Chris Coleman's Blog

Appalachian Dangers, Tulips and Family

Posted by Chris Coleman | 17 April 2015



At the tail end of February, I flew to Atlanta to begin rehearsals of Phillip Depoy's fascinating new play, Edward Foote, for the Alliance Theatre. With a budget of $12 million, the Alliance is the largest theater in the southeast, and plays a similar role to that of PCS in Portland. A big differentiator: they have a children's theater and enormous education programs (they serve 144,000 young people each year), so it would be like Portland Center Stage and Oregon Children's Theater under one roof.  



I arrived to weather as cool and drizzly as that I left in Portland, but things warmed up pretty quickly, and the tulips began to show off a bit earlier than we get to see them in the Northwest. The first show I directed at the Alliance was in 1991 (Sandra Deer's adaptation of Three Point Shot), so it was both wonderful and disorienting to return.  Wonderful, as the company still has a fantastic staff and production team and support your efforts with great attention and care. Disorienting, because the vast majority of people I knew 'way back when' at the Alliance have moved on to other endeavors (I kept half-expecting Edith Love and Kenny Leon to walk in) AND the city itself has changed enormously since I left to come to Portland 15 years ago.

The biggest change:  people moved back into the city's core. I guess they got sick of the commute (like the rest of America). People in Portland complain about the traffic, but, ahem, there isn't really a comparison. My brother, Kelly, drives about 1.5 hours each way to get to work each day. That's extreme even for Atlanta, but not unheard of. So there are condos and office towers, and supermarkets and restaurants where before there was nothing, or an old building or a dilapidated industrial area.



I had known Phillip Depoy (the author of Edward Foote) primarily as a composer and artistic director (of Theatrical Outfit for 4 years) from my earlier days in town. So it was a bit of a revelation to learn that he has had an entire career as an award-winning mystery novelist. An series of his novels are set in the Appalachian mountains, as is this story. Phillip's interest in this world began as an undergraduate student in the late 60's, when he was doing a reserach project up in the North Georgia Mountains, and his fascination has continued through the years.  Edward Foote was very loosely inspired by the Oedipus myth, and his script plunges the audience into a strange, menacing world in a church that seems to have gone awry during the Great Depression.



One of the great pleasures of the process was the opportunity to reconnect with my old friend, Elisa Hurt-Carlson, who was our dialect coach on the piece. We met at the Georgia Governor's Honors program in, cough, 1978.  We worked together on many, many projects at Actor's Express, then Elisa went on to coach actors for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Guthrie and most recently for the film, Selma.



The production was in their 200-seat Hertz Studio (similar in footprint to our Ellyn Bye Studio), and I was envious that they have created an economic model that allows them to greenlight a world premiere with a cast of 9 in that space. Susan Booth, their Artistic Director (who I had met on a crazy trip to St. Peterburgh, Russia - maybe 10 years ago), has somehow managed to raised the funds to produce a studio season this is almost all world premieres. Pretty amazing. For us, if you get much beyond 3 actors, the show stops contributing to the bottom line of the budget - so becomes hard for us to produce. Edward Foote requires not only a company of actors who can inhabit characters with little money and no formal education, they also have to sing (80% of the songs are 4 part harmony), and three of the company have to play instruments. Fun to cast!  But we ended up with an All-Atlanta cast which was pretty fun.



Our lighting designer was Seth Reiser (who did Chinglish and Venus in Fur for us at PCS). And the set that wrapped the audience in from all sides was by Tony Cisek (The Whipping Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The North Plan).



The wonderful Sydney Roberts designed the clothes. Sydney just returned to Portland to do Dreamgirls for us in the Fall.  I first met Sydney in Atlanta, when she was a Professor at the University of Tennessee/Chattanooga. She happened to see Nancy Keystone's production of The Misanthrope, and noted in the program that there was not a costumer credited.  She reached out and asked if we were in need of costume design talent, I confessed that we were, and she began designing for Actor's Express. When I first moved to Portland, she designed The Devils, The Seagull and Man and Superman.



My 12-year-old nephew, Devin, was not that impressed that I was directing a show at the Alliance, but he did get excited when he learned that Steve Coulter (pictured above), had just finished a major recurring role on his favorite show:  The Walking Dead.



The last days of March brought warmer weather, gorgeous bursts of flowers, and bucket loads of pollen. I'd forgotten how intense that explosion of spring can be back home and woke up several mornings with a puffy face.



Rod arrived right before opening so he could see the show and we could visit my family. We loved strolling around Atlantic Station, this lovely community of shops, restaurants and condos across the freeway from midtown. When I left it was an old industrial park (was it a steelyard?), and is now d0minated by stylishly dressed, affluent African American families: we both felt underdressed in our practical Portland wear, but enjoyed it immensely.



We spent the afternoon after opening at the new Center for Civil and Human Rights downtown. It's a spectacularly well designed, interactive museum (which was swarming with groups of middle schoolers) that puts you back into the middle of the Civil Rights story, and then leads you upstairs into the current story of struggles for human rights around the globe.  



My favorite section was a display that let you sit at a restaurant counter and put on earphones recreating what it might have felt like to be those first students trying to integrate restaurants in the early 60's. It was pretty disturbing and chilling.



Then finally, time with my Mom and Dad, and then Kelly (my brother), his wife, Dedi, and their youngest, Chase (Devon, his older brother, was home with mono - ugh.) All in all: a really rewarding opportunity to work on a fascinating new script, with a beautiful group of actors, at a theater I have long admired and enjoyed. And, of course, a great chance to reconnect with long-time friends and family.  

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