Sheldon Epps, director for the Pasadena’s Playhouse’s latest production “Intimate Apparel” discusses the play in depth.
SENTINEL: Why did you choose to direct Intimate Apparel?
Sheldon Epps (SE) It’s a play that I saw many years ago, and really liked what I saw. I always thought about it as a possible play to do. The idea of people literally and figuratively reaching out and touching each other—the idea of people having simple physical affection— is really important. I guess, I was also thinking about the idea of how we’re so into electronic communication. We’re constantly texting each other or tweeting each other, emailing—and we’ve sort of lost the idea of being in literal connection with each other, which I think is kind of a shame. You used to sit down and write letters to your friends and your family, and people just don’t do that anymore. I can’t remember the last time I got a hand written letter! So it’s just a reminder of that time, the way we made contact with someone in a non-digital way. That’s the way our society used to be; that’s what we used to all want.
SENTINEL: What specifically about this time period really fascinates you? Why 1905?
(SE) The fact that New York City specifically became very segregated: the Blacks uptown, the Jews downtown, and the Whites were sort of midtown. But the working class people of 1905 all lived together, and I think that’s really interesting that somehow, after literally being right next door to each other, something changed in America and we started separating—and frankly probably became a lesser country—because we lost that inter weaving that kept all the races together because everybody was poor together. I was also very interested because people who often times were not educated certainly didn’t have a lot of money, but they certainly had a sense of value about what they did, and pride in their work. And this is a woman [main character Esther] who does not want to be taken care of; she wants to make it on her own. That woman is an early womens’ libber because she says, “I don’t want a man to take care of me; I want to make my own way.” The opportunity to make your own destiny was started by women in this play.
SENTINEL: Is there a reason that the main character is a seamstress? Is this notion of a seamstress a metaphor for something else?
(SE) Yes, there is definitely a reason. The character even says, “I would rather make my money sewing, doing this art form, than to be a maid or a washer woman.” One of the things Lynn addresses in the play is that there is an art form to making something. One of the characters says to Esther, “You have gifted fingers. Not everybody can thread a needle.”
SENTIEL: Does the fabric itself symbolize something?
(SE) The play is all over the place. There are some Black characters, some White, there is a Jewish character, and a character from Panama. One of the main characters in the play brings a specific piece of fabric from Asia. That’s a whole different civilization, and it really becomes an important aspect of the play. The idea of different cultures coming together through the art of sewing and creating is really important to the play. The very touch and feel of the fabric is what draws two people together who really can’t be together because of the restrictions of culture, race, religion, and the period they live in. Yet they are in love with each other because they have such a mutual appreciation for this fabric.
SENTINEL: What are some of the recurring themes in the play? How does it relate to today?
(SE) I think that everyone has had a time in their life when they didn’t feel all that attractive. Or maybe they had something going on inside of them that made them feel not valuable. That was true in the era of this play, 1905, and it was true 5 minutes ago. We’ve all had times where we don’t feel worthy of love or of being interesting to a partner. What’s interesting in the play is that you kind of expect this from a character who is Black and not wealthy. She’s a workingwoman who is illiterate, so she feels badly about herself. But it’s also true of this 5th avenue wealthy woman that she makes corsets for, who feels exactly the same way. So that feeling of not feeling worthy is something that’s still with us. In the end, the main character gets beyond that and she says, “I’m going to give up a lot (I won’t tell you what; you have to see for yourself!) because I respect myself. I won’t allow you to abuse that good woman.” You see the growth of this character, and she goes back to work and doing what she does best.
SENTINEL: What did you look for when casting the characters?
(SE) I like actors who are brave, who have a lot of what I like to call theatrical muscle. I wanted to cast people who were really good looking because I wanted it to be about people who are really good looking. All of the characters are good looking, but don’t feel that they are. Also, everyone likes to look at good-looking people!