel, has the resources to develop new work and should,” he affirmed.