In the meantime, Coble began mining his Dramatists Sourcebook for national theatre opportunities and submitted scripts to local venues. In 1994, Cleveland Public Theatre produced his first full production, Isolated Incidents, and the following year, another of his dark comedies, Sound-Biting, premiered at Dobama Theatre. Also in 1994, he became a founding member of the Playwrights Unit, a professional development program, at CPH. Two years later, when a playwright failed to complete a script for the Play House’s children’s theatre, he stepped in and wrote In a Grove: Four Japanese Ghost Stories, which Playscripts, Inc. published and continues to be produced today, especially around Halloween. In 1999, his biographical play, truth: the Testimonial of Sojourner Truth, registered a big hit at CPH.
Larger doors opened when Bright Ideas premiered in CPH’s 2002 season. Inspired by his new-parent experiences with preschool, the “satire of Macbeth” lances the Machiavellian lengths parents take to assure their child’s admittance into a prestigious private school. From Cleveland, it moved Off Broadway to MCC Theater, was published by Dramatists Play Service, and went on to have dozens of productions throughout the U.S.
Laura Kepley, recently named CPH’s ninth artistic director, has known Coble since she ran the Playwrights Unit as associate artistic director. He quickly befriended Kepley and her husband, playwright George Brant, after she relocated from Trinity Repertory Theatre Company in Providence, R.I., in 2010. “He’s too young to say he’s the grandfather of Cleveland theatre, but he is,” Kepley says with a laugh. “He was such a fantastic ambassador to Cleveland and the theatre community for us.”
Kepley, who directed Coble’s adaptation of Les Roberts’s A Carol for Cleveland at CPH in 2012, likes the way he has his own slant on the world and incorporates different styles to accommodate it. “I appreciate that he writes plays that delight young children, and plays that scare the heck out of adults,” she says. Last year the American Alliance for Children and Education awarded Coble its Charlotte B. Chorpenning Playwright Award for his body of work in children’s theatre.
“Eric is such a good collaborator,” says Stan Foote, artistic director of Oregon Children’s Theatre, where Coble’s adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver played in 2006 before going on to have more than 200 productions worldwide. “He doesn’t bring a lot of drama into the writing process. He puts the drama in the script.” Foote, knowing about Coble’s childhood on the reservations, commissioned him to write their first of several collaborations, Sacagawea, which premiered in 2002.
The affable and popular writer has a solid following in Texas, too, thanks in part to his longtime friendship with Stages Rep’s McLaughlin. Since Coble’s Pinocchio 3.5 won the children’s category of Stages’s New Plays Festival in 2001, the theatre has produced one of his plays on its children’s or main stage every year—until a couple of years ago, when Coble got too busy with other commitments.
Of his friend’s Broadway debut, McLaughlin says, “His distinctive voice is just being discovered now. I am excited for him and for the next chapters of his life.”
Upon learning that his play was headed for Broadway, the low-key Coble says he never had “a big, explosive, fist-pumping” moment. “It happens to be a bigger arena,” he allows, “but I don’t feel that I’ve ‘made it.’ This is the next play. I would like to continue to get produced. That’s been the goal from the get-go, as it is for every other playwright.”
So, true to the blue-collar ethic of his adopted hometown, Coble’s taking no time out to bask in the Great White Light. Already a second play, Southern Rapture, has received an industry reading, with a cast including John Larroquette, Judith Light and Jerry O’Connell, and has been optioned for Broadway. Outside New York City, Stranded on Earth was produced at Geva Theatre in Rochester in March, and will open at Cleveland’s new Mamaí Theatre Company in June. This May, Coble’s new play Fairfield, a comedy about an elementary school where Black History Month goes horribly wrong, will be part of CPH’s New Ground Festival. He’s also working on a translation of The Giver for a production in São Paulo, Brazil.
Keeping to his prolific nature, he has six or eight other plays floating in his head that he hopes to write soon. Troubled by the lack of a production on the seventh continent, however, Coble assures that he is exploring ways to start a one-night-only theatre in Antarctica.
Christopher Johnston is a freelance journalist, playwright and director in Cleveland. His play Ghosts of War premiered last year at Dobama Theatre.
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