Jeanine Coleman Interview
This is file #43, cycle 3. Today’s date is July 13, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Virginia (Jeanine) Coleman. She is going to talk about her life and times with the Oblong Valley Players, Tri-Arts, Sharon Playhouse and anything else she wants to talk about. But we will start with…
JM:What is your name?
JM:But your official name is?
JC:Officially Virginia, but Virginia is a state!
JM:How did you come to the area?
JC:I came to this area for a teaching job.
JM:Where did you teach?
JC:I was teaching in the Silver Lake District of Massachusetts which is just west of Cape Cod.
JM:When did you come to Salisbury Central School?
JC:September of 1969
JM:How many years did you teach at Salisbury Central?
JM:That is a good long time. You saw many changes.
JC:I did indeed.
JM:How did you get interested in the theater?
JC:Probably as an outgrowth of the teaching experience. Teachers are on stage every day. But I was initially introduced to Community Theater by a colleague.
JM:I think you said Doris Alexander?
JC:Doris Alexander and Lee (and Barbara) Collins. (See Tape 135B, Lee Collins)
JM:What community theater did you get involved in first?
JC;Oblong Valley Players
JM:Where were they based?
JC:They were based basically in a tri-state community group who would play in any venue that offered us a stage. So we played town halls, church parish rooms, whatever.
JM:Do you remember when you joined the Oblong Valley Players?
JC:I don’t remember that, probably somewhere in the 1970’s.
JM:How long did you stay with them?
JC:I stayed with them until we finally disbanded, about 1988 or 1989.
JM:Were you in Oblong Valley Players when you did “The Music Man” or had you formed Tri-Arts by then?
JC:No I was not actually doing theater at that point. Tri-Arts was not in existence.
JM:But you were in “The Music Man” in 1989 as Mrs. Paroo.
JC:That was the most delightful experience in terms of being a performer that had every occurred because I did audition.
JM:I want you to tell me about your n-n-audition.
JC: The phone rang at home. It was Ray Roderick who was directing at that time and came up from NYC on weekends with his wife. At that moment he was performing on Broadway in one of the major roles in “Cats”. He and his wife and Michael Berkley wanted to come up to this area to be away from the city and maybe their dream happened here. They had decided they wanted to do “The Music Man” on a shoestring budget. They contacted Lee Collins for suggestions whom to cast. Lee recommended me for her.
JM:How did he know you?
JC:He was in Oblong Valley Players along with his wife Barbara.
JM:So you went to audition for Mrs. Paroo…
JC:Yes, I did. I read a bit. Then Ray wanted to know if I could sing for the role. I said, “You will have to find that out for yourself.” “Alright, I am going to play a tune from the show: I’ll start singing and when you feel comfortable, join in with me” which I did. After a few lines, he dropped out and I sang the rest for him. After I finished, he looked at me and he said, “I want you to be my Mrs. Paroo.”
JM:Perfect, it couldn’t be better.
JC:It was for me! That was my audition. No competition, o lines, just the director and sitting next to him on the piano bench. It was marvelous.
JM:I am assuming that Tri-Arts was formed by Ray Roderick?
JC:It was Ray and Sarah Roderick and Michael Berkley; they were the three principal minds behind it.
JM:Roughly when would that have been?
JC:It might have been late 1980’s or early 1990’s.
JM:How did Lori Belter get involved in that? (See file #34, cycle 3, Lori Belter)
JC:She was a performer, a dancer in the show.
JM:I don’t remember that and I would.
JC:She may have come in later.
JM:Marshall Miles was Marcellus, and Lee Collins and the Housatonics did the barbershop quartet with some of his members. That was a good show. After you formed Tri-Arts, there must have been some kind of a board of directors?
JC:There was a core group of us after “The Music Man” closed at the playhouse who said, “This was just too good and too much fun to have it end. We need to start something>” We all 6 to 8 of us wat down at Sarah O’Donnell’s dining room table in Amenia, NY. Let’s see what we can do. What would be a show we could do? We have no venue, we have no money, we have ideas and we have creative people and we have people who are willing to work. What could we do? One of the three art people (Ray, Sarah, or Michael) said how about “Annie Get Your Gun!” In a circus tent? Wouldn’t that be fun? We all thought about it. Elaine Simoncini ended up being our treasurer, so she was always thinking about money. She said, “How much would it cost to rent a circus tent?” This is something we could do with our cash assets which are potentially nothing. We pooled our resources, talked to a few people in the area that Ray knew had contacts and access to cash. We can do this. That is when we decided we would do “Annie Get your Gun” in a circus tent.
JM:Where was the circus tent pitched?
JC:Next to the Catholic Church in beautiful downtown Pine Plains, there was a big lawn area right next to the church. It was an empty lot, a perfect size to pitch a big circus tent, plenty of room. We had parking available. We had to mow that big field, but that wasn’t a huge issue. It was just a matter of renting and setting up the tent and getting together a cast and all the rest which goes into with it.
JM:You had a good story about the lady who was Annie.
JC:That was Sarah Roderick. During our rehearsals she announced that she and Ray were expecting a child during the summer. We all said, “That should not affect you doing the lead as long as you feel well. Go for it!” She said, “I am an experienced performer. I can do it.” As the season progressed and
the show went on, we kept letting out her costumes on a nightly basis, but she did it. She did the entire run with no substitutes. She sang the song, “Anything you can do, I can do better!” The end of which is a contest between the two leads who can hold the note longer. She won every night.
JM:Is this where the skunk story comes in?
JC:It was during that run, yes. I was part of the chorus during that show so I was on stage all the time. I had a wonderful view of the audience as well as the stage performance. We were in mid show. I think it was a weekend so we had a full house in the tent. We were serving popcorn outside the tent area for our customers to come in and really give the carnival atmosphere. Mid show I happened to look down along the aisle and what do I see wandering down the aisle among the seats, but a skunk, who was happily wandering among the seats picking up and eating popcorn. No one realized the skunk was there except as I elbowed a few people on either side of me. Those of us on stage watched as the skunk worked his way down toward the stage, one row at a time. Nobody realized until the skunk was all the way up to the first row. Mr. Luther, who was an auctioneer in Pine Plains and had several of his children in the play, was sitting in the front row. He looked down and saw the skunk. Very quietly he simply stood up, walked over, reached down, picked up the skunk by the tail, walked off stage right and heaved it. Most of the audience that night never had a clue that it had happened. Those of us who were on stage were dying thinking he was going to get sprayed along with the entire company. It never happened. Mr. Luther said he had learned that trick as a farm boy that if you grab a skunk by the tail that was how you could deal with it. As long as the tail up, he could not spray.
JM:How many years were you in Pine Plains?
JC:Probably 10 years. We rented the old Carvel warehouse space. We were in negotiations with them for several years. But at that point it was part of an estate and the trustees kept promising us that they were going to donate it to us: they are going to this with it. They are not sure: it went on and on for several years. Finally we said we can’t do this anymore.
JM:Tell me about “The Sound of Music”.
JC:Hot, no air conditioning. We had 6 big fans going that did not make a lot of noise, but we turned them off during the show. As a nun wearing a full habit in that show, it was brutal. Just before the show opened, we everything all lined up. We were managing fine when our Mother superior called from NYC with appendicitis, unable to do the show. On short notice what do you do? If you are Ray Roderick, you call down to the city and pull in favors. On the next train up was Marnie Nixon. She was probably the least known voice of most musicals of that era. She was the actual singer for most of the big film productions that were done by people like Natalie Wood. They would lip sync and it was Marnie’s voice that you heard in most of the big shows. She came up, met us on stage and said, “I’ll have to work with the book to learn the blocking for this show.” She knew the music, but not the blocking on stage. I think she had three days before we opened. When we opened, she was off book. She was fabulous.
JM:That is such a wonderful show. When did you return to the Sharon Playhouse in Sharon?
JC:Considerably after “The Sound of Music”. There were a couple of shows that were done but I was not involved with then so I do not remember titles or that kind of thing. I know they mounted a couple of shows to keep things going. There was a golden opportunity that came up. Pam Provisor was still on the board at that time as was I. She and Evan Provisor were very involved in Tri-Arts at that point. The playhouse came up for sale. She said we have to buy it: if we don’t buy it now, we’ll never get another opportunity to do it again. They scrambled among friends, neighbors, whomever and came up with enough money to buy it. It needed major renovations. When I was doing shows in the Playhouse, we used to put boards across the floor in the basement where the dressing rooms were because there are springs. With every rain the basement would flood so you didn’t put anything on the floor, but on something else at least 6 inches higher.
JM:You always had “professional” people for choreography, set design, costumes and that sort of thing.
JC:Usually the leads were Equity actors and we hired professionals to do the critical tech pieces as well simply because if you wanted to do a quality show, you had to put money into it. You do not want to look like a bunch of amateurs. If you are selling tickets for a regular looking theater, you want it to look like a real theater not we have a barn, let’s do a play.
JM;`What brings people into a show up here? There are certain techniques or certain plays that bring people in.
JC:My feeling has always been schedule as many community members and children as possible in any production. That will guarantee you a well-filled house.
JM:I just went to see “Anything Goes”. It was very well done, but all the cast was from New York. I like theater and I like plays, but I really enjoyed the ones where I could see my friends and neighbors in it.
JC:That is the key. In an area like Sharon, Ct. you have to involve the community. Over the years when Sharon Playhouse was strictly Sharon Playhouse that was what got people in every time. They would try to do New York Theater North, expecting that people would come up from the city to fill the house. No, they can see it in New York City, why should they take a train ride.
JM:Who were some of the permanent dancers?
JC:Pam Provisor, Lori Belter, Claire Rashkoff, Marge Stevenson and Sarah O’Connell.
JM:You were in “Oklahoma” and that was at Sharon Playhouse.
JC:Yes it was.
JM:You had a special role that you played with a descant.6.
JC:Yes, Michael wanted to do the dream scene with a descant that he wanted to try out. Being a poor theatrical company, we only had mikes for the primary performers. Everybody else had to be LOUD. Normally I am loud anyway, but he wanted me to do the descant for this scene and he wanted it to be heard because he felt that it added another dimension to the dream scene. Not enough mikes. What do you do? Being a creative person and thinker, he looked for someone who not on stage during the scene. He found one of our leads so when that person went off stage, I went off stage too and met him in the wings and I sang into his lapel. The audience never knew where the descant came from. I never told until now! The secret is out.
JM:What were some of your responsibilities other than acting or singing?
JC:I have done everything in theater that you can do, except direct. I never was interested in directing. I have hung stage lights, I have done lighting, I have done wardrobe, and I have done costumes. One of my favorite occasions was when we did “Barnum” in Pine Plains. I served as dresser for the lead. That was great fun. There were several very fast changes. What we did Dave and I actually choreographed his wardrobe changes. In his dressing room, we had every suit from jacket, vest, pants, shoes, and the accessories top hat, cravat, eyeglasses and cane. Everything had its place and a specific order. He would come flying off the stage, grabbing stuff off him and he ran in the door. I would take a jacket, put it on a chair, hand him a jacket, then he put that on while I held out the pants, he slipped them on. We could do it in literally seconds. We usually had three minutes which was plenty of time. He had time to check to make sure he had the correct eyeglasses: he had his gloves and all of that because we had had it down to a science. Off he would go and I would rehang everything in its correct spot. The next song of two later, he would be back and we would do it all again. It was great fun.
JM:You said you finally left the theater in 1998? Do you miss it?
JN:Is there anything else that you would like to add to this interview before we close?
JC:Just that I have never mentally left the theater.
JM:You are a teacher, we don’t.
JC:We don’t. We keep going. But now my enthusiasm is all in music.
JM:That is a wonderful transition. Thank you so much.
JC:It is my pleasure and has been my pleasure.