Chris Coleman has been in the artistic director business for most of his theatrical career, co-founding Atlanta’s Actor’s Express in 1988 and taking the helm of Oregon’s Portland Center Stage in 2000. He announced last November that he would take the helm of Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company in May 2018, a position vacated by Kent Thompson at the end of last season.
We spoke with Coleman in the midst of his last season in Portland, as he went into rehearsal for Astoria: Part Two, a continuation of his own adaptation of Peter Stark’s account of early white explorers in the Pacific Northwest. (Another excellent interview can be found here.)
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: When you arrived, what were the challenges facing Portland Center Stage?
CHRIS COLEMAN: It was still very young as an independent organization—it had only become independent in ’94, and it was still struggling to figure out who it was going to be artistically and how to create an economic model that was sustainable. They were in a city-run facility that was too big for a company with their resources. A huge piece of looking at the future was, how do you create a home that’s right-sized for the organization? At the same time, there seemed to be a lot of appetite on the part of the board and the senior staff to make something interesting happen, and that won me over.
As the company moved into the Armory in 2006, was there a period of growing pains?
There was a fair amount of terror involved. We were going to try to raise $38 million, and we were, in a lot of ways, so not ready. But the opportunity was so right we had to go for it. The growing pains were two-fold: The audience basically doubled in almost two years, and so did our staffing needs. We had wanted the public spaces in the building to be used for much more than buying a drink before the show, and that took off like way faster than we anticipated; staffing up for that, keeping up with that demand, was really tricky.
What makes the job in Denver attractive?
I’ve been familiar with the Denver Center for years. It’s such a unique beast. The opportunities provided by that very unique financial model, artistically, are really compelling for me.
Say more about the model, because I confess I’m confused: There’s the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Denver Center Theatre Company, and the company itself has these other programs within it.
Yeah, I didn’t understand it fully either at first. It’s not structured like any other theatre in the country. A couple of things have made it unique. They have this huge foundation that was established by Helen Bonfils, the heiress to The Denver Post, so for years they didn’t have to really raise a ton of money. Then, in the early ’90s, they took over the Broadway series, one of the largest in the country, and the profits from that helped to fund the performing arts center, and some of that comes to help fund the nonprofit theatre company.
The Denver position is one of many big theatre jobs turning over right now, and there’s been a lot of attention paid to whether new hires would be women or people of color, or just more white men. Obviously, you are who are you are, but I wonder if you could speak to the issue of diversity—in the work, in the audience, and in leadership.
It’s something I’m deeply sympathetic to. I was actually headhunted for the job at American Conservatory Theater too, and what I observed is that both search firms were keenly aware of this conversation. My understanding is that there were strong candidates who were people of color and who were women. I suspect we’re going to see fewer people like me getting chosen for these jobs and more people who look different than me.
I can’t say why they landed on me. But I do know that what’s tricky right now, given the landscape of the field, is that when it’s an organization as large as this one is and you’re a trustee, you’re looking, hopefully, for a track record running a company. And unfortunately, right now, you look out at who has had a chance to put together a track record, running these organizations, it has been dominated by white men. I suspect it’s going to have to shift at several layers of the field as it works its way up.
The CEO of the Denver Center kind of point blank asked me in a phone call, how would you address this question if and when it arises? I said, well, I can’t change my race or my gender, but I think you would be hard pressed to find somebody more committed to this cause within my own organization. Certainly, in terms of advancing diversity and equity in whatever organization I’m a part of, it has been a personal passion for me here, and it’s one of the things that I’m proud we’ve really made progress on in Portland. That is not going to make everybody who is cheering on new voices satisfied, but that’s where I’m living.
What do you have in store for Denver?
Well, I know I want to learn as much as I can about what currently works there. When I came to Portland, I was really trying to bring about a revolution. I think in Denver it’s going to be much more an evolution. I really want to understand them fully and figure out how to support what’s working, and then shift what I might want to amplify or diminish. Classics are something that I really want to kind of reinvigorate; that’s something that’s personally exciting to me as an artist.
Also, after the recession, they reduced the number of productions they do each season, at the same time that they were initiating the Off-Center programming, where they do immersive work off-site. My hope is that I can, after we’re about to renovate two of the spaces next year, add a show or two to the the season. Frankly, I’m getting thrown all these new musicals right now. That’s exciting to me.
Can you speak about the legacy of Kent Thompson, your predecessor, and the kind of theatre he leaves behind?
What I observe is that there is an amazing staff there. The production team is as deep and skillful as any I’ve ever encountered. And I know that it was really Kent’s commitment to the new-play summit that got as many people from around the country engaged around it. It’s a huge win for the organization, and it feels like it’s put together extremely well. And he was instrumental in the Women’s Voices Fund that has been really important for them over the years. I think there’s a lot to thank him for.