Denver Center for the Performing Arts

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.

Continues…