Chris Coleman: The exit interview

Chris Coleman, now the former artistic director of Portland Center Stage, talks about lessons learned during his long tenure here

When people leave Portland for jobs in another city, all good journalists understand that they have just opened a door, not just on a new future for themselves but on the past. Or at least a more candid view of the past they shared with us while they were here. Nothing like putting a city and a job in the rearview mirror for loosening the tongue about the place they are leaving.

Not that anyone leaving Portland for Denver these days—as Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman announced he was doing last November after 17-and-a-half years here—can feel entirely unrestrained in conversation with a journalist. The more “dynamic” parts of such an interview will inevitably cross the Rockies. But still, at the very least, the leave-taking interview, the exit interview, can lead to a reflective state of mind that can be very valuable for those of us left behind.

Chris Coleman. Photo: Portland Center Stage

Coleman’s time here was marked by two overlapping events: The opening of The Armory’s two theater complex in the Pearl District and the Great Recession of 2008, which affected all the city’s arts organizations in dire ways. That Coleman led the company through both of those events is perhaps the major achievement of his time here. He also helped devise and pass a city Arts Tax, which has bolstered arts education in Portland and helped stabilize Portland’s biggest arts organizations. And he programmed and directed a series of important productions in the theater history of the city, including an “Oklahoma!” set in an African American town.

In February, just after Coleman’s epic “Astoria: Part Two,” opened, we got together to talk about…well, almost anything Coleman wanted to talk about. The conversation lasted more than an hour. I’ve edited it a bit for clarity and length, but mostly it’s Coleman talking as he spoke on the mezzanine level of the Armory Building.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when you started at Portland Center Stage; the biggest challenge you faced in the middle of your run here; and what’s the biggest challenge your successor will face?

The biggest challenge when I got here was moving the programming. I think the board was hungry for more adventure, the staff was hungry for more adventure, but nobody had checked in with the audience. And so I leaned forward at their encouragement, and I leaned too far forward, I think, initially. (1) If I had to do it over again…Julie Vigeland [who was the board president of Center Stage when Coleman was hired] and I have wrestled with this over and over. If I had it to do it over again, I think I would have been a little more evolutionary than revolutionary, because I think I could have kept more people in the fold longer, and it would have been a less difficult first couple of years. Julie feels like, you know what, we needed to say things have changed and this is where we’re going.

It was painful emotionally. It was painful financially. And it was scary initially. So, it was definitely trying to figure out, where is this community or this audience for this organization aesthetically, and how does that fit with what I want to do and how do we line up a little bit better. That was huge.

And then the organization was tremendously under-resourced for a company that was trying to fill 900 seats [in the Newmark Theatre]. The budget my first season was $3.2 million, and boy, that is a brutal equation. So selling the vision, trying to figure out where the community was, and trying to increase our resources so we could put better work on stage, those were the biggest challenges early on.

What about the biggest challenge in the middle of your time here?

We’re sitting in the middle of the biggest challenge, in the middle. It’s profoundly challenging to build a new building, and it ended up being a $38.6 million project. And that in itself, if you have all the winds at your back, is profoundly challenging. There were so many people in the community—and probably rightly so—who didn’t believe we were ready or that we could pull it off. (2) We were 15 years old at the time, and we didn’t have the deep donor base that could give those big gifts. So that was hugely challenging. And there were so many times, Barry, when it looks like we just should have said, OK, it’s not going to work. Good try. But luckily we’re here in Year 11 in the building, and it’s been humongously successful. It’s a fantastic building.

What challenge are you leaving Center Stage with that your successor is going to have to wrestle with?

They are just beginning the search for my successor. Luckily, there’s not much to fix right now. The senior management team is super strong and talented and creative and funny. Ticket sales are up: Ten thousand more tickets last year than the year prior. And subscriptions are up this year by almost a thousand. Donations are increasing. So there are a lot of trendlines that are moving in really good directions. I think the challenge will be coming in and inspiring the board and the audience base and patron base through the work and through your vision to take it to the next level. Because I really do think the organization is poised. I think it’s really thought of very well nationally, and it’s poised to be one of the top five, six, theaters in the country. And that’s going to take a deeper financial investment than we have inspired yet. But the pieces are in place if the next person comes in and inspires people.

What does that next level look like?

It’s more resources to say “yes” to more work of scale, so “Astoria” is not such a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and it is the ability to say yes to more development of new work, perhaps the development of new musicals. That is the area that I think we’re just right behind the top five or ten regional theaters in the country. They just have deeper resources to be able to say yes to projects that then go on and raise your profile and create more of a national conversation about the work that the organization is doing.

The Overland Party in 2017’s “Astoria: Part One.”/Photo: Jennie Baker

Every play you do is a risk, whether it’s “Hamlet” or “Oklahoma!,” every play you do is a risk. You cannot predict who is going to show up, have you set your income numbers well, but a new work that’s untried with an author that may or may not have marquee value is an added risk. Like any R & D in any organization, you have to have financial support that lets you invest in a way that you are not expecting an ROI [Return On Investment] immediately the way you would on a regular production.

I think artistic risk is the same question. It is a lot easier to have the appetite to lean forward if your financial house is in really good order. And you know that you are not endangering the solvency or long-term health of the organization by putting this play onstage. OK, maybe you’re going to take a hit on that one, maybe the audience didn’t show up for that one. OK, what can we learn from it. But it’s not putting the organization’s future at risk.

I learned it over and over and over. I think just when you think you’ve figured out what the audience is going to show up for they surprise you, and I think that’s just the nature of this business. So, especially on new work, you try to be conservative on your income goals. But there’s always a battle in my head between the part that just wants to leap forward and go for it artistically, and the part who is really aware of the institutional costs if the audience doesn’t show up or it alienates a particular pocket of the audience too deeply.

When you have failed enough—and despite the positive trajectory of the last 17-and-a-half years, I can give you many, many examples of failures over the years—those failures shape your appetite. And when you’ve had to stand in front of the staff and say we’re eliminating 12 positions during the Recession, and everybody is going to take a five percent cut to compensation, that is hard to forget quickly. If you can ever avoid having to have that conversation again, you’re going to do everything you can.

If you were going to write an imaginary letter to your successor, that might be number one. Give yourself time to say yes to a project…What would be the second?

Just because Portland is one of the most progressive cities in the country, don’t assume that automatically transfers to aesthetics. It does in some ways, and you could look at PICA and say, it’s extremely adventurous, but PICA has a very finite audience. So in a lot of ways it is aesthetically pretty mainstream. You can be adventurous, you can lean forward, but don’t go crazy on that front. That would be a piece of advice.

When did you figure that out?

It took me a while, probably. I’m thick-headed. I’m hard-headed. Something else took me a while here. Socially, here in Portland, maybe a year-and-a-half in, I asked Allen Nause,(3) I said, ‘Allen, I am struggling to figure out how to make friends in this town.’ And he said, ‘well, what are you experiencing,’ and I said, ‘it feels like a general reserve kind of held back, and I can’t tell if people don’t like me, I’m too loud, what is that?’ And he thought about it for a minute, and he said, ‘you know, I think it’s two things. I think it’s pioneer mentality: I did it on my own, let’s see what you got.’ And he said, ‘the other thing I think is, hanging back to see if you’re going to stick around. Then when it’s clear that you’re invested and you’re going to stick around, then you can’t get rid of them.’ And I think that was reassuring and was actually pretty accurate. Because once you have friendships here, they are deep and meaningful. And I’ve heard that from others who have come into this community, that it can be a little hard to crack at first.

The other thing I would say, that I shared with one of our managing directors along the road who is from Southern California…we were meeting with a couple of donors and he kept interrupting them at lunch. And I said afterward, ‘let me give you a piece of advice. Think of conversation here the way you cross the street. In New York you just cross the street, you just barge into the conversation and talk to whoever you want. Here people wait politely and they obey the law until the sign says walk. The same can be true of conversation. They aren’t going to say anything if you interrupt them, but boy, they’re going to remember that.’ I just picked that up along the way, but I noticed it when somebody else was kinda not reading that well.

2011’s “Oklahoma!,” featuring a mostly African-American cast, was one of the highlights of Chris Coleman’s tenure at Portland Center Stage. He’s reprising the production at the Denver Center next season./ Photo: Patrick Weishampel/2011

I would tell them to watch “Portlandia,” which is deeply irritating to many of us who live here, but acutely observed on some levels. My favorite is when they go to the Zoo concert and the beautiful lawn and all these people with their picnic baskets and everything, and then the leads come in and they have a grill and they have a television set and all of this completely inappropriate stuff and nobody says anything to them. In New York or Atlanta someone would say, shut the fuck up. Here, nobody says anything to them, they just look on with steamy disdain. Oh, they captured that. So figuring out how to get clear, honest feedback in your early days and who you can get that from is going to be critical. People here will send you emails. They may not say it to your face, but they’ll send you emails with steam rising off of them. So figuring out how you will get clear honest feedback will be important.

What is the Portland audience like?

The thing you know about audiences in Portland is that they are smart. They are well-read. And you can do classics. And it’s largely because of the long association with Oregon Shakespeare Festival in this region. You can do classics, you can do smart plays, and they are going to get all the jokes and they are going to be engaged. That is not the case in every city in America, and it’s a total bonus of making work in this community. How is the audience going to change in the next 20 years? Well, the city is becoming more diverse and there are more people moving here from lots of different places. So speaking to both of those trends is going to be critical.

You worked hard on the Arts Tax proposal that passed in 2012. What was that experience like for you?

Working on crafting and passage of the arts tax was super interesting, a huge political lesson for me, really interesting and rewarding, maddening because I had just never been involved in anything that complex or engaged with that many people with agendas and opinions. So the passage was extremely rewarding and the fact that we had at the time 30 arts teachers in Portland schools and now we have more than 90 and that almost every kid in Portland public schools has access to art or music in their elementary school career, is a huge win.

And for the majors, the five largest arts organizations, it has been an improvement in funding certainly. I think it has been a more modest effect for the rest of the arts ecology, so it’s been frustrating. City Council came back after it was passed and made some fixes that legally needed to have been made, but they then should have backfilled the $2 million that they took away from it as a result of those changes, and they never did that. Nobody had the political will to do it. There’s always going to be an excuse to say, ‘oh it’s a bad budget year’ or ‘there are other priorities’. There’s never a good year to fund the arts from a city standpoint. So it’s been frustrating on that point, and remains frustrating in terms of what it could be, if it had been fully funded, and you were really shooting revenue into the arts ecology and bringing new arts organizations into the general operating pool and funding more access and education projects in the community. I think that should continue to be front of mind for civic leaders.

The renovation of the Armory Building was one of Chris Coleman’s signal achievements as artistic director of Portland Center Stage./Photo courtesy Portland Center Stage

As the city becomes more expensive, the city leaders should not take for granted that the arts and culture anchors that you enjoy and that bring people downtown, will survive and thrive forever. The foundation support is not growing. It is diminishing. Ticket sales are growing. Individual donations are growing. City funding is stagnant. Thinking 20 years from now, if you want this to be a place that attracts young interesting people and that is a fun place and lots of people want to come downtown, you need good reasons to do that. You shouldn’t take for granted those organizations—I can name 10 cities right now that have lost their opera companies or their ballet companies in the last 10-15 years—it needs a keener sense of priority from City Hall in my opinion.

I think it is a very, very small group that has a sense of what an arts ecology is and what it brings to the community. I think that is a very sophisticated, small group of leaders. I think [former Mayor] Sam Adams understood that, and he did homework to help himself expand his understanding of it. I think [Mayor] Ted Wheeler is an arts supporter, and I think in theory he supports it, and has done some things to help. I think his plate is so full right now with the homeless situation and affordable housing situation, I think that is burning his candle, so getting the bandwidth to change things to move things forward is harder than it should be.

Both Portland Center Stage and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts are part of the network of big regional theater companies. How do you see them managing the huge societal and media changes that are happening now?

Everybody is trying to figure out the changes in the landscape and the culture in their own way. Some people I see are leaning toward technology and feeling like we have to get as savvy as possible at including technology in our work to keep up. To keep the interest of a new generation. I actually feel the opposite, and I had a very interesting conversation with the team at Denver because they have invested in staffing for projection and video designers because they have used that over the last couple of years. And I said I am personally a little allergic to projections, even though we’re using some in “Kodachrome” downstairs [in Center Stage’s smaller theater]. And they said, why is that, and I said, I feel like the technology has become available and everybody feels they need to use it, and there’s maybe not enough discipline artistically around the question of whether it helps to amplify the story or not. Does it help take me in to the story, or does it just divert me?

Chris Coleman directed “Clybourne Park,” a play about race and gentrification, in 2013./Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

What the culture is making us all very facile at is being in relationship to screens and being quick, visual and close to the surface. That part of our brain is getting developed and getting a real steady workout. What I think it leaves us hungry for are opportunities that take us deep and ask us to slow down and reflect. Feel what an event actually means. I think that’s what theater has done from day one, before it was actually a formalized event. I think it is the value of stories and why human beings have needed, craved, created narrative from day one. It’s trying to carve meaning out of a seemingly random series of events that make up our lives. Rather than trying to keep up with the quick, surface, overly visual, our key to adding something to the culture—still being relevant—is the opposite.

This is an incredibly dynamic time politically and socially. How does that factor into your thinking?

The kind of tumult of the current political environment is close to the surface just neurologically. Whether you are trying to make a political statement with a piece of work or not, people are bringing that into the room. People are seeing that in the room and in the work. So the question becomes, how overt or not should I be in trying to say something political. It’s already really thick in the air. The #MeToo movement is on everybody’s minds. It’s on our minds inside the organizations in terms of do we have systems in place, policies in place, that really support knowing that our employees have someplace to go if something arises that feels inappropriate or uncomfortable.

In the same way it forces you to see art in a different way. In the revival of “Carousel” on Broadway, Joshua Henry, a black man, was cast, and the woman who plays his wife is white. And I thought, “ooh, it already has different layers of meaning and resonance in 2018 than it did when it was written. Now, where does that live, what’s the audience’s response going to be?” I had a super-interesting conversation with a woman friend who is a psychotherapist during the techs for “Astoria” about this, because I’m struggling with what does it mean. And her take was we need a new conversation about consent in the culture. We haven’t had it successfully, and so this has erupted in response to the lack of meaningful change in conversation around that. It is very interesting.

How explicitly should theater companies express their politics?

I struggle with that question. I really struggle with that question, because I feel when we do it well is when you have a play like “Clybourne Park” that’s a really, really, smart, interesting play that also excavates an issue that is very ripe for us in this community and this country right now: gentrification, class, displacement of communities that have traditionally had a place or ownership in a community. I think it gets tricky because it’s hard even in liberal Portland to assume that everybody in your audience has the same view politically.

I like it when we do work that provokes discussion and thought, and I think “Major Barbara” [which recently closed, the last Coleman-directed show at Portland Center Stage, at least with Coleman as artistic director] is going to do that in a very vivid way about capitalism…by a socialist. I vote Democratic, and I think when I left Atlanta, I probably seemed like a knee-jerk liberal, and in Portland I’m probably like right in the middle of the road because I’m pretty pragmatic fiscally. I run a theater but I run a business, and so you understand the implications of any kind of regulation or changes government puts in place. That said, I know our supporters have a wide array of political persuasions.

Part of this role that I sit in is you get to have interesting conversations with people who don’t necessarily agree with you, and I like that. But I had a moment last year after I had posted a bunch of stuff on Facebook. I called one of my donors, who I love and has been around for years and years and years, and said let’s have lunch. He said ‘sure, I’ll have lunch, but I guess we’re not going to be able to talk about politics this year.’ I said why is that, and he said, ‘oh, because I follow you on Facebook and I know we disagree.’ And I thought, ‘OK I don’t ever want somebody to feel like they’re not going to be heard, or I’m so in one camp that there’s not room for them as well.’ So it’s tricky. It will be interesting in Denver, because Colorado is more of a purple state. It is more evenly split.

I am curious to understand what gets you there. You may piss me off. But I think where I get a little impatient with people in the theater—and others disagree with me—is the self-righteousness that can come with wanting to try to make a stand and make a difference politically. And I’ve just worked enough in politics to know if you want to make a difference politically, there are fantastic means where you can actually make a difference by working on someone’s campaign, by investing in this political campaign, by actually working in the social services arena. Putting on a play is going to have a rather limited effect, you know.

What about financial problems in regional theater?

Everybody that I know at the larger organizations is wrestling with rising costs, and revenues, both earned and contributed, are not growing fast enough to keep up. And those rising costs are labor ( huge labor cost increases); it’s materials; in a lot cities, especially on the West Coast, it’s housing. All the issues that we face in trying to keep the ship healthy many of the other theaters in the country struggle with as well, and are solving it in a variety of different ways. Some audiences are growing, some are diminishing. Subscriptions, some people have just given up on them, some people have completely changed the model, some people like us still find a really big value in them, and we’ve actually found a way some years to see growth.

Hanley Smith, a good and proper Major Barbara, starred in Coleman’s last show as artistic director at Portland Center Stage/ Photo: Jennie Baker

It’s never going to be the late 1980s when you could have 22,000 subscribers to a theater. That’s never going to happen anymore. People just don’t want to commit their time ahead as much, and there are too many options. Struggling with, contending with the growing diversity of the nation’s population and what that means for their organizations, some are really leaning toward that and some are just maybe barely paying attention to it. There’s a significant conversation around the leadership, the executive leadership of these organizations. It’s been predominantly white men for a long time with a handful of women and a couple of people of color. And why is that, and how can we change that, and is that OK? There’s quite a robust conversation around that right now. But it does not feel to me as though the movement is going away. It feels like the movement is maturing and trying to figure out how we stay relevant in this changing culture.

When I started out in the field, there were a lot of resident companies in the country. That’s really gone. Other than Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And you can say that’s totally driven by economics, and maybe it is. My suspicion is that it reflects the trends in the large workforce. People don’t stay in one place anywhere in the American workforce like they did when my Dad was working. I think there’s so much more television work for actors now that it is hard to make the case to anyone to stay here and make work, while your buddy from grad school is making a boatload of money and can do whatever he wants.

It’s fluid. There’s a lot of give and take between mediums. You have to be inventive, if you’re looking for a good-looking man between 35 and 50. You have to really not assume you’re going to find them at a call in New York, because those actors are trying to get on television. I think we are in a Golden Age of writing in America for both theater and television. And they go back and forth. I can think of two or three African-American playwrights who are actors on television. They just pop back and forth.

What about the Denver Center for the Performing Arts? What attracted you to that company?

I think one of the selling points for me with Denver was the civic leadership that has been evidenced over the years in support of culture and the arts. And part of that is that their arts and culture tax is one of the models in the nation, the most generous in the nation, and was definitely one of the models we looked at here. The organization that I will be working for there, gets 10 percent of its annual revenue from the arts and culture tax. As opposed to here, where you get maybe two percent.

It’s a more political job because the city has been invested in helping shape these venues and making them profitable and supporting them. So it will be a more political role in some ways, and yet you have a lot more resources to work with. That also seems to translate into audience participation. There’s a pretty high participation rate here, it seems even a little more prevalent there. There are tons of things that Denver has to learn from Portland, but in a lot of ways they are quite similar cities if you change the topography and the weather. Denver is about 31 percent Latino, and it’s about 3.5 million total, a little bigger, but growth trends very similar.

Last thoughts about Portland?

For me it’s been an unbelievably rewarding time here. I’ve been here as long as from my birth to graduating from high school. It’s been enormously interesting and rewarding. I think the thing I would hope is that the leadership of the city, both on the government level and the private level, really work together to move the major cultural assets forward, because I think you have the potential to be extremely interesting from a cultural vantage point. And they [the arts organizations] deserve deeper support financially. That is my hope. And I would underline, don’t assume that you will always have those assets if you don’t figure out a way to support them financially.

NOTES

(1) Coleman’s first show as artistic director of Center Stage was Elizabeth Egloff’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “The Devils,” which featured simulated sexual molestations and other sexual activity onstage. A few years later a “Merchant of Venice” that included male nudity generated angry emails, too, Coleman said.  

(2) A Willamette Week article about the Armory project attacked the financial arrangements, the role of Bob Gerding (who was both developer of the Brewery Blocks, including the Armory, and president of Center Stage at the time), and the use of public money in the project. Coleman: “Some guy that I vaguely knew said, ‘Oh, my God, I read that article, what are you going to do now?’ I said, ‘Well, we’re going to raise a bunch of money and rehab the Armory. What do you think we’re going to do? Do you think we’re going to sit down and cry?’”

(3) Allen Nause was the artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre for 25 years. He retired in 2013, though he has continued to direct and act.

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