In 1811, John Jacob Astor was an established baron of the fur trade. He'd already built a vast network of traders around the Great Lakes when he decided to gamble on funding a pair of ambitious expeditions to establish a fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia. Those expeditions established the first American settlement on the West Coast, and laid the groundwork for Astor to become the richest man in the country.
There are some parallels between Astor's ambitious mid-career moves and those of Portland Center Stage's Chris Coleman. Coleman has been the artistic director of the city's largest theater company since 1999, leading PCS to a dramatic increase in both revenue and esteem. Coleman will depart for Denver after the spring season. But, like Astor, he's still pushing things—particularly when it comes to Astoria, his two-part adaptation of Peter Stark's book.
"Adaptation" isn't really the right word—Stark's work is a lively but dense history with no dialogue and much unstageable exposition. For only the second time in his career, and the first time in 25 years, Coleman wrote a script. The results have been extraordinary. The first part of Astoria was unique and engaging, and became both one of the best-reviewed local productions of 2017 and the best-selling play produced by a Portland theater last year.
With Astoria: Part II now playing, we sat down to chat about the project.
WW: I feel like you were under-billed for what you did here. It's an adaption, but it's not really an adaption. You had to take a giant history book and make a coherent narrative for stage from whole cloth. Have you ever written a play before?
Coleman: I did, a long time ago… It was a response to Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republican convention that was very anti-gay. I don't remember the title of the speech now, but it was about family. A whole family values thing. So I wrote a play about a gay couple, their best friend was a woman who was a single mom with a 7-year-old boy and they were kind of raising him together. It was called Looking For A City. We produced it, in Atlanta, at my little theater there. It's not going to win any awards. But I think I've learned a few things since then.
What made you want to work with Peter Stark's Astoria?
It was completely a page turner for me. I'm like "what? and "what?" and so I was astounded and really gripped by it. I love history, I love nonfiction, so this was really in my personal interest zone. But I was really struck by, how the hell did they survive, and the unbelievably bad leadership decisions. Not one or two, but cascading. Holy cow. And then I was just astounded that nobody knew the story. I assumed, as a transplant to Oregon, that I was in the minority. I got a little obsessed with it, and I started talking about it, and people l didn't know what I was talking about.
I had been fantasizing about adapting something from another medium for couple years and hadn't found the right piece. And this—even though I had no idea how to do it when I asked for the rights—was it. I'm like "I don't know what it looks like, but I want to give it a try." And so I reached out to Peter Stark and he gave his blessing, and then I started doing more serious research. There's no dialogue in the book, the characters don't really speak, and so I got to that rather terrifying moment where—I've done my research, I've narrowed the scope to the events that I thought you had to include, here are the things I think you can leave out, and here's maybe an order. But then it's like "Now what? How much of it is narrative? Do I just make up the dialogue? Do I have that permission?" And so the first we're time out, I'm like, I hope [Stark] doesn't freak out. I just have to invent—how does John Jacob Astor talk?
At this point in your career, that's is a pretty bold step. You're very established as a director, but not as a playwright. It's something you think about somebody doing when they're starting out, or at the end of their career, and you're in the middle of your career.
I suspect that folks on our leadership team probably had that thought. Like, "Ohhhhhhhhhkay." But we all knew that, even if it sucked, that the book was probably popular enough to draw an audience. We were pretty modest in our income projections that first year. We knew that people had read it, but we didn't know how many people were interested. I guess there was a fair amount of risk involved—for me, part of it, at this point in my career, I'm looking for what's going to make me a little scared. What's going to be just enough outside my comfort zone to really have my attention and make me struggle a bit. So this definitely provided that. It was pretty scary when I shared the draft with Peter. He was awesome. He said, "I'm astounded by how faithful you've remained to the book—maybe too faithful." I said, "Well, I just didn't want to get the history wrong." And he said, "Well, there's a lot of different characterizations of this story and there's a lot of material I didn't include. It's not precious to me, so you should feel free to get more personal and dig deeper into the characters." So that was just a big green light to me, to use my imagination.
That's the really interesting thing about this project. There's so much research and detail, but all of the things it has are not the things you'd expect to use to build a play. You don't really get a sense for how the characters interact in the book.
You know, I was just thinking about this because I had one film company reach out and say they wanted to read it—nothing will ever happen, but I started thinking, "How would it work in that medium?" There's no love interest! There's none of the things that you think of as conventional elements that you'd put in a traditional television show or a film. Well, there's lots of action, adventure, violence, and there's death. I was watching it last night and thinking, "Oh, I could have left this part out." That's definitely one thing I learned as we've gone along—I was so [focused on] not leaving things out that were critical to the story and it's like, "Eh, nobody would have known the difference." It's interesting learning how the story works.
And then, breaking it into two different parts and producing it over two seasons. That was a bold decision.
I couldn't imagine narrowing it enough to get the whole story in an evening—I was so interested in the complexity of the story that I didn't want to simplify it so much that it could do that. I thought it would be an event, it would be unlike anything we had ever done. To do two parts over two seasons, to have huge canvas, this huge risk. But it's totally played out way beyond our hopes. The real bitch of it was that we lost three actors from Part I between last year and this year so we have to teach it to them in a week by themselves, and just remembering all the details, the rowing, all the staging. It's been hard as hell. Being away from it for a year is enough to make it disorienting.
What was your writing process and how long did it take?
It took me about 18 months. The process was that I first went back through the book and highlighted episodes that had enough inherent drama in them and that were the keystones of the story. And then I basically created an outline like you would for a screenplay and then tried to play with the pieces to see not just what literally happened but to try to balance your time with the overland party and your time with the folks on the ship to try to create a sense of drama that rolls forward. I didn't know where the ship party was going to end at the end of part one but I knew I was going to leave the overland party stuck up in the Blue Mountains, starving to death. I knew that. That was an early "ahhhhh" cliffhanger.
Early on, Rose, our associate artistic director, asked me early on, "Are you directing it as you write it?" And I said: "No, I'm just trying to write the scenes." Sometimes I could see something—like the boats, I knew we weren't going to have a boat on the stage, it was going to be the table. But then when I got into the room, sometimes I would yell at myself. I made it so hard for the director—who is me—because I give you no narrative connective tissue to create an event, knowing somehow I was going to create that physically or with a design element. But it was like, "Good luck!" And there were times I was like, "Oh my God." …. This year I'm a lot more confident, but last year I was like, "You're killing me Coleman!"
I really loved the light use of songs when they're traveling. It helped give the play rhythm.
Peter references the songs a couple times in the book, and just gives you a couple of lyrics, so I knew early on that they were going to sing. Part of it was just that it would make it more fun. But part of it was that what I found was that if you grew up in Montreal you all know all those songs. You learn them in elementary school like we learn "Frere Jacques." They know all the Voyager songs. And they're awesome. And so it was just a really fun entry ramp into their lives. They're out there, there's no radio, they're working, of course they're going to entertain themselves. That became a really useful tool.
Have people from Astoria come out in droves?
Yes. The most interesting one is the great-great-grandson of Alexander MacKay. He knew that his relative had been involved in the fur trade but didn't know that he was in this story. He shows up and opens the program and calls his brother and says "Is this the guy?" "That's our great-great grandfather!" There have been a couple of those where someone who was related to someone in the story shows up, which is really cool.
SEE IT: Astoria: Part II is at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., pcs.org. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Sunday, 2 pm Sunday, through Feb. 11. $25-$77.