Political Theater

Chris Coleman stages the city.

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Photos by Jason Kaplan

Like many political gatherings, the annual Oregon Leadership Summit is a carefully orchestrated affair: a daylong event featuring a steady stream of legislators and business and nonprofit executives who take to the podium at the Oregon Convention Center to champion the year’s policy agenda in front of 1,200 of their “influencer” peers.

But if all politics is showmanship, the summit is more theatrical than most. Choreographed for the past few years by Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman, the summit under his watch is equal parts political convention, Oscars and Live Wire variety show.

During the 2015 event, held in December, comedian Lauren Weedman — star of the one-woman PCS show “The People’s Republic of Portland” — cracked jokes about attendees selling cocaine in the bathrooms, while a whirling-dervish set design had speakers weighing in from all corners of the Convention Center ballroom.

“I don’t know if I’m in the front of the room, the back of the room or the side of the room,” barked Senator Peter Courtney (D-Salem) at the 2014 summit (where a similar design prevailed), eliciting roars of laughter.

Coleman doesn’t stay behind the scenes. A funny and engaging interviewer, the 54-year-old in December discussed semiconductors with Intel chairman Andy Bryant, athletic apparel with Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle and legal software with Zapproved CEO Monica Enand. As emcee he provides running political commentary — “Like Senator [Merkley] said, unless we are making things in Oregon, we won’t have a middle class” — and he is not afraid to poke fun at sacred cows.

During the 2014 summit, which focused in part on closing the urban-rural divide, Coleman introduced a speaker from Coos Bay, only to ask him, tongue in cheek: “Where is Coos Bay again?”

“He’s an entertainer at heart, but he does his homework,” says Greg Ness, president and CEO of the Standard and a steering committee member of the Oregon Business Plan, a coalition of business leaders that convenes the summit. “Here’s a theater guy moderating the leadership summit. Who would have guessed?”

On closer look, perhaps it’s not so surprising. In addition to his artistic duties, Coleman manages PCS business operations, a dual executive role that is rare in the theater business. Influential CEOs sit on the PCS board (Ness is a former board chair), and as chief fundraiser, Coleman has forged close ties with private sector donors.

He also has a history of civic and public affairs leadership, as a former board member of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies and as current chair of the Creative Advocacy Network, a nonprofit group that played an instrumental role in passing Portland’s art tax in 2013.

“If I weren’t running a theater, I would probably run for city council,” says Coleman, who describes himself as a “closet wonk.”

In lieu of political office, he continues to seek out other community development opportunities. Since taking the reins at PCS in 2000, Coleman has transformed a serviceable but relatively undistinguished theater company into an energetic and respected regional player; his tenure includes spearheading a $40 million move into the renovated Armory Building in the Pearl District that reinvigorated the theater’s relationship with the city.

Now, with the Armory debt paid off, Coleman is ready for the next big thing: creating a financial platform that will allow him to showcase bigger, bolder productions and, he hopes, catapult the theater into the big leagues.

“We have a great reputation nationally, but we are still hanging onto the heels of a group of theaters that are the top five or six,” Coleman says. Mounting works of scale and generating new works are the hallmarks of great theater companies, he observes. “We’ve made great strides in that area, but there is a ton of work we can bring to this community if we had a few more bucks in the bank.”

To help make that happen, the company is crafting a strategic plan aimed at vanquishing (non Armory-related) debt, creating a cash reserve and diversifying its audience. That’s the PCS game plan, anyway. Not to fall back on tired theater metaphors — or cliches. But if his participation in the leadership summit is any indication, Coleman is pursuing an even more ambitious goal: Make all the world his stage.

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The 2015 leadership summit: Chris Coleman moderates a discussion between ECONorthwest president John Tapogna and policy consultant Tim Nesbitt.

A few days after the December summit, Coleman was sitting in a conference room at the Armory with the creative team for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a PCS production slated to open in May (cost: $450,000). The crew reviewed initial sketches for the set (spidery mesh walls; faded flooring), listened to a recording of background music (“I like the idea of using environment as music, the art of noise,” remarks one team member) and considered placement of natural light.

“Do you have an opinion about where the sun should set?” a set designer queries. “I do not,” Coleman responds. “You decide.”

At the leadership summit, Coleman comes across as a dynamic personality and a curious, erudite interviewer. In the staff meeting he is a team player, as much a partner in the conversation as the creative and financial leader. “It’s a risk reward question,” says Coleman, as the team debates the merits of bringing in an outside video designer. “Where are the pots of money going to come from? What is the expense going to be?”

All performing arts organizations struggle financially. But to paraphrase Tolstoy, every arts organization struggles in its own way. For the first five years in the renovated Armory building, PCS attendance doubled; subscriptions increased 35% and single tickets 52%.

Since then, the theater’s fortunes have fluctuated. When Coleman came onboard, the theater had a deficit of about $800,000. By 2006 he had whittled that down to $310,000, but it went up to $1.3 million during the recession, and it now hovers around $650,000. The budget this year is $8.9 million, up a little from the previous year but down from the year prior. In the past few years, individual ticket sales have softened.

In cities like Atlanta, Dallas and Minneapolis, the corporate elite is defined by support for major cultural anchors. That’s not always the case in Portland, where a steady decline in corporate headquarters makes private dollars for the arts even harder to come by. Public funding also lags the national average, even with Portland’s arts tax, which generates about $9 million a year — $207,000 for PCS coffers.

Nonprofit theaters typically get most of their revenue from donations, the rest from ticket sales, says PCS board member MardiLyn Saathoff, senior vice president and general counsel for Northwest Natural. “Here it’s the reverse. That alone creates a struggle for the theater.” In 2015 donors contributed $3.78 million; $4.8 million came from earned income, with 85% of earned coming from ticket sales.

To shore up the box office, Coleman and his team knew they needed to be more aggressive about reaching younger, more diverse theatergoers. Last year PCS was one of 26 performing arts organizations nationwide to win a four-year grant from the Wallace Foundation focused on “audience development.” The award came with $770,000 in the first two years, and PCS used some of that money to conduct focus groups and online surveys with 12,000 households in the 25-44 demographic.

The results were “very, very interesting,” Coleman says. “Some of it was obvious: the perceived barrier of cost.” But the statistic that “blew his mind,” he says, was around a cohort who had never attended a PCS show. Of that group, “46% had zero brand recognition of who we were and what we did,” he says. “Our advertising has not penetrated beyond people who have already self-selected as interested in the arts. In my bubble, that was astounding.”

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The 2015 leadership summit: Chris Coleman introduces Oregon Business Plan chair Malia Wasson

Responding to the data, PCS ramped up its outreach, boosting advertising dollars, investing more of those dollars in digital, and, for the first time in the company’s history, promoting its holiday shows on billboards around Portland. The executive team is also diversifying from within, an initiative manifest in a new board diversity committee and ongoing efforts to feature minority actors: e.g., a critically-acclaimed, all-black production of “Oklahoma” that framed the classic musical in a modern light. “We’re continuing to move in a direction where more and more people feel comfortable participating,” Coleman says.

An Atlanta native, Coleman retains a Southern charm and warmth, tinged with the humor and directness that make him at once likeable and a great entertainer.

“Chris is one of life’s rare finds — a truly talented person in his chosen field who remains personally pleasant, interesting, and comfortable to be with whether for business or social events,” says John Carter, chair emeritus of Schnitzer Steel and former chair of the Oregon Business Plan. Russell Hornsby, star of the TV show “Grimm,” describes Coleman as kind and conscientious. “He knows what he wants, but he gets it done in a collaborative way,” says Hornsby, an African-American actor who will assume the role of Stanley in the upcoming “Streetcar” production.

Coleman’s Atlanta roots show up in other ways. He traces his comfort level with financial management to his experience running Actor’s Express, an experimental theater he founded in the late 1980s with $2,500 in seed money from his parents. “Looking back, I created a pro-forma: We will sell this many seats, and this is what the income and expenses will be.” Coleman was the artistic director, but as Actor’s Express’ longest-standing employee, he eventually became the go-to person for questions about cash flow, budget and grants as well. He recalls a Portland donor asking: “’Where did you get your business savvy?’ The school of hard knocks.”

In Portland his education has been more formal. A number of years ago, PCS eliminated the theater’s executive director position, making Coleman responsible for financial and administrative management. It’s an unusual arrangement that provides clarity for the board, says chief operating officer Cynthia Fuhrman, who reports to Coleman. “They have one person who is accountable for the theater. It ensures the board is closer to the art.” A lot of directors look at the financial side as a burden, Fuhrman adds. “That’s not how Chris’s brain works.”

Coleman’s business acumen did come with a learning curve, says the Standard’s Ness, who recalls sitting down with Coleman to explain “fixed vs. variable costs” and other budget minutiae. Coleman is “all about challenging the audience and generating conversations,” Ness observes. “But we have to have productions that get butts in the seats.”

Balancing creativity with the bottom line is a constant battle for nonprofit theater companies. Do you produce large, mainstream shows that keep the box office full and contributions flowing? Do you mount edgier productions that might alienate conservative donors?

PCS has staged plenty of crowd pleasers; “Fiddler On The Roof” was the company’s most popular show in the past five years. But Coleman does prefer to push the envelope, modifying classics and presenting titles such as “Threesome,” a racy bedroom drama which Coleman also directed Off Broadway last summer, and “LIZZIE,” a rock show retelling of the famous ax-wielding murderess, Lizzie Borden.

The theater has developed a budgeting tool that helps balance artistic innovation and the budget, Coleman says. “It takes the 35 titles we’re most interested in, puts in the revenue they will generate and expenses and then looks at the bottom line.” It’s an irritating tool because it’s brutally frank, says Coleman. “But the value is as an artist I can say: Here’s a project that doesn’t make financial sense, but it’s going to feed me personally. So let’s do two others that are going to fund it. Or I’m going to raise another $100,000. I’m constantly negotiating with myself.”

As part of his preparation for last year’s leadership summit, Coleman met with Oregon Business Council president Duncan Wyse, vice president Jeremy Rogers and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) to discuss one of the hot topics du jour: a ballot petition calling for an increase in Oregon’s corporate sales tax.

“Just hearing both sides argue very articulately and passionately — it’s really fun to be so close to the conversations,” says Coleman, who describes himself as a political centrist, at least in Portland. “In Atlanta, I was the most liberal person in the room,” he says. “It was so bewildering to me coming here from Georgia, which is a much less progressive state but in hindsight has such a robust tax structure and funds its educational system generously. I couldn’t understand.”

So he asked — about property tax limitation measures and more. Coleman credits Ness for teaching him the term fungible and Wyse for a primer on traded sector companies. The summit gig grew out of a friendship Coleman and Wyse forged years ago through an American Leadership Forum event; Coleman later roped Wyse into speaking at a gathering Coleman had organized on Portland’s cultural future.

“Duncan said: ‘I have a favor. We are brainstorming how to make the summit more interesting, and I’d like you to sit in on a couple of meetings.’ After the second meeting, he said: ‘Why don’t you just direct this?’”

The summit is a “crazy beast,” says Coleman, who helps select speakers and determine the format for each section. “You are trying to figure out what are the stories and who is the best person to try and tell that story. And to try and keep it from being boring.” His performance has garnered rave reviews. “Chris has done an outstanding job,” says Carter. “He has a unique ability to understand the complex components of the [Oregon Business] plan and use them to conduct interesting and informed onstage interviews with the participants representing different views on those subjects.”

The PCS board also gives him high marks. “Chris is three things,” observes Saarthoff. “He is an extremely charismatic leader, he is cutting edge and he is very tuned into our community; he marries them up extremely well.”  Saarthoff, who singles out Coleman’s work on the Wallace grant and Armory transition as especially noteworthy, says “Chris is succession planning at its best. It’s not just about who is the next leader; it’s about who is the next theatergoer.”

The benefits of Coleman’s outreach accrue beyond Portland Center Stage. “One of the things people forget is these are middle-class, living-wage jobs,” Coleman says. “We are part of the economic engine and a major reason people come downtown. It’s one of the arguments I make to the city and state.” PCS employs about 100 full-time, part time and seasonal staff; the size of the company, as former Willamette Week theater critic Ben Waterhouse puts it, allows PCS to support “a rich theatrical ecosystem” in the city.

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Artist at work: Chris Coleman in a design meeting for “A Streetcar Named Desire”

In partnership with the Regional Arts & Culture Council, the City Club of Portland and several other organizations, PCS is hosting a mayoral candidate’s forum on the arts at the Armory January 26. The arts tax, which faces challenges from all sides, will likely be on the agenda. The levy has not generated as much revenue as expected, and critics charge the tax is regressive. Coleman, who took the lead organizing the forum, will be front and center. “Chris is a real force in the arts community,” Damrosch observes. “He stands apart. He’s very interested in the big picture.”

Does the big picture get in the way of the details? Coleman has a solid reputation as an artistic director, but critical reception is not always glowing. Writing in the Oregonian in 2011, former arts writer Marty Hughley said: “As a stage director, [Coleman] has a knack for the resonant image, the splash of color and energy, the conceptualist’s skewed angle. But his shows sometimes feel desultory, their psychological threads loose, their rhythms uncertain.”

The theater business, of course, is not for the thin-skinned. Besides, says Coleman, media today is so diffuse, a given review doesn’t matter as much as it used to. “Is it going to help ticket sales or not? That’s where the anxiety comes in.”

Coleman admits his multiple roles can be a “little crazy making.” His saving grace, he says, is working from home two days a week, time he dedicates solely to scripts. A former denizen of Portland’s Goose Hollow neighborhood, he now lives on two and a half acres in Vancouver. “I’m so embarrased,” laughs Coleman, who says he moved to the suburbs “not for the taxes” but because the property has a guest house eventually slated for his parents. For now, he shares the space with his two dogs and husband Rodney Hicks, an actor who appeared last fall in the Seattle Repertory’s “Come From Away,” a musical about a plane diverted to Newfoundland after 9/11. The show, on Coleman’s bigger, bolder wish list, draws on a blend of Celtic, folk and country rock music. “It is foot-stomping, funny and thrilling, and if that came to me right now, I’d say: ‘I love it and I can’t afford it.’”

Seattle Rep is also struggling with a deficit — around $800,000 as of last fall. But the company has a $12 million endowment, and “Come From Away” was supported by several Seattle investors.

What does it mean to think big in a city where the arts, by reputation and investment, often play second fiddle to other charitable endeavors (social services; global sustainability issues) and activities? “Our competitors are Mt. Hood Meadows, the coast, the Timbers, ‘Game of Thrones,’” says Coleman, who admits to a passion for the latter. Fuhrman frames the challenge this way: “Everything is so on-demand: streaming video, food. We are by nature working in archaic art forms, so how do we run this company in a way that is adaptable?”

The PCS solution is to deepen and diversify its relationship with the city. Coleman goes one step further. Casting himself as chief storyteller, he seems to understand, intuitively, that what Portland lacks in big money it makes up for in civic engagement, and that framing the arts in social, political and economic terms is a good fit not only for his interests, skill set and personality­ — but also for a city and an era in which the boundaries between money, art, politics and business continue to blur.

Given his prominent role orchestrating the leadership summit and other civic events, one has to ask: Will he run for office? Never, Coleman says. “I hope one of my last breaths is: ‘No, move over there.’ The opportunity to bring stories to life and see people in this community effected by them is thrilling.”

A version of this article appears in the February 2016 issue of Oregon Business.