Social Buttons

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Don Coleman is done with Robert Wilson!

by David Hsieh

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Don Coleman, Robert Wilson, and Willem Dafoe. Photo: Elena Olivo
In the busy, sometimes hectic backstage area at BAM, Don Coleman is a reassuring presence. With a full head of silver hair, metal-framed glasses, and a deliberate way of talking, he exudes calm. Although he is tall, he doesn’t tower over people. He has a resonant baritone voice, but he doesn’t shout people down. He doesn’t have to. After 18 years at BAM supervising productions, he knows how to get things done. But it’s those talents that got him into the theater world in the first place.

“The drama coach in my high school in Albuquerque, NM was eager to have a big guy with a voice that can project for stage presence,” he recalled in a recent interview at the Howard Gilman Opera House. He liked it enough to study theater at University of Texas in Austin but soon found out there were others who were better at acting. So he switched to the design and technical side. After retiring from the Marines in Vietnam, he was “trying to make up my mind what my life was going to be.” With the help of the GI Bill and a scholarship, he was able to attend New York University's theater master’s program.

Unbeknownst to him then, another theater-loving UT-Austin alum had also moved to New York. Robert Wilson, who had quit studying business administration, was starting to make a name in the downtown art world. Their paths would eventually cross when Don joined the BAM production team in 1996. In 2000, he took on his first Wilson show—The Dream Play. Wilson was an established international artist by then. He had also acquired a reputation, which, according to Don, was of someone “who’s very definite about what he wanted and could give you a very hard time if he didn’t get it.” He added, “I know a lot of directors and artists are like that. I found that a lot of times when someone has a reputation of being difficult, the way to solve that problem is by giving them exactly what they want.”

But it wasn’t until his third Wilson show that he knew he had “given him what he wanted.” That was Peer Gynt in 2006. The show encountered a lot of difficulties, Don remembered. “There was a shipping problem and the scenery was late. The show was complicated to get up. There was a huge amount of lighting to be done but the European equipment the company brought in wouldn’t work on US power so we had to rent a generator trunk parked outside. So when we opened, I just thought we had overcome tremendous odds to come to this point. At the end of it, Bob came on stage and gave me a hug. I felt I had achieved a great deal.”

Over the years, Don has worked with some of the most important theater artists: Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch, Michael Grandage, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Lin Hwai-min, Robert Lepage, William Christie, Reggie Wilson, Edward Hall… the list goes on and on. But he has decided to retire at the end of this season, appropriately after his seventh Wilson show: The Old Woman. We asked him to reflect on his long and distinguished career at BAM, and of course, his wisdom on how to put on future Wilson shows.

Peer Gynt. Photo: Stephanie Berger

What’s your favorite BAM show?

[After a long pause] It might be Nefés by Pina Bausch (2006 Next Wave). Pina Bausch is another artist I really admire and I’ve done a lot shows for. She has a particular style of abstract presentation tied in with dance that is open to a lot of different interpretations but has always made me think.

What’s the most difficult BAM show?

Well, so many of them are difficult in so many different ways. Nefés had this plumbing problem because we had to put a huge amount of water on stage. There was The White Devil that came from the Sydney Theatre Company (2001 Spring). The set was bigger than our theater! Then there was Anna Nicole (2013 Next Wave). It was so complicated that we needed four production supervisors, each working on different elements of the production.

What is the role of production managers at BAM?

Basically it’s to get everything in the theater a production needs in a timely fashion. That involves everything from shipping to installing to problem solving. For instance, when we did William Kentridge’s The Magic Flute, it was necessary to have a projector’s cone to hit certain pieces of scenery all the way down. But it was designed for a much deeper theater. We would need additional 15 feet of space in our theater. So we put the projector in the basement, drilled a hole in the floor for the light to hit a mirror that was custom-built to reflect the light to exactly where it needed to be. So working out something like that is part of what we do. And if they bring some equipment and we contribute some, be it video equipment, sound equipment, rigging, we need to figure out whether we should rent them or buy them. And we need to arrange, or make sure the company is arranging, the shipping to get it here from Milan, Yokohama, Wuppertal, or wherever it’s from. It’s a process of developing the information and relationships you need to understand what the show is. Another major thing the production managers do is to make sure we have all of the people we need. From the crew chief, to the stagehands, the wardrobe people, and make-up artists… any people the production needs that we don’t have need to be hired in. Sometimes they are needed on a different schedule day-to-day, hour-to-hour. To work out that schedule is pretty complicated.

You plan, plan, and plan the best you can, and then when something changes you just do it.

What at BAM has evolved over the years?

More and more of the work has been given to production supervisors because there are so many shows and events. When I came to BAM, I was the first of four managers. Now there are 12. In the meantime, we’ve added a new theater complex, added a lot more programs. The more the work has to be done, the more production managers we need. And they have to be more experienced, more mature. It’s more responsibilities and a more detailed job than when I first started.

If you can take only one memory with you from BAM, what would it be?

[Without hesitation] Oh, it would be that moment from Peer Gynt.

What’s your parting advice for future Wilson show production managers?

To be very sure of what Bob’s requirements are and do your very best to give him what he wants. And don’t believe he won’t notice everything. If you have an old lightbulb, change it. Because he will see it.

Why retire now?

There are a whole lot of things that I haven’t done that I want to do. It’s not a bucket list but more of another way to explore the world.

What’s your plan?

My wife and I will have a few weeks hanging out in New York. Then we’re going to Paris, borrow a friend’s car and drive to Majorca, Spain, where we have a place. We will go back and forth between Spain, and in a larger sense, Europe and New York. I wouldn’t want to leave New York. I think it’s a great place to retire to with great theaters and museums go to. And I look forward to seeing BAM shows from the audience, not from the wings!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.