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Artistic director who changed local theater, 'that I have come to cherish deeply,' will head to Denver after 17 years

COURTESY: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE - Chris Coleman led the evolution of Portland Center Stage, which is Portland's biggest theater company. Portland Center Stage, the city's biggest theater company, will move on. But, losing Chris Coleman, artistic director, will be a big loss.

"He truly transformed the company," says Cynthia Fuhrman, managing director. The company was still renting space at the Portland'5 Center for the Performing Arts, doing six shows a year, and had a third of the budget when Coleman entered the picture as artistic director 17 years ago.

"In 17 years to take it from that to now we have our own facility (the Armory), we've tripled the budget (to $10 million), we do up to 12 shows a year in two spaces, we have bigger crowds (doubled attendance), and we have an education and outreach program. Huge growth," Fuhrman adds. "In the middle of that there was a recession. It hit right after we moved into (the Armory) building. He's been a huge factor in the evolution of PCS."

Coleman wasn't necessarily looking for another job, but it's long been known that other theaters (and their search firms) have been talking with him.

"And this one had some potential, and he'd been talking to them for awhile," Fuhrman says, of Denver Center for the Performing Arts' (DCPA) Theatre Company, which hired away Coleman as artistic director last week. "It got serious fast."

Coleman, who'll finish out the 2017-18 season for Portland Center Stage before moving on, including stage directing two productions, says it'll be tough to leave Portland, the company, colleagues and friends "that I have come to cherish deeply."

Says Rose Riordan, associate artistic director, who has worked alongside Coleman for all of his 17 years: "Totally surprised. I'm not surprised that he got the job, and not surprised he got head-hunted — but we're a pretty happy bunch (for him to leave). I'm really super happy for him, proud of him. At the same time, I want to punch him in the nose, because I don't want him to leave. We've been partners for a long time; lots of mixed emotions. Everybody's happy for him, proud of him, no ill will at all. But now what?"

So Portland Center Stage, a top-20 regional theater in the country, will look for new artistic leadership through a national search in the coming months — for perspective, an artistic director is akin to the Trail Blazers hiring a new coach or a city electing a mayor. Riordan doesn't envision going after the position, because it involves fundraising, not her strength, she says.

"It's a skill and a talent," she says. "I also love my job and living in Portland and working in theater. It's also an opportunity for the staff and board to go, 'OK, what's next?' It's important that we reflect on what theater and the community needs next."

Coleman had worked at Atlanta Repertory Theatre before moving to Portland. As artistic director, Coleman has overseen season scheduling and stage productions. He also still directs; he has two more projects to direct before he leaves ("Astoria: Part One and Part Two" and "Major Barbara").

Riordan says that Coleman always seeks input and suggestions, is very much interested in the story and storytelling, and "has a pretty keen dramaturgical eye."

"He and I have been a good team," she adds.

Fuhrman has been with PCS for 20 years in two tenures, actually helping guide the company after it became independent from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and returning to the company nine years ago after working elsewhere.

It's like a brother leaving home, she says.

"I'm super sad to see him go, but I understand the opportunity," she says. "He was able to enact much change, and that kept it interesting for him. He left us in good position to attract a good candidate."

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