Chris Coleman's Blog

Adventures in New York Part Two

Posted by Chris Coleman | 16 August 2015

Chris Coleman shares his journal entries from the trip to New York to mount PCS's Off-Broadway debut: Yussef El Guindi's Threesome at 59E59 Theaters.
July 17, 2015
Meeting this morning at the Wallace Foundation with Daniel Windham, the Director of the Arts Program, and his associate, Mark Jobson. [A reminder that the Wallace Foundation recently made a significant 4-year grant to PCS for developing audiences between the ages of 25 and 40].   I decided to walk over, as I figured traffic would stink. So from E56th street to W 33rd (across from Penn Station) is about 2 miles, and with 80 degree heat and 60% humidity, I was pouring sweat by the time I arrived. Their lobby was blasting freezing air – I ducked into the men’s room – wiped my forehead down – and felt deep respect for all the actors who drag themselves into audition for us in the steambath that is summer here. 
Daniel is a fascinating guy – 67 (by his own admission), African American man who grew up in Manhattan. Trained as a musician (jazz saxophone and classical cello), but realized early on that he wasn’t ever going to be one of the greats (he told an amazing tale about playing a jazz club in Kalamazoo, Michigan when he was 19, and having this local guy who was the mailman come in to play with the band. After a bit of warmup he played, and just blew everyone in the club out of their seats. Daniel looked over and thought, ‘I’m never going to play like that. And this guy is a mailman.’) He had an interesting career in arts education, and running a few training programs, then moved into philanthropy. He’s been with Wallace since 2007.
Mark is a recovering actor, and has spent time in Portland as two of his best friends lived here for six years. They are both coming to the show on Sunday. 
They wanted to hear what we’d learned from the research thus far, so I shared some of my observations and expressed how exciting it is to have concrete tools to work with. We also spent a fair amount of time talking about the gathering of grant recipients they have planned for Chicago in November. They are still in the early formative stages of what the two days should look like, so Daniel threw it to me and asked, “So what would you want out of this kind of gathering?” We brainstormed on that a bit, how each of us could have an opportunity to hear about what others are learning. It was pretty stream of consciousness. I was with them for a total of 2 hours.
Then this afternoon, a great meeting with Jim Nicola, who is in his 27th year as Artistic Director at New York Theater Workshop. The Workshop is one of the most adventurous companies in New York, and it’s really Jim’s leadership that has put them on the map. I met him in 1991 when he was kind enough to fly to Atlanta to see our production of The Harvey Milk Show (a musical we premiered that became a huge hit for Actor’s Express); then directed for him in 1998 (Dael Orlandersmith’s piece The Gimmick). Then we travelled to Budapest together during my first year in Portland. 
Jim is really responsible for getting me to look seriously at the job at PCS, because he had been out to work on the founding of JAW with Rose the year prior to the search for a new artistic director. I was more focused on the opportunity at the Intiman (where I was in the midst of conversations about their job), and I reached out to Jim to get his perspective, fully imagining he would say, “Don’t bother.” Instead he said, “Well, I think Portland’s a pretty cool town, and there seems to be a hunger to make something interesting happen at that theater, so I wouldn’t discount the opportunity if I were you.”
It was great catching up with him. They are the company that launched the original productions of Rent, and Dirty Blonde, Once and Peter and the Starcatcher (these are their most commercially successful pieces). They are in a strong financial position these days, because the revenues from Once (which are now coming to an end), have allowed them to sock away $2M of reserves. I remember when Rent was in its heyday it was bringing them $500,000 a year, and there was a significant conflict between staff and board about how to deploy those dollars. Jim really wanted to invest it back into the art and allow them to expand their artistic scope (“That money came from artists, not a foundation or a wealthy individual, so it should go back into the art.”) He prevailed, and it allowed them to say ‘yes’ to some very significant projects over the years, but it ultimately didn’t leave them stronger financially as an institution. He said he doesn’t regret the decision, but . . . one can only wonder.
Yussef had an interview this afternoon with a writer from the New York Times Cairo Bureau. He knew many of Yussef’s family members who are involved in politics. Interesting to see what that article focuses on. When I texted to see how it went, he replied: “Okay, I think. Now they are going to take my picture. I am sweating.”
The uniform of business men in the summer here seems to be dark slacks and a light blue shirt with either thin stripes or checks. Like 90% of them are wearing this. Amazing.   Though many are also wearing these tight, blue suits – like Sasha Roiz likes to wear: skinny pants that expose the wild socks they are sporting. I love the look, though I can only think about how sweaty they must feel in the jacket. Yikes.
July 18
Two shows today.   2 pm matinee that was another quiet starter that gradually warmed up. The wonderful David Margulies (who starred in our productions of The Chosen and The Imaginary Invalid) was sitting on the end of my row. I didn’t recognize him at first, as his hair is long and he has a beard for a television series in which he’s playing Elie Wiesel. 
Then Saturday night, a terrific house and the best show I’ve seen from the actors in any city thus far. Strong, feisty, quick, layered. Really fun. My friend, Brent Blair, who was two years behind me at Baylor was at this one. Brent is a Linklater Vocal Production teacher (a particular method of vocal production for actors that focuses on removing the emotional blocks that keep the voice from flowing smoothly and resonantly from the body); and also has a PhD in Depth Psychology. He has run a graduate program at USC for Field Workers in ‘theater for the oppressed’ for the past decade. Despite its awful name, his program is quite fascinating. He travels all over the world into traumatized communities (ie. Bosnia, Rwanda, Juarez, Mexico), gathers community members and conducts a series of workshops that walk the line between therapy and theater. The goal is to allow the wounds of the trauma to surface and release through a shared theatrical experience. He was fascinated and devastated by the play, and felt it resonated on so many levels that he has seen around the world. 
July 19
Lunch prior with Greg Shaffert. Greg worked for many years alongside Nancy Gibbs, who was the General Manager for many off broadway shows. Then she became the GM for Wicked, and she and Greg began producing on their own. Greg was a producer for Next to Normal, and then he and Nancy partnered with Disney on Peter and the Starcatcher¸which they own the rights to. I met them both through my friend, David Bell, who was the Associate Artistic Director at the Alliance Theater when I was in Atlanta. David now runs the musical theater program at Northwestern. 
Greg was curious to see the show, but also wanted to pitch me on this new musical they are looking to launch. It’s based on the life of Knute Rockney, the legendary coach who built the football program at Notre Dame.
Greg also mentioned that ‘Off Broadway was for all intents and purposes, dead.’ What he meant was that commercial profitability had become too hard off broadway, and so the only way you can really make something happen outside of the broadway arena was in the non-profits. I asked him why, and he shared that since 9/11 the cost of building an audience off-broadway had become too high. You can’t get a return on your investment unless the show runs awhile; it can’t run awhile just on NY audiences, you need the tourists; you can’t attract the tourists unless you have significant marketing dollars to spend; if you spend too significantly on the marketing – your weekly running costs skyrocket. Yikes.
After the show, I took Yussef and the cast to dinner. I hadn’t really spent social time with them outside the theater in any of the cities we’ve been in, so Alia goaded me into making the time. It was great fun, with Alia and Yussef swapping stories about Egypt (both of their grandmothers were addicted to The Bold and the Beautiful. Alia said her grandmother would say, “You see, how decadent their society is – this person is sleeping w that woman’s husband, and that person is sleeping with two people at the same time.” But she HAD to see it every day.) Each actor also told their own war story about auditioning for the piece: Alia came to the first audition with 2 hours of sleep, after working at the nightclub that is her ‘day job’ in NY; Quinn had a horrible head cold in Seattle; Karan was on skype with Rose, Brandon and me in our conference room, and had 3 hours to make up his mind about whether to accept our offer.
And we’ve all been trying to suss out the audience response here in NY. They seem genuinely engaged, and very appreciative at the end. But they aren’t anywhere nearly as raucous as the audiences we had in the Northwest. Theories I have heard from a) other theater people: the crowd at 59E59 are not tourists or regular schmo’s, they are dedicated theater people who see lots of new plays – so they are likely taking it in w a bit more reserve/judgment; b) from Peter Tear, the Exec Producer at the Theater: NY audiences don’t know how they feel about the show until the critics tell them, so they reserve their enthusiasm; and c) the ushers/crew at the theater who shared that many shows that have played there have faced the same mysterious reserve – shows that received much louder, more enthusiastic response in other cities around the globe, find a more reserved attention here. It’s hard not to let it freak you out, but Yussef and I both feel that the actors are doing their strongest work here, so . . .
Oh, also, at one point in the evening Yussef said that he hated Shakespeare. I said, “What?” To which he replied, ‘Well maybe I don’t hate him, but I’m sick of him. I’m so tired of the only classics getting produced being a single playwright. Imagine all the great works we would get to see if you just put a five year moratorium on Shakespeare. Think of all the Congreve, and Wycherly, the Euripides, the Ibsen, the Shaw, the Ford, the Calderon, the Pirandello, the Sheridan, the Schiller, and Goethe and Brecht that we would have a chance to see.’ Interesting.
July 20
Coffee this afternoon with Sam Hunter, the author of A Bright New Boise (for which he won the Obie Award) and The Whale (for which he won the Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel awards). Sam was at JAW three years ago, and Rose and I have discussed the notion of him adapting Tom Spanbauer’s novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon as part of our NW Stories Series. Sam grew up in Moscow, Idaho. We spent the time getting to know each other a bit (as I hadn’t had a chance to spend much time with him when he was in town for JAW), and talking about the excitement/challenges presented by the task of adapting this story. Sam is currently working on multiple commissions + teaching at Hunter College. He promised to give me a firm answer end of August.
July 21
An email from Mark Jobson at the Wallace Foundation regarding the show: “Yesterday we had an off-site company day at Coney Island, and when walking along the boardwalk, I was suddenly behind three women in burkas with their children. 500 degrees and they are wearing black burkas, totally covered. They must’ve been miserable. I have to say I looked at, and thought about them differently because of Threesome. That’s something about theater that is so wonderful – it can personalize a societal circumstance because you see this large issue onstage, but filtered through the experience of a few people. It can be more powerful and informative than a news report in print or on tv, because at the core, we are all human beings and a play can give you a detailed journey into why someone is the way they are.”
Got my hair cut around the corner, by a woman from Siberia named Oksana. She talked 90 miles a minute, and called me’ sweetie’ w a thick Russian accent. She moved to the states in 1991, and it was interesting when I asked what her family thought about Putin, she said, “Well I think they think he’s been a good president. Compared to the chaos before him, he’s been a strong leader and has gotten the country back on its feet. No one is perfect, look at us, we have this gorgeous President with Obama, but not everybody likes him and he doesn’t have all good days. My friends who live in the Crimea were so happy that they were reunited with Russia, because that’s where all their family is.” Everybody has a perspective. She lives in Brighton Beach, which she said they call ‘Little Odessa’ because it’s so dominated by Russians.
Dinner that evening with Ben Cameron, the director of the Arts Program at the Doris Duke Charitable Trust. Ben and I met when he was Executive Director for TCG (the national service organization for theaters) and I served on their board for six years (as I think back, he was actually the one who recruited me to the board). He has recently accepted the job as President for the Jerome Foundation in Minneapolis, so he and his partner, Scott, are making plans about what that will look like (sell the NY apartment? Rent it out, etc.). They have a new dog, Jasper, and I was super curious about how two working men manage with a dog at home in the apartment. Apparently Jasper has a strong bladder, and there is a huge dog run three blocks from their apartment, so he gets social time with other dogs every day. 
Great house for the show tonight: very responsive and enthusiastic. Perry Guzzi, another friend from Baylor, who I haven’t seen in 30 years was there tonight. Really fun seeing him. And then had dessert afterwards with Amanda Watkins. Amanda is just leaving her job as Director of Theatrical Development for Araca Group, a big commercial producing company in New York. She was the lead producer on the Broadway production of Disgraced. She’s originally from Gainesville, GA (an hour north of Atlanta) – and she knew my theater in Atlanta (actually dated an actor who starred in one of my plays in 1992). She recently took a job as General Manager for the Broadway Dreams Foundation, that is based in Atlanta. And John, the gentleman she has been dating (who she has known since kindergarten) proposed two weeks ago – so she is excited to be moving home again. She loved the play and had a lot of kind words about the production. Seemed genuinely excited for PCS to have this kind of presence in New York on a play that we launched. (And we did have what is now my favorite dessert ever at Amali – the restaurant around the corner from the theater: chocolate cake donuts rolled in sugar, topped with mint chocolate chip icecream, served on a bed of chocolate syrup!?!?!??? Crazy delicious.)
Amanda asked, ‘How are you REALLY doing?’ And I confessed that I was a bit of a nervous wreck in anticipation of the reviews. She said, “Does it really matter? In terms of the theater’s goals, it’s already a success: it’s a great production of a really interesting play, people are coming and they’re liking it.” I shared that I don’t need it to be a big smash hit, I’m just hoping it doesn’t get killed – and there is enough of a lift to help us hit our breakeven number at the box office. 
July 22
Opening night. Pat and Trudy Ritz in the house, as were Roger Cooke and Joan Cirillo with a slew of their friends (including daughter Julia, the writer, and her fiance), Claudie, Kinsley, Paul Stavish, Harriet Bass (our NY casting director) and her husband, Richard, Skip Mercier and Rob, Annie Wrightson, as well as Ken Davenport (the commercial producer on Somewhere in Time). A wonderful house and a really fun party at Amali afterwards. Then back to the apartment to finish packing and prep for my departure for the airport at 5:30 a.m.
July 23
Bleary-eyed, but happy to be home – saw Rod and the dogs for half an hour (they were a bit overcome with excitement, as this was the first time in time in two and a half months that they had both of us home), then headed into the office to meet with two of the JAW playwrights, and catch up with Lisa Sanman (who is always the keeper of secrets and goings on).
July 24
Safely ensconced back in Portland and in the warm embrace of everyone at the JAW Festival. An amazing circle, to come back to the place where Threesome launched two years ago. Charles Isherwood’s article landed Thursday morning on the cover of the Arts Section of the NY Times with a big color picture inside, and another on page 5. It was not without complaints about the play (a disappointment), but lots of positives for the production and much of the play itself. So fingers crossed that it helps us move tickets. But: the cover of the arts section and a review by one of the Times top two critics. Not too shabby for our first outing.
Other critics have been all over the map, some definite raves, some pans, lots in the middle. I’m surprised that those that don’t like the play seem irritated by how brainy it is, and flummoxed by the switch in tone from act one to act two. I think it’s bold, smart writing – which more of the critics in Portland and Seattle seemed up for. Who knows?
Neil Pepe, the Artistic Director at the Atlantic Theater sees the show next week; as does Jim Nicola, then Andre Bishop from Lincoln Center. At the end of this run, a lot more people in our field will know about Portland Center Stage than did a month ago.
And as I am continuing to chew over the whole experience, I keep coming back to a quote from Teddy Roosevelt that Barbara Hort shared with the cast, Yussef and me on opening night:
‘It is not the critic who counts;
Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
Or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
Who strives valiantly;
Who errs, who comes short again and again,
Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
But who does actually strive to do the deeds;
Who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
Who spends himself in a worthy cause;
Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
And who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly,
So that his place shall never be with those cold
And timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’
Yussef ‘dared greatly’ in writing a play as fierce and naked as Threesome
PCS ‘dared greatly’ in deciding to mount the show in the first place
PCS dared again by choosing to pull the plan/funding together to send this puppy to New York. 
And watching each of the readings at JAW: Colchester, Wink¸ Miller Mississippi, and Long Division – I find myself impressed with the caliber of writers we are attracting and the excitement and intelligence of the audience who shows up – and I wonder: ‘which one of these stories will provide our next adventure together?’
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