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Q&A with Steve Coleman, Set and Stage Designer for 142 Throckmorton Theatare

He may prefer to stay behind-the-scenes, but set and stage designer Steve Coleman has changed Mill Valley for the better.

You may have seen him up on the mountain, walking through town, or in Peet’s, but did you know how important the soft-spoken man in the beret is to our town? Steve Coleman has done all the set and scenery design for 142 Throckmorton Theatre since its inception. Just peeking into his workspace, filled with various sets, plants, painting projects, books, props, and yes, even a dummy in a tux, it’s clear he is passionate about his work.

MVP: So you’ve been with 142 since it opened?

SC: Pretty much. When I saw that the building was for sale I got very excited because I knew it was the last chance for another theatre in Mill Valley that could be community focused, with all difference types of performances.

MVP: And didn’t you create all of the decorative elements in the theatre? It’s just beautiful.

SC: Yes. It’s still not finished.

MVP: You probably won’t ever think it’s finished.

SC: Oh, I hate the ceiling. It’s the wrong color and it looks like Caesar’s Palace. Some day it will be finished. I wanted the theater to be more trompe l’oeil so you can’t tell what’s real. Theater is illusion. I am always reminding myself of that. You don’t want to create the real thing; you want to give the illusion of the real thing.

MVP: How did you meet Lucy Mercer?

SC:  Actually, I just came over and introduced myself. That was years before the theatre got put together. Lucy bought the place in 1999 and she was so parallel with what I totally believe in. She had that vision and together we just kept playing with the aesthetic part of it. Most people don’t realize that she has put everything into it. She finally had to sell her house.

MVP: And now you design all the sets?

SC: Well, yes, I do whatever is necessary for each show.  The main projects seem to be for the youth programs, where we have fairly complex sets. The youth programs here are all musical theatre. For years I was at Marin Theatre Company, which only does drama, so it’s a very different experience.

MVP: Marin really seems to appreciate musical theater for kids. So many of the kids here participate.

SC: Yes, When I was growing up there was nothing. Over the last 20 years the focus on drama and musical theater for kids has just burgeoned. Joan Deamer, with the Mill Valley Middle School, her standards of excellence were so high and she would just take 80 random kids and put them together for these incredible shows. Young people can develop so quickly by having access to these programs. They turn around overnight and just start flourishing.

MVP: And you do all the painting?

SC: Yes, and I’m also doing a painting project now for Nature Friends in my free time, which is in the middle of the night.

MVP: How did you get your start?

SC: Well a long time ago I took classes in design at College of Marin. Then they started an acting school in the city and they were going to form a company.

MVP: Did you ever perform?

SC: I wanted to learn both sides and be able to really understand the actor’s point of view. I did go through their program and actually joined the company. But I was also building the scenery and finally decided I just wanted to focus on one thing.  

MVP: And you grew up here? Where do you live?

SC: Yes, I grew up just by the library. I’ve pretty much lived in this neighborhood all my life.

MVP: Do you like Mill Valley?

SC: I do, I love Mill Valley. There are things that are scary today because it’s so much harder to live here. It’s so expensive and obviously completely different than when I was growing up. But it’s a nurturing environment. My love is the mountain and the sea.  We’re right on the edge of the open space so we are like a cul de sac. It means we’re not on the way anywhere, so we don’t get as much traffic up on our trails.

MVP: That’s true. There have been times that I’ve been up there for hours and only seen one or two other people.

SC: I feel really rooted after all these years to this place that has so much history. There was a partial European influence when I was young. There were several people who had come straight from Europe. We lived in a little cottage up on Tamalpais and it was part of an enclave with this Swedish weaver named Margaret Vander and she had all these people around her that were connected to the old world.

MVP: Do you like your neighbors?

SC: Oh yes, people keep changing but there’s a core group of us. I’m in between two neighborhood associations that were formed to work on the emergency escape routes, Steps and Lanes. Working together in that way you immediately get to know each other. Plus, this is the best commute I’ve ever had in my life. I’m just walking down the street and I see ten people I know.

MVP: I think a lot of people live here because of the access to nature and all that the town has to offer. I think there’s an appreciation of that and a real camaraderie in supporting the things that make our town special.

SC: You’ve probably seen the Nature Friends up on the mountain. I was just up there at their work party and it just feels like a nice community with a lot of people with a common interest. Everyone feels welcome. It doesn’t feel exclusive to me. I sometimes hear negative things about Mill Valley but my experience has been with the parents when we’re working together on a show. They are passionate about wanting to work together for the school and the work is completely different from what they do in their daily lives. You get architects and doctors who want to help out.  On the other hand, we do have some entitled drivers.

MVP: How do you go about deciding on the design for a set? Do you pretty much get to just make whatever you want?

SC: Well, I don’t get free reign. I try to serve the play first, and then the directorial vision. I go through everything I can find to do research. I have tons of books. My research is not done on the Internet because with the books I can get related ideas of things I never would have thought of. I try not to impose myself on the play, but instead to give it a guiding vision.  

For years I worked with Lee Sankowich at The Marin Theatre Company and I could just kind of feel what he was thinking and hone in on it. That was really fun. With musical theater there’s a little more spectacle and outward turning. Sometimes it’s actually taking yourself out, as you have to remember not to say everything to the audience. It’s important to let them use their imagination to fill in the picture.

MVP: Do you go to the shows or by the time you get the sets done are you just tired of the whole thing?

SC: Oh yes, sometimes I go every night. The production here of Les Miserables seemed truly impossible. I thought, “How can Steven Hess take this enormous story and set concept with all these different locations, a huge cast and city and put it on this little tiny stage?” But they did it beautifully. The power of the acting was so immediate in this small, intimate space.

We made a very flexible set that could rotate and suggest different locales in Paris. The kids could just move it. It was very low tech and it worked.

MVP:  What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of your work? Do you love all the painting, but hate the sawing?

SC: That’s pretty much it. There is so much sawing and schlepping and taking apart of materials. I do love the painting.

MVP: Do you have any assistants or interns?

SC: No, I don’t have any paid assistants. One person has been an incredible helper for the last few shows, but I don’t have anyone here regularly. There are parent volunteers who come in and help with the very heavy stuff, which is great. We have an airline pilot coming in tomorrow. I try to do all the complex decorative elements early on before the volunteers come in in.

MVP: Is it hard to manage the volunteers?

SC: It’s actually fun to try to sense what they’re interested in and try to nurture that. So much of it is just drudgery, getting things primed and ready and putting it all together.  Some of the ornamental work can be really fun when it comes together. It’s art.

MVP: Do you have any favorite shows?

SC: June Coopermand and Joan Deamer did a production of West Side Story up at the Civic Center about ten years ago and it was impeccable. It was so moving. The kids were the actual age of Romeo and Juliet so there was this innocence. They didn’t have all the tricks of the actors who are pros. The kids were just completely open and drew you in.

MVP: Do you ever go to the comedy or music shows?

SC: I’m usually up here working so I try to step out and catch the acts. There’s so much going on here that I can’t always let myself get distracted.

MVP: Well it’s just wonderful. I know the community appreciates it.  I hope the community supports it.

SC: Yes, I agree with Mort Sahl in that this has become the heart of the community. It’s a crossing point of many, many things. There’s comedy, music, shows, and the entire other world of kids’ performances. It’s sort of like there’s a family here, an ensemble. Lucy just sort of magnetizes people in.

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Lippy November 20, 2012 at 08:46 PM
Steve Coleman is my Artistic Rabbi!
Jack November 21, 2012 at 02:51 PM
Much prefer stories such as these, identifying the real and good people of Mill Valley over those embarrassingly crass big-ass McMansion of the week ads, thank you very much.
Delisa Sage November 22, 2012 at 01:32 AM
Steve is super talented and so deserving of recognition. Thanks for spotlighting this highly creative man.
Elenor Barcsak November 22, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Congratulations Steve, from Zenezest, the pianist.
Elenor Barcsak November 22, 2012 at 03:03 AM
Elaine introduced us at Peet's. You spoke of your interest in music. Have a Happy Thnaksgiving, Best wishes from Elenor
Larry Bathgate November 24, 2012 at 03:36 AM
Dear Steve, I had the pleasure of working with Steve when my daughter was in a couple of MVMS musicals directed by Joan Deamer five or so years ago. I knew nothing about set design, but learned to truly appreciate it while I tried to assist Steve. How he managed to put it all together for the Middle School musicals continues to amaze me.

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