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October 4th, 2006 BEN WATERHOUSE | Q & A
 

Chris Coleman

Portland Center Stage's charismatic artistic director finally has the theater of his dreams. But can he make PCS worthy of the Armory?

     
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WEB-ONLY EXTENDED INTERVIEW:
IMAGE: OWEN CAREY
The completion of the Gerding Theater at the Armory is giving Portland Center Stage a wave of positive press in our town's front pages.

The renovated $36.1 million Pearl District building certainly merits attention: Its much-lauded advances in "green" construction aside, the 115-year-old Armory now houses two of Portland's finest performance spaces. The subterranean "black box" theater in particular is like something out of an artistic director's wet dream.

But the news isn't all good for 45-year-old artistic director Chris Coleman. PCS remains $9.5 million short on a capital campaign to pay for its new home, part of its financing deal in which the city guaranteed a bank loan for the project.

WW sat down with Coleman to ask if high community expectations and financial pressures have created an oddly unchallenging first season, starting with the crowd-pleasing West Side Story on Friday, Oct. 6, and going on to include three one-person shows and lots of comedies.

WW: Why isn't all the fundraising finished before the theater's opening?

Chris Coleman: Externally we had hoped to raise a bit more by the time we opened. But internally we always knew it would likely take us a year to a year and a half after construction was complete. The notion that we were going to go out and successfully raise [the money] seemed foolhardy to a lot of people. There was definitely risk involved. But the opportunity to restore a historic building on one of the coolest pieces of real estate was simply too fantastic to pass up. It has taken a long time to convince people that we were going to pull it off. That said, we've managed to raise almost $27 million and to balance our operating budget for each of the past five years. It's been interesting to see sentiment start to turn around. We currently have major [multimillion-dollar] requests in to a few foundations, and have good prospects for several other major individual donations.

Does pressure to fill the house and keep donors happy mean less edgy choices?

Not necessarily. The opportunity to extend successful runs of shows will actually mean we are able to generate significantly more revenue, allowing a show like West Side Story to help pay for a world premiere like The Thugs or Act a Lady.

Why open with West Side Story?

In a sense, it's about what it means to be an American and build a community. So much of what we're trying to do in this building is opening our arms to the community.... The other thing for me is that West Side Story is something that I've wanted to do but that I didn't think I would ever get to do in a regional theater because it's too damn big. We're doing it as tightly as you can with 24 performers and 15 musicians.

Isn't the show a little dated?

You think it is, because you've maybe seen it or you've seen the movie. So much of it is about, "Who is an American? Who belongs and who doesn't? What do we do with immigrants? Who gets accepted and who doesn't?" And the whole immigration question that's so hot right now is the question that's argued in the script—"The Puerto Ricans are ruining free enterprise! They're taking away our jobs and should be sent home!" So really, without making a statement about that, it's actually a lot more current than you imagine.

And it will bring in ticket sales from all over the state.

Yeah!

Does it ever piss you off that you need to spend time and energy worrying about the money rather than just focusing on the best possible production?

Piss me off? Not most days. I actually like the challenge of trying to enroll people in the vision of what we are doing. My only frustration is the undercurrent of people who seem to be hoping you'll fall flat on your face. But I guess that's a fact of life most anyplace, right? Do I hope that someday we've raised the money we need and I can spend more time in the rehearsal hall or on the beaches of Costa Rica? Absolutely.

WEB-ONLY EXTENDED INTERVIEW:

I'm curious as to why you're reviving This Wonderful Life without Mark Setlock, who originated the one-man version.

It was so popular last year that a lot of people asked us to do it again. We talked about other Christmas options, and I actually felt good about [reviving the show], because it was a play that we helped to develop and wasn't the same damn thing that everybody's seen a hundred times. And it allows a little bit of breathing space in this first year to get our feet on the ground after West Side Story instead of, say, trying to mount some other sizable production at Christmas.

So it was a question of overhead?

It's always a question of overhead.

And why choose Bad Dates?

I talked to other artistic directors at other places that have done it, and heard about the response from a lot of people who've seen it who were like, "Oh my god! That's my life." And the goal for us in the last slot in the studio is to do something that will have an extended run. It's one of the ways that eventually we will be able to pay for the whole building, and to pay for more new work and to pay for more adventurous work, because you're able to do something that's going to be popular and is going to run through the summer, and that's going to put money in the bank so that it supports the other work. That was really the strategy behind Bad Dates.

Don't Daria O'Neill and Don Horn own the show in Portland after Triangle Productions' very successful run in 2005?

Well, obviously I don't think so, or I wouldn't be producing it.

How are you going to outdo that performance?

I think we're going to do it simply. There are going to be lots of shoes. The woman who's doing it for us is really a quite brilliant actress who won the Bay Area Theater Critics' Award for her performance in this show, so I think it's going to be quite a different take on it, and something that the community will really find exciting.

I'm excited to see that you're producing Martin McDonagh's terrific play The Pillowman. But does it make sense to mount a show about murdering children and torturing criminal suspects on the main stage? Will you be able to fill the house?

We anticipate we will probably have to extend it a week. It played on Broadway, probably—I guess the house was 800 seats. I think it will play perfectly in that space. We considered doing it down here [in the Black Box theater], but I feel like it would be almost too close. Especially because of the fantasy scenes. How the hell can you do that when it's that close to you? I think it'll be very controversial. We will go out of our way to warn all of our subscribers about what they're getting into, but I think it will be a very hot single-ticket item. And I hope people freak out an appropriate amount but not so much that we have to shut the theater.

Will the new space change the company's role in the community?

I certainly hope so. One of the challenges for this company from day one has been not having a clear identity. PCPA? PCS? Who are you? Whose building is it? Blah, blah, blah. And this space is where we really have the opportunity to put our own stamp, to do all kinds of other activities besides the plays themselves in the building, including having other theater companies here, other performance groups, and expanding our reading series. Powell's is talking about doing some of their author reading series here, and we'll probably be working with the environmental community to bring events into the building. So the goal is really that it becomes a hub of activity in the community in a way that arts venues don't normally get to do.... We're not going to go crazy, we're not going to do six Pillowmans all of a sudden. We're still going to program in a way that tries to attract a broad base of the community, but I do think when we do Pillowman, when we do Act a Lady, our world premiere, it'll fit better in this environment perhaps than it did in the performing arts center.

PCS now owes an enormous social debt to the people of Portland for all of the support you've received on this project. Is the creation of a community center in the Pearl the way you're returning the favor?

They desired it, we desired it, and it became a way for both of us to win. I think the fact that one of our long-term strategic goals was to reinvent how an arts organization interfaces with its community on a daily basis was one of the things that sold the project to many partners, not just the city, but many other investors. Because a new home for the biggest theater in the city is one thing, and there's a finite number of people who really care passionately about that, but building a building that is setting new standards in terms of sustainable design and that has the opportunity to invite many, many different partners in the community in to play was really attractive. And I think it's important to note that working with our partners at Portland Family Funds has made us really diligent about making certain that we are keeping our eyes open as broadly as we can about who could possibly utilize the building, who could partner with us.

There's been a lot of talk lately among critics and directors about theater as a force for social change and whether American theater is fulfilling its social responsibilities. Beyond the LEED rating, how, artistically, are you holding up your end of the social contract?

I think obviously the material you choose can change hearts and minds, and it does. But I am more humble in my estimation of the theater's power to change lives than I was 20 years ago. I think the goal of the building, the whole idea of it for me, came out of boredom with how the big regional theater model has traditionally functioned in communities. We're missing a whole population for whom going to the theater isn't even on the menu, because the way you come and participate in the event and consume the product, if you will, is so stodgy. So for me the whole notion of this center was about trying to make the art form more resonant, socially, in the community.


Portland Center Stage's schedule is available at www.pcs.org.

Coleman says PCS subscriptions are up 25 percent over last season, and ticket sales for West Side Story are about double what they usually are at this point before a season opener.

 
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