interview: Gary Cole

For interview number seven, we check in with Gary Cole, one of the original co-founders (along with Bob Holden) of CoHo Productions in 1995. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Cole was a dynamic and very recognizable presence in Portland theatre. He led the campaign to convert a former bookbindery into what is now the CoHo Theatre and produced a string of quality shows that put CoHo on the map, injecting some welcome energy into Portland’s “off Broadway” scene along the way.

But Cole’s profile was a little different from most other theatre producers’. A graduate of Stanford Law School and a former attorney at the CIA, he worked by day as a corporate lawyer at one of Portland’s top firms and was a nationally connected Republican fundraiser and organizer. For some time Cole had successfully combined his interests in the arts and Republican politics, seeing no conflict between the two. In 2001, he founded StageDirect, a company that captured live theatre on video and sold the rights to distribution. In June of 2003, his political and art interests aligned, and Cole was offered his dream job: the position of Deputy Chairman for Grants and Awards at the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) in the administration of President George W. Bush.

And then the theatre caught up with him. At the last minute, Cole’s NEA offer was withdrawn when the Republican vetting process turned up two productions shot by StageDirect whose content worried senior staff. POONA THE FUCKDOG was a production of Theatre Vertigo which StageDirect shot in Vertigo’s space. STRAIGHT, by Seattle writer/performer David Schmader, dealt with the movement to convert gays and lesbians to heterosexuality. STRAIGHT was shot in the CoHo space, but had no connection to CoHo (nor did POONA). Trailers of both shows can still be seen at www.stagedirect.com.

Cole left Portland soon after his NEA offer was withdrawn and ended up writing a memoir about the experience, ARTLESS: THE ODYSSEY OF A REPUBLICAN CULTURAL CREATIVE, in 2006. He now lives in Raleigh, NC, where he continues to work in both law and theatre. He founded Theater of the American South, an annual festival in Wilson, NC, in 2006. In addition to his memoir and play BODYHOLD, which was CoHo’s first show, Cole has now written his first novel, BLACK BOX, which largely takes place in Portland and concerns a theatre not unlike CoHo. Several recognizable Portland theatre figures make cameos in the book, including – well, you’ll have to read it and find out.

Cole will give a reading from BLACK BOX at CoHo on Monday, October 22 at 8:00PM. The event is free but is a benefit for CoHo, and Cole will donate $5 for every book sold to the company. His book is also available online exclusively via his website, www.garydcole.com.

Hello Gary. I thought maybe we could start with your move to Portland in 1991. How was it that you found yourself in the Pacific Northwest, admittedly somewhat off the beaten path from other places you had lived and worked before?

My wife Amy and I decided that we didn’t want to raise our family in the Washington, DC area, where we had met and married. We found DC too congested, too expensive, and too much of a company town. We chose Portland because it seemed a city on the rise and because it was possible to buy a nice home in a good neighborhood and feel comfortable sending your kids to the public schools. Professionally, I wanted to build my own practice and become involved in the community and Portland struck me as a place where your family didn’t have to have been settled for generations in order to be given an opportunity and make an impact. Politically, I was attracted to the moderate Republican brand exemplified by Oregon senators Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood. And with regard to theatre, there seemed to be a number of up-and-coming companies that might consider taking a chance on the script I had written.

Had you been to Oregon much before moving here?

Never, other than a scouting expedition Amy and I took and a follow-up trip to interview with law firms. We had no family in Oregon and knew almost no one.

What was Portland like at the time in terms of arts and culture?

Portland had aspirations to become a major city culturally, but I would say had not yet reached that point. My recollection is that there were no truly professional free-standing theatre companies at the time. PCS was then a subsidiary of the Ashland festival. The other leading companies – Willamette Rep, New Rose, and Storefront – were struggling financially and folded soon thereafter. The art museum had the core of a fine regional collection, but had yet to undergo the huge expansion that put it on the national map.

What had been your previous involvement in theatre before Portland?

Other than appearing in the cast of a few musicals in high school, I didn’t really do anything meaningful in theatre until I tried out on a whim for George Bernard Shaw’s MAJOR BARBARA my senior year of college. I landed a small part and then a somewhat larger one in the spring show. I really thought my theatre career was over after I graduated and spent a year working in London until I enrolled at Stanford Law School and discovered I had a classmate who really wanted to become a theatre director and decided to put on some plays in the Law School. I ended up doing a total of 8 shows around the Stanford campus while a law student, then acted in some community and semi-professional productions while serving as an attorney at the CIA. When I decided to go into private practice, I found I didn’t have time to act, so I started working on a script based loosely on my Agency experience.

Do you recall what the eight shows you were in during law school were?

A selection of Brecht one acts, Lanford Wilson’s HOT L BALTIMORE (I played Morse), THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Gratiano), a French medieval farce called PIERRE PATHELIN (the Judge), A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Egeus), ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (Polonius), an original play by a Stanford law student called CASUALTIES (I played an attorney in a show that was supposed to star then Stanford undergraduate Andre Braugher until he was cast as Hamlet in a drama department production), and THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (for the life of me I can’t remember my role).

Had you seen a lot of theatre growing up?

Yes, the most memorable being a production of Pinter’s THE CARETAKER by Steppenwolf when they were still performing in a church basement in a Chicago suburb (the space was so cramped that Gary Sinise whacked me in the leg with a golf club by accident) and Brecht’s THE RISE AND FALL OF ARTURO UI, which portrayed a Hitler-like figure in gangster-era Chicago.

What playwrights and specific productions have influenced you over the years?

I love the wit and repartee of Shaw, Noel Coward, and Oscar Wilde. While working in London, I saw a fabulous production of ANOTHER COUNTRY starring Rupert Everett, which captured my Anglophilia and political fascination perfectly. As an actor in DC, I appeared in Mamet’s rarely performed radio play, THE WATER ENGINE, and shortly afterward saw his GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS at the Sydney Opera House while traveling overseas for the government; both plays have stayed with me through the years because of their cutthroat characterizations of contemporary capitalism.

According to company lore, CoHo’s founding moment came after you had written a play. You met Portland director Bob Holden and decided to put it on. Is that right?

Pretty much. We did several readings over a 2-year period, then decided to give a full production a shot.

How did you meet Holden?

I accosted him after seeing a production he directed of Christopher Fry’s THE LADY’S NOT FOR BURNING at Portland Civic Theatre. I thought to myself: “Whoever has the sick sense of humor to direct that show is the guy I want for mine.”

You soon became part of a proud Portland tradition which is seemingly mandatory for all new theatre companies and continues to this day – using non traditional spaces to stage the first show. Where did CoHo’s first show take place?

In the basement of the Benson Hotel. One of my clients was involved in the management group, which got my foot in the door. A friend knew the catering director, which got me a meeting.

Were there no traditional theatre spaces that were options?

Not for the 6-week run I had planned. Plus the food and beverage options offered by the Benson were very attractive. Patrons are generally more receptive to the work of a new playwright after a drink or two!

What was the experience like?

It was alternately thrilling and terrifying. The Parliament Rooms where we performed were generally used for business meetings. They were narrow, with low ceilings. Somehow we were able to transform them into a passable theatrical space. We managed to assemble a strong cast, thanks to Bob’s reputation and many years in Portland theatre and the earlier readings, which helped earn us good reviews and a Drammy nomination. We did well on group sales, thanks to my law firm and a political group buying the house various evenings. The Benson ended up waiving our rent because of better than expected food and beverage sales. But there were a few glitches, like the police showing up one night when a hotel guest heard a gunshot (the play was set in the middle of a Third World revolution) and called the cops as she had no idea a play was going on.

Was there a moment there where you caught a glimpse of a possibly completely different career path? Did you think to yourself, “Wow – I can do this”? Or had you reached that point before?

I had thought fleetingly about pursuing acting my senior year in college, but couldn’t come to terms with the absence of control over my life. I didn’t want to be so dependent on others in order to work. And honestly, I didn’t have that high an opinion of my acting skills. I had just made partner in my law firm when BODYHOLD was produced, so I was very focused on building my practice. Theatre was a glorious sideline, but at that time only a sideline.

At that time, the Portland theatre world must have been much smaller than it is today. Can you recall for us who were the key players?

I’d previously mentioned PCS, which had just become independent from Ashland, and Willamette Rep, New Rose, and Storefront, which were fading from view. ART was just starting to come to prominence. Lakewood had a strong following, particularly in Lake Oswego and SW Portland. Portland Civic Theatre was a significant venue. Triangle and Miracle were up and running, but were probably viewed more as niche companies at that point. Portland Actors Conservatory was then, as I understand it still is now, an important training ground.

At the time that CoHo was coming together, were there other nascent companies also taking taking shape, and if so what level of interaction did you have with them?

Stark Raving had been around for a while, but was definitely on the upswing. I reached out to them on my script because of their focus on new work, but never reached the top of their pile. CoHo’s first co-production in 1996 was BLOOD RELATIONS with co-producers Jane Unger and Dmae Roberts; shortly thereafter, Jane went on to found Profile. Theatre Vertigo and Sowelu were started a few years after CoHo. CoHo worked with Vertigo co-founder Jeff Meyers on a co-production of DEALER’S CHOICE. Sowelu was very ensemble-driven, so our interaction with them was more limited.

Your founding moment was not long after the emergence of the internet. Today, getting the word out about shows without the benefit of email lists, Facebook, Twitter et al seems unimaginable. What was it like in those less digital days as you sought to bring in an audience? How did you do it?

We ran our shows for 6 weeks, which helped to build word of mouth. We worked hard to persuade critics to review our productions early in the run. We made a point of developing relationships in NW Portland, which became our neighborhood after the first show at the Benson. We had as many as 40 advertisers in our programs, many of them restaurants or retail businesses in Northwest, and included tickets to our shows as part of our advertising package. We did some advertising in the Oregonian and Willamette Week, but not much as we really didn’t have the budget for it. We sent postcards 10 days or so before we opened to our small but growing mailing list. Pretty primitive, eh?

But it worked! Did you intend to start a new ongoing company, or was the initial mission really just to stage your play?

We had no intention of producing anything beyond BODYHOLD. Honestly, we had formed the company simply to give friends and family a tax deduction for their donations.

Then what happened with CoHo over the next few years?

Bob and I realized that we had learned a lot about how to put on an independent production, that is, one outside of an established theatre company. We decided to keep CoHo going and experiment with a co-production model, where theatre artists would submit production proposals and CoHo would fund, market, and provide a venue for those it selected and allow the co-producers to focus on the artistic and technical elements they knew best. As I mentioned, our first co-production was in 1996, about a year and a half after our first show. There was a lot of trial and error, as we and our co-producers stumbled through who would be responsible for which tasks. The show went well, however, and after refining our process a little we really committed to continuing CoHo on an ongoing basis in 1998. We then did 6 more shows in 6 different venues: 2 Pearl District storefronts provided by clients of mine, an empty warehouse, an art gallery, a business office that had an open assembly space, and a Northwest storefront. We won a number of Drammy awards, including several for William S. Gregory’s MARY TUDOR in 1999.

When did you start to look for a permanent space?

In the spring and summer of 2000.

How did you find the space where CoHo is now and decide to build a theatre?

Our last storefront experience was a disaster. The place had been empty for over a year and while we tried to clean out all the dust and grime, one of our actresses ended up having to quit the show midway through the run because of her asthma. We decided we would either find our own home or go do something else. We started looking in Northwest, which had become our neighborhood. The Pearl was appealing, but even then was out of our price range. The building at NW 23rd and Raleigh was more affordable, as the area had not really started to redevelop. It had high ceilings and no columns, which was critical. The landlord was initially dubious about playing host to a theatre, but eventually came around. We were fortunate to land some sizeable foundation grants, which was a nice validation of our co-production model.

All of this must have kept you very busy. How did you manage to bill 60 hours a week at the law firm, start up a new theatre company, and raise a family all at the same time?

It makes me exhausted even thinking about it now. Amy was incredibly supportive, which was essential. CoHo had a small but amazingly committed set of board members, each of whom took charge of a particular area of responsibility – technical matters, box office, marketing, and so on. I’m not sure I would have been able to devote the time needed for the new CoHo Theatre project, however, had I not decided to leave my law firm and start the theatre video company, StageDirect. While I was immersed in planning the start-up of StageDirect, I had a little more time without the client pressures that I’d had before to raise money and work with the board and our architect on the design of the space. StageDirect also agreed to rent the office space at CoHo, which was critical in making the project work from a cash flow perspective.

What did your law partners think of your growing involvement in Portland theatre, and were there any others there like yourself who were also arts entrepreneurs on the side?

My partners were very supportive. My involvement in the arts helped to raise Ball Janik’s profile in the community. The firm committed to copying CoHo’s programs, which was a major contribution. I came across several lawyers in Portland who were also writers. One attorney who was a year behind me in law school left the biggest firm in Portland to focus on being a party DJ. But I didn’t find others doing both law and theater production. I guess no one was foolish enough to take on that combination!

Rewinding a bit to the 2000 election. Did you have any thoughts of active political engagement such as a job in the Bush administration?

I did. During my time at the CIA I was involved in the early stages of what became known as the War on Drugs. I was very interested in a senior narcotics policy position at the State Department. I even met Condoleeza Rice at a fundraiser in the Bay Area and mentioned my interest. But then I came up with this wild notion of putting theatre on digital video and put aside any thoughts of going back to DC.

Bush II was the beginning of a different kind of Republican Party. Whereas I can see you being comfortable with a Bush I type of Republican, how did the Bush II administration affect your own Republican identity?

I was an early supporter of Gordon Smith, who was conservative but in a balanced, non-ideological, non-confrontational way. Gordon, in turn, was an early supporter of George W. Bush, who billed himself as a uniter, rather than a divider, and touted his achievements working with Democrats in Texas. I thought Bush II was cut from the same moderate, centrist cloth as his father, but would prove to be a more successful politician because he was more at home with conservatives having come of age in Texas rather than New England. I was right as to his success as a politician, but woefully wrong on the politics of his administration. I continued to feel comfortable with the more libertarian, fiscally conservative views of my Republican friends in Oregon, but it became clear that the party and Bush II were moving in a more religious, social issue-dominated direction with which I was increasingly ill at ease.

In 2003 you were offered a senior position in the NEA. But then the offer disappeared when the vetting process turned up two non-family values friendly StageDirect videos. Can you tell us exactly who you think knew what in the administration, and how did they find out at that late stage?

I had told the NEA and the White House staffers who interviewed me that I had been involved in producing theater for CoHo and shooting theater videos for StageDirect that were intended for grown-ups and included profanity and sexual content. I don’t think anyone in the administration had bothered to visit the StageDirect website (which had trailers for all the productions), however, until, an NEA press officer talked to me 2 days after I received the offer in preparation for putting out a press release. The next day the NEA pulled the offer. A well-connected Republican friend told me that the White House and NEA had made the decision because of two StageDirect videos, one of which had a naughty word in the title and the other of which dealt with converting gays and lesbians to heterosexuality.

You were not treated very well by the administration in the days that followed. How did this experience change your relationship with the Republican Party?

I recognized that I would be serving at the pleasure of the President and that if he decided I were not suitable for the office, that was the end of the matter. But I found it difficult to accept the way in which the offer was withdrawn. If the administration had said to me, “Look, you’re a great candidate, but we just can’t take the risk that these productions might raise conservative hackles after all the controversy at the NEA over the years,” I would have thought it was a cowardly stance, but I would have understood. Instead, they just dropped me through the trap door, without any explanation. And my friends in the Oregon GOP did not stand up for me when I needed them. It may not have made any difference if they had, but I’ll never know. On a personal level, I felt betrayed, which certainly affected my relationship with the party. But more critically, I realized that a party which claimed to be about individual liberty was not inclined to support free expression in the arts, which was a central value in my life.

Was Karl Rove personally involved in killing your offer?

I don’t know for sure, but I would be surprised if he weren’t. The decision almost certainly was made in his office.

On the topic of government funding for the arts. Many in the arts community take it as a given both that the government should fund the arts and that the US is far below the civilized standard in this area. What do you think?

I address this issue at some length in ARTLESS. I have always been suspicious about dependence on government funding, because in my experience government, no matter how well-intentioned, will eventually seek to control the content of those projects it funds. The result is that artists end up pursuing work that they believe they can receive funding for, rather than those they are really interested in producing. This is as true today as it was for painters and composers seeking commissions from kings and princes centuries ago. I believe government should play a role in funding the arts, but that artists can and should do a better job of connecting with those in the private sector who share their vision if they want to maintain their artistic freedom.

Indeed. After the NEA affair you left Portland and moved to Raleigh, NC. It seems like it didn’t take very long for you to start your next theatre venture, Theater of the American South, an annual spring festivcal in Wilson, NC. What was your vision for this event, and how has it gone?

I was struck by the absence of an event in the South focused on Southern plays and playwrights. There have been some wonderful Southern writers for the theatre, from Tennessee Williams to Carson McCullers to Beth Henley. I thought it best to site the festival outside of a major city, both because Southern history is largely rural and, more practically, because I thought we had a better chance of securing funding. We were able to obtain a significant grant from a North Carolina foundation funded by the proceeds of the tobacco settlement whose purpose was to support diversification away from dependence on tobacco.

I’ve been pleased with our progress. We completed our seventh season this past spring. We produce two plays in repertory and combine those over several weeks with Southern cooking, lectures, music, and even a quilting event inspired by one in Sisters, Oregon. The recession hit us like it did everyone, but we’ve rebounded nicely in the past 2 seasons.

What are your current theatre activities?

I’ve stepped back from participation in the day-to-day operation of Theater of the American South but am still involved in the festival on an advisory basis. I’ve shifted more of my attention to writing.

You have just published your first novel, BLACK BOX, which deals with a theatre not unlike CoHo. Most of the story takes place in Portland and features some figures old timers may recognize. I’m pretty sure I saw Steffen Silvis flit across the background. Can you tell us a bit about this story? Is it one that has been germinating for a while?

I never really fashioned myself a writer. I did write BODYHOLD, but I considered that something of a one-off effort — a way for a lawyer to keep his hand in theatre. But after the NEA debacle, I felt compelled to write. In retrospect, I suppose it was what my mind needed in order to come to terms with the trauma of that incident. At first I was comfortable writing only about my own life experience. That then gave me the confidence to take on a work of fiction. I started playing with the notion of a novel set against a theatre backdrop shortly after I finished ARTLESS. I’ve always been fascinated by the conceit of a play within a play and decided to work in elements of the coming-of-age story in HAMLET and the coming-to-terms-with-cruel-reality of DOLL’S HOUSE. Of course, the theatre scene I knew best was Portland’s, so that’s where I decided to set it.

How long did it take you to write?

Over 5 years, between various rewrites, work on other writing projects, and life’s various curveballs.

What was harder for you to write – a novel or a play?

I was tempted to say a novel, because there are more elements you have to supply for your audience. But trying to project how words on the printed page will translate to the stage can be daunting. With apologies for the cop-out, I’ll rate this one a toss-up.

By the way, did Steffen Silvis ever give a good review to a CoHo show?

Absolutely! He loved MARY TUDOR, which was one of CoHo’s proudest accomplishments. He was tough, but in most cases you knew you had done solid work if he gave you a favorable review. There are a few shows he missed the boat on … but I don’t hold grudges.

In terms of contemporary theatre in the US, which companies or playwrights appeal to you?

I’ve admittedly been absorbed in Southern theatre these past few years, so I don’t follow the scene nationally as much as I once did. Sarah Ruhl strikes me as a great talent. His work has faded from prominence to some extent, but I still consider Christopher Durang to be one of the better American playwrights of his generation. Mamet has obviously tried his hand at other ventures, but I think he still towers over modern American theatre.

Do you see any additional theatre ventures in your future?

Not for the foreseeable future. I have another novel in the pipeline (also set in Portland), as well as a memoir about my time as a Chicago Tribune paperboy trying to digest the earth-shattering news of the turbulent late 1960s.

Sounds interesting. Thanks, Gary! See you at CoHo next week.

Gary Cole will read from BLACK BOX at CoHo Theatre on Monday, October 22 at 8:00PM. The event is free and open to the public.