Artistic director brought company to new heights, but now he heads to Denver to be artistic director at Denver Center for the Performing Arts' Theatre Company

COURTESY: KATE SZROM/PCS AT ARMORY - Chris Coleman, departing as artistic director of Portland Center Stage, will remember great times with the company, including directing the two parts of 'Astoria,' adapted from Peter Stark's book. 'It was such a unique, difficult story to figure out how to bring to the stage,' he says.Chris Coleman will be leaving one theater company that he helped build, Portland Center Stage, for another that doesn't need much immediate assistance from him, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' (DCPA) Theatre Company.

Coleman, who has been PCS artistic director for almost 18 years, leaves in May. Before he leaves, there has been much work to do, including directing "Major Barbara."

"It's been a little bit nuts," he says. "Definitely a curious time. There's an enormous excitement about going to a new community, challenge and opportunity. But, my goodness, I've had a lot of conversations with people here. ... It's felt like a long goodbye. It's been super sweet, people have been really warm."

Coleman has been credited with raising Portland Center Stage from humble beginnings to its status as the biggest's company in Oregon. The budget has tripled to about $10 million, The Armory has been built and used to great fanfare, crowds have doubled and an education program teaches the next wave of actors, directors and such.

"Huge growth," says Cynthia Fuhrman, the managing director who has been with the company for much of the past 20 years. "He's been a huge factor in the evolution of PCS."

Rose Riordan, assistant artistic director, has been side-by-side with Coleman for all 17-plus years. "She was mad," Coleman says, of news of his departure. But, Riordan offered up, upon hearing the news, that "I'm really super happy for him, proud of him. At the same time, I wanna 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?"

The feeling has been mutual, Coleman says of Riordan. "The hardest thing about when this opportunity came was ... imagining the conversation with Rose and Cynthia (about his departure). We're not just work colleagues but very good friends. I had nightmares about that conversation for weeks."

He adds: "This is a wonderful organization and city. There are only a handful of opportunities that would be enticing at all. This was one of them."

COURTESY: KATE SZROM/PCS AT ARMORY - In his final play as director, Chris Coleman will tackle idealism and capitalism in George Bernard Shaw's 'Major Barbara,' which stages at The Armory April 20-May 3.The show goes on. While PCS looks for another artistic director, Coleman readies for the Denver theater company, which gets 10 percent of its operating funds from the city, and it also houses the most successful Broadway touring series in the country and sports four theaters to operate in.

"There are revenue streams to make it possible to do a lot of work that a lot of theaters around the country can't say yes to," he says.

Coleman will pack up and move in mid-May with his husband and dog. He'll look back on a journey with highlights.

A Meyer Trust grant of $1.35 million helped PCS get going on marketing. "A huge shot in the arm," he says.

Bob Gerding came forward to help spearhead renovation of The Armory at 128 N.W. 11th Ave. into a theater, after PCS had been staging at the Newmark Theatre. The Portland Development Commission matched funds after a $2 million fundraising campaign. It became the Gerding Theater.

Coleman says both parts of "Astoria," a collaboration with author Peter Stark, ranked as a highlight of his directing career with PCS. So was "Ragtime" and "Flesh and Blood."

He has enjoyed working with creative types such as Gavin Hoffman, Leif Norby, Sharonlee McLean and Isaac Lamb, as well as Brian and Nikki Weaver currently with "Major Barbara." There are many more.

Coleman has been pivotal in fundraising. But working for a theater company with a $10 million budget hasn't been easy.

"The demands are similar, you just have different numbers," Coleman says. As the company grew, so have expenses.

So, Coleman is departing Portland Center Stage. But, he won't leave before putting "Major Barbara" on stage, starting Saturday, April 14, with a preview.

The George Bernard Shaw witty and timely classic — written in the late 19th century — pits a daughter's philanthropic idealism against a father's hard-headed capitalism, with surprising results. It stars Hanley Smith, who makes her PCS debut as Major Barbara.

It's the sixth Shaw production that he has worked on.

"It's funny, and it's really smart and intellectually muscular," Coleman says.

"As with all of his plays, it's rich with irony and brilliant thought, but it also sparkles with his ever-present wit."

"Major Barbara" stages at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., April 20-May 13. Tickets: starting at $25, (check for showtimes).

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