The deaths earlier this year of T3’s founder and music director left the 54-year-old company without a clear leader. But interim artistic director Bruce R. Coleman knows the show must go on
By MARK LOWRY
Bruce R. Coleman began his relationship with Theatre 3 as an intern, when he was thrown into the production crew of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. That was way back in 1985. In the 30 years since, he’s lived up to that musical’s title: He has done everything and anything, from fixing busted seams on costumes to box office management to performing, but most notably directing and designing costumes not just at T3, but throughout the North Texas theater community.
Coleman owes a lot of his success to his close friend and mentor, T3’s co-founder and executive director, Jac Alder. For more than 50 years, Alder led the theater and was a force in North Texas’ artistic community. He was there for so long, Coleman says they even talked about a succession plan once he was gone.
“It was always called ‘The Jac-Gets-Hit-by-a-Bus Plan,’” Coleman says with a chuckle. “Which tells you when it was going to happen.”
Alder wasn’t struck by a bus, but metaphorically that’s what it felt like for Coleman, the T3 staff and the entire theater scene when Alder died in May, at age 80, after complications from pneumonia. Alder was America’s longest-serving director of a professional theater, having led the company since it began in 1961, along with his wife for much of that time, co-founder Norma Young.
In the past 15 years or so, many assumed that the succession plan would put another longtime T3er in charge, the company manager and music director Terry Dobson. But when Dobson became ill last year and it was clear he would not fully recover, Coleman says Alder had more “what if?” conversations with him. Tragically, Dobson died in April.
Forced to think fast after Alder’s death, the T3 board quickly named Coleman acting artistic director. Since the theater keeps a year-round schedule with seven mainstage productions, several second-stage shows and a new youth musical theater school, Coleman had to dive in head-first.
Not only would he direct four of the seven subscription shows in the 2015-16 season announced by Alder, but he helped plan a July memorial for Alder in a packed house at the 750-seat City Performance Hall. Coleman emceed that event, and beautifully. Meanwhile, rehearsals had just begun for the season-opening show, a revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
“The roughest part about this is that I’ve been in nonstop flight since five minutes after finding out [Alder] died,” Coleman says. “I haven’t had time to have a big breakdown … But it will come.”
The North Texas theater scene has witnessed tremendous growth since 2008, with dozens of new, smaller outfits debuting, with a surprising number of them still around. But significant changes — especially in leadership — have rocked some of the established, mid-sized theaters. Fort Worth’s Stage West lost its longtime leader when Jerry Russell died in 2014, but they had already handed over the reigns to current co-artistic directors Jim Covault and Dana Schultes. At Cowtown’s Jubilee Theatre, there will soon be a search for a new leader, the third since co-founder Rudy Eastman died in 2004. And Dallas Theater Center has recently brought on a new managing director Jeffrey Woodward, replacing in the retiring Heather Kitchen.
But the loss of Alder leaves a gaping hole. Not only was he an accomplished director of plays and musicals, as well as an actor (his final performance was in 2012’s Freud’s Last Session), but also an innovator. Early on, he cast performers of color and produced work by black and gay playwrights. Theatre 3 produced August Wilson in the ’80s, and Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band in the 1970s, and championed and worked with Cora Cardona’s Teatro Dallas from its early days in the 1980s.
He was also one of North Texas’ staunchest fighters for the arts, regularly speaking out at city council sessions, advisory meetings and more.
“He was on the front line of what political action can mean to the ecology of Dallas culture, even at the state and national levels,” Coleman says. “Whoever you get in the big house in Austin, it would trickle down and would affect how the theater was being run, and with the city. Theatre 3 was his baby, but he pulled for everybody.”
He had no shame in waving his political affiliations.
“When George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, Jac decided to wear all black, which he did for eight years,” says Coleman, noting that Alder has always been known for his colorful scarves. “The night Obama won, he wore red, white and blue. The colors came back out.
“Up until the end, he was sharp as a tack, with so much passion for the politics, so much passion for everything,” says Coleman, who says he hopes to become as politically involved as his mentor.
Coleman, a Kansas native, moved to Wichita Falls with his family in 1975. He had a talent as a visual artist and illustrator from an early age, and fell in love with theater in high school, when he learned he could put his drawing skills to use with design. After graduating from Midwestern State University in 1985, he moved to Dallas for the T3 internship. In the 1990s, he co-founded the terrific New Theatre Company with Jim Jorgensen, as well as the gay-themed Moonstruck Theatre Company with Matthew Earnest.
In addition to regular work at T3 over the years, he has directed and designed for a number of local theaters, including ICT Mainstage and Uptown Players (he directed this year’s sublime production of The Nance).
Now, he’ll focus on Theatre 3, where there is still much to be decided about its future. One big recent step has been a change in marketing strategy, as longtime public relations manager Kimberly Richard was dismissed and the theater has hired an outside PR firm.
The current season line-up has also changed a bit since Alder announced it. The initial season opening, Picnic, requires a massive set that Coleman said couldn’t be loaded in in the time they had; Picnic was bumped to the fall. Then the rights for the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee drama Inherit the Wind (which had its world premiere in Dallas at Margo Jones’ theater) were pulled — a bigger theater has put a hold on them. Coleman replaced it with Glass Menagerie (which also has a Margo Jones connection, as she co-directed its original production on Broadway) and rearranged the schedule. But the season still includes the two new plays that Alder selected: Fix Me, Jesus and Oil! As Alder was a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, Coleman hopes to direct his first Sondheim musical at Theatre 3 in a future season.
Coleman says the theater is in the black, helped when Alder donated more than $80,000 of his own money to the theater a few years ago. “He made some smart investments in T3 along the way, longtime subscribers have left us in their wills and we’ve created endowments,” he says.
But as for the future? As usual, it’s nothing that can be easily predicted.
“Jac has always been my mentor, friend, my teacher and inspiration — we’ve always had an open dialogue and communication, about the future,” Coleman says. “I’ve really learned the job by example, we’d talk about the succession plan. Was there a specific time when we had this discussion? No. But we would talk about it every day.”
Most importantly, Coleman has confidence in his abilities in this role.
“He wanted me to do this, so there’s obviously something that he saw in me; he believed in me and felt comfortable enough for me to be in this position and carry on. And I will carry on — but I will absolutely carry on as Bruce Coleman.”
Contributor Mark Lowry is the co-founder and editor of TheaterJones.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 14, 2015.