A lot of people talk about “a life in the theater,” but few have managed it as completely as Margaret Louise Chapman, a Portland theater stalwart known and admired for decades as one of the city’s finest costume designers.
“Margaret worked at Portland Civic Theatre full time from 1972 until it closed, and that WAS her day job,” Adair Chappell, president of the Portland Civic Theatre Guild, in which Chapman was an active leader for years, recalls. “Then she started at Portland Community College full time running the costume department and teaching. As I add it up, it was a clean 50 years of consistent work in her field. I can’t think of anyone who has accomplished this, whether in directing, management, or costuming, in this town.”
Chapman died on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023. She was 71, and had been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. She had had surgery scheduled for April, Chappell said, and remained active almost to the end, designing shows for Triangle Productions, Lakewood Theatre’s recent revival of Blithe Spirit, and Portland Revels’ December show Midwinter Revels: Andalusian Night.
“Another giant of the Portland theater community has fallen, and I am shaken,” veteran actor and director Antonio Sonera said in a comment on Chapman’s Facebook page. “Margaret has costumed hundreds of shows and probably thousands of actors. … I was costumed by her when I was a young actor, and fortunate enough to work with her in 2018 on Inherit the Wind, where she costumed 42 actors. She was sweet, funny, kind, lovable, and patient. Not to mention, a great costume designer.”
Chapman was a Portlander through and through, and grew up in lockstep with the city’s theater scene. She was a graduate of Centennial High School, and received both her undergraduate and masters degrees from Portland State University. She began her career at the old Portland Civic Theatre and was at various times resident costumer for Oregon Children’s Theatre, and an instructor and designer at both PSU and Portland Community College, in addition to designing hundreds of shows around the city. She was known professionally as Margaret Louise Hetherington before marrying Rocky Chapman, who predeceased her.
Chapman was a freshman in the theater department at PSU in 1970 and working on a production of The Cherry Orchard for the university’s professional company of the time, American Theatre Company, when the Kent State massacre occurred on May 4, her 19th birthday. “The company took a vote to suspend all rehearsals and production work for a week,” she recalled in a Portland State Magazine story recalling on their 40th anniversary that spring’s PSU demonstrations and clashes with police. “I was by no means a student radical, but the horror of what happened at Kent State did change my way of thinking about Vietnam.”
Actors and directors get most of the attention in the theater world, but to people who actually work in Portland theater, Chapman was a legend. Owen Carey, the veteran theater photographer, put it in perspective. “When I enter a theater space for a photo call and see the team that is there collaborating–the behind-the-scenes designers who make the magic happen … especially the costume, scenic and lighting designers who create the atmosphere and magic onstage in which the actors live–to see those familiar faces I have worked with time and time again, who have given me countless gifts from their deep wells of experience and talent, I smile and lovingly think or even say out loud, ‘Good to see the usual suspects again,'” he said in an email exchange. “Because, given the hugeness of their talents and abilities, I suspect I am going to have plenty to work with photographically. Margaret was indeed one of the ‘usual suspects’ … always creative, soft-spoken, and kind. … We spoke in between acts during a photo call for the Winter Revels, thinking about the many shows we worked on these many years, talking about making a list of that history or herstory.”
Performer Mollie A. Hart met Chapman when both were students at PSU. Hart dropped out of school, she said in an email exchange, and returned 10 years later. “I had work/study and did costumes with (Chapman) at Civic Theater, where she worked and was the costumer for the shows,” Hart wrote. “We were the elves in the costume shop. The people in the stage building section were the dwarfs. Margaret would design and cut out the costumes and we would sew them all up. AND maintain them for the run of the show. In an exceptionally large show (Bye Bye Birdie comes to mind) it felt like we were trapped in a laundromat, washing all the costumes after the show on Sunday afternoon, and before the show started again on Thursday. There was only one washer and one dryer in the shop, and we had to clean them ALL.
“Margaret was an easy boss. She was kind and allowed you to skip a work shift if you had a final. She remembered that we were, after all, students. I remember laughing a lot in that shop. And we always got our work done.
“There was a critic that described Margaret as ‘a treasure.’ I had to agree with that. She did her research, got her material, and created exceptional costumes for all of the plays she was a part of. I think she set the standard for costumes in Portland theater.”
Actor Luisa Sermol noted both Chapman’s skills and her generosity. “Such a talented costumer, who not only gave me glorious costumes to wear … but opened her costume closet to me when I needed particular costumes for my students,” Sermol wrote on Facebook. “Always kind, gifted, passionate about theater and thoughtful.”
Chapman’s generosity ran in many directions. Actor Chrisse Roccaro, an officer of the Portland Civic Theatre Guild, one of whose main projects is to provide annual grants to theater companies and individual theater artists, noted Chapman’s work with the Guild. “She was the chair of our Endowment Committee for many years,” Roccaro said, “watchdogging the Guild’s investments in the Oregon Community Foundation and shepherding our yearly awards. We had just put the finishing touches on this year’s awards applications and posted the call for submissions. Her Guild shoes will be hard to fill, as will her place in the theater community.”
Like Adair Chappell’s–whose mother, Isabella Chappell, was managing director of Portland Civic Theatre for many years–Chapman’s influence was intergenerational. “This is so incredibly sad,” Adair Chappell said via email. “I met her when I was 10, and she costumed me in … The Imaginary Invalid, in 1972.” At the time, Chapman was 21. “I had a lifetime of great memories with her. She adored my mother. She costumed me the most of anyone in my career.”
A host of Portland performers could say much the same.
Margaret Chapman’s death followed by about a month that of Robert Holden, Portland actor, teacher, and cofounder of CoHo Productions, who died in late January.
Holden was the latter syllable to partner Gary Cole’s former in the name “CoHo,” a company that the two launched in 1995 with a production of the play Bodyhold in a basement room of the Benson Hotel downtown. Cole, who later turned to writing novels, wrote the script. Holden directed, and the production, according to the company history on CoHo’s webpage, “enjoyed a colorful and successful run, in part fueled by solid beverage sales and the arrival of the Portland police one evening in response to a hotel guest’s worry over hearing gun shots (the play was set in the middle of a Third World revolution).”
After a couple of brief moves the young company settled into its current location on Northwest Raleigh Street in 2000, transforming a former bookbindery into an attractive and adaptable small theater space. The location just east of 23rd Avenue was low-rent and a bit off the beaten track, but Holden and Cole persevered, and soon enough the neighborhood blossomed, too. The company changed hands, with a long run under the leadership of the late Philip Cuomo, becoming known for new works and projects brought by teams of co-producers often wanting to develop their own shows. Holden and Cole got it all rolling, making possible what came after.
Holden was a large man who moved gracefully onstage, often in comedies or classic plays. He was smart and genial and invariably a pleasure to engage in conversation. He had a sparkle about him, an enthusiasm that suggested life and the theater were to be embraced and shared and enjoyed.
Actor Kevin-Michael Moore remembers Holden as “a mentor, a friend, and a damned funny man,” and in particular recalls performing with him in the late 1980s at the old Sumus Theatre in a production of The Hound of the Baskervilles in which Holden played an excellent Dr. Watson.
“My favorite story from this show involves Bob throwing his hat at the coatrack with his first entrance,” Moore recalls. “He had no intention or belief that the hat would ever land on the hook, but he would, without looking, throw the hat, then generate a facial expression that said, ‘damn, I’m good’.
“One night he throws the hat, it bounces off of two walls and lands perfectly on the hook. The cast was stunned, the audience gasped, then roared with applause. After he realized what he did, he, with perfect timing, added, ‘every time’.”
For many, the memory of Holden encompasses not just what he did in the theater but who he was in life.
“My father-in-law Robert ‘Bob’ Holden was the coolest, smartest and funniest man in the room. And most definitely the biggest,” Sandi Milne Holden wrote on his Facebook page. “He had an immense presence fortified with integrity, character, loyalty and love. He was an artist and an intellect but mostly just a guy who loved his wife and kids and family and friends and students of English and Drama … unconditionally and without judgment. Honestly, there are very few who could even hold a candle.”
A finer, more loving eulogy would be hard to come by.