An Interview with Theatrical Director, Jeremy Cole

by Nancy Solomon
An Interview with Theatrical Director, Jeremy Cole

Being in plays as a high school student led Jeremy Cole to realize that he wanted to be the person who bossed everyone around. "I wanted to be the 'idea' guy," he explained. "I loved how my directors in high school didn't just do what the script said, but added other dimensions to it... That's the job I've wanted to do ever since."

Mr. Cole earned his bachelor's degree in theatre with an emphasis in directing from St. Edward's University. The small private Catholic university with an Equity guest artist program (Actors' Equity is the national union for professional actors and stage managers). "St. Ed's isn't well known, but it had a pretty wonderful program when I was there," added Mr. Cole.

He got his first paid theater job in 1984, when he was a senior at St. Ed's, as the group sales person for the now closed Capitol City Playhouse in Austin, Texas. He earned $200 a week, which wasn't a whole lot of money back then, either. After he graduated, he became the Playhouse's administrative assistant – spending 16 hours a day at the theater for two years.

"I've always acted and costumed," explained Mr. Cole. "I added set and sound design, directing, dancing and props in college. My lighting, wigs and choreography experience came after college." He honed those skills while continuing to work in Austin at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, the oldest professional theatre in central Texas, Different Stages, the Paramount Theatre and the Hyde Park Theatre.

Mr. Cole earned a master's degree in education - curriculum and instruction emphasizing the creative arts in learning from Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. As part of his course requirements, he volunteered as a storyteller for hospitalized children. "I went back to the roots of theater. It was totally addicting and helped me develop my skill as a playwright," Mr. Cole said.

Mr. Cole moved to Denver and directed, wrote, designed and acted for almost every theater in town including Hunger Artists Ensemble, Curious Theatre Company, The Avenue Theatre, Aurora Fox Arts Center, Town Hall Arts Center, Theatre On Broadway and other companies that no longer exist – a not uncommon phenomenon.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Cole moved to the mountains to become the artistic director and just about everything else for the Backstage Theatre Company in Breckenridge, Colorado.

He was nominated and won many awards for directing and design from the Denver Westword annual Best of Denver Arts & Entertainment, and the Denver Drama Critics Circle (DDCC). "At one point," Mr. Cole added, "I was the "Susan Lucci" of the DDCC for holding the record of most nominations without a win (and in the most categories)." He finally won best director in the Circle's last year.

He relocated to San Francisco in 2005. "No one knows my work... It's a challenge to start all over again," said Mr. Cole. By 2007, he had already added work as a director, costumer and marketing director for the San Jose Stage Company, Theatre Rhinoceros and Subterranean Shakespeare. Not bad for a newcomer.

You & Your Career

What do you enjoy most about your career?

Having the ability to give birth without having to have an epidural or an episiotomy. Truly, it's like watching those fast-motion films where flowers grow and bloom before your eyes in seconds. With theatre, I get to watch people go from square one to a full-fledged performance in a relatively short period of time.

How has your career unfolded?

Like a badly mangled piece of yellow legal pad paper. We would love our careers to unfold like a Japanese fan, or an accordion, but things are rarely so ordered or even. One job might lead to several others, and you're on a roll – then you move to a new town where no one knows you and you're starting from scratch. I just moved to San Francisco, where no one knows my work, from Denver, where producers used to just call me with projects. It's a challenge to start all over again.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

It's odd because the big names in stage directing were either dead or doing their work far away from where I lived in Arkansas, so I didn't have any people whose work I could emulate. I had read about Elia Kazan and Peter Hall and Harold Prince and Tyrone Guthrie, but I had no idea whether I'd care for their work myself, or not. Peter Brook's book on directing, The Empty Space was a huge influence, however. It validated my trust in my own instincts.

What has been your personal key to success?

I find that if I expect people to give me their best, they will do so. I don't have to cajole, or wheedle, or shout. If my actors give it their all (to whatever degree that may be), they make me look better than I am.

What awards and/or successes have you had? How important have they been to you, personally, and to your career?

I've been nominated many times for awards. At one point, I was the "Susan Lucci" of the Denver Drama Critics Circle for holding the record of most nominations without a win (and in the most categories). But I finally won Best Director from them in their final year of existence (Whew!). It was a great boost to my ego, definitely. So personally, awards are a wonderful thing. Professionally, they don't mean squat.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I'm thinking of starting my own company. Don't know why I've never done it before.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about your profession to be successful?

There is no more essential quality. A technician can be laissez-faire about the job he's doing, perhaps, but an artist? Never.

Job Information & Advice

What exactly do you do as a theatrical director? What are your key responsibilities?

I play God. So if you read the opening of Genesis, it pretty much describes my job. I make everything happen. However, it usually takes more than one week.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

If a day is ever typical, I worry. Theatre, by its very nature, is a shape-shifter – so the day-to-day workings are constantly shifting, as well. I could be researching for part of the day, holding a production meeting, auditioning or running a rehearsal. Every day is usually different.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? What's your favorite gadget?

A director tends to sit in the dark and take lots of notes (I'm often a designer on my shows, as well, so the notes increase exponentially). I love those pens with tips that light up. My penmanship is so dreadful that the light-up tip helps immensely when I try to decipher the hieroglyphics on my notepad afterward.

What professional organizations are you a member of? What are the other professional organizations?

I'm a member of Theatre Bay Area, a local networking organization. The only union that covers directors is the SSDC, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. I don't belong to that august body.

What are some common myths about your profession?

The casting couch.

How do you use computers? Are there specialty software programs for your profession? If so, what are they and what do they do?

I use Word and Excel. I use the Calendar template in Word a LOT. I use several programs in my design work, such as ShowPro Midi, which allows me to run sound and light cues from my laptop. But as far as programs for directing? Nope.

What are the best ways to get a job?

Other people. The old adage is true: "It's who you know that gets you there: It's what you know that keeps you there."

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

It gets you an interview, certainly. It may even get you some jobs – possibly. It won't build your reputation, though. Only you can do that.

How available are theatrical internships?

Extremely available. There are a large number of them. They pay nothing, however, and your duties are pretty much limited to bringing coffee to the director. You have to make an internship worthwhile by offering to do more, watching everything that goes on, soaking it all in like a sponge. And making friends, lots of friends.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating students who specialize in your profession?

Lots, but it means taking jobs that are related to directing. It's unlikely that you'll get work directing right out of the gate. Many a director has moved into the position after first working as a stage manager, assistant director, actor, etc.

How does working for a prestigious organization make a difference?

Much the same as having a Yale degree – it can get you a foot in the door elsewhere.

Education Information & Advice

Do you have to be licensed and/or credentialed to direct?

Nah. It's like being a parent. There ought to be a license to have kids, but anyone can do it.

If someone has the talent already, should they go to school (or get professional training) and why?

Unlike acting, where you can really learn all you need to know by doing it, directing is aided greatly by education and I'll tell you why: I think that any director worth his or /her salt should have training in the other areas also. Not just in acting and theatre history, but in playwriting, lighting, costume, set design. It helps immensely when working with others to be able to speak the same language. It not only makes your life easier, but it builds credibility faster than any single other thing you do. If you can suggest operating a fog machine through a DMX channel, both the property master and the lighting designer will automatically know they're working with someone who's "one of them" – and the respect that garners you is priceless.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?

I would say that a person who is interested in directing should look for a smaller school that allows crosspollination of disciplines. There are schools where costume positions, for example, are broken down into cutters, drapers, stitchers. These people often learn such a narrow focus that they are worthless in any other area. That would be death to a director's career.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?

The problem is that many schools still have reputations based on programs that have changed greatly, or faculty who are no longer there. I'd look at the current faculty listing (any worthwhile school has this information on its website) and do some comparing. The biggest thing – again for directing – would be to find out if students actually get to direct. One should definitely choose a school where they are allowed to direct at least one show before graduation.

When is it a good time to go after a graduate degree?

Many grad schools want you to have a little life experience before you go for a degree in directing – but don't let this wait too long, or you'll never do it.

Would you change anything about your education if you could? If so, what?

I'd have taken my master's degree in directing.

How did you find a school?

The ACT test had a placement portion. You entered what you were looking for and the testing people came back with "matches." One of those matches was St. Edward's – where I wound up going – and Benedictine College.

Industry Trends

How is the job market now in the profession? How do you think it will be in five years?

It's not as glutted as the market for actors, but there are still many more directors than jobs available for them. Many go into academic careers, which tend to be more available (and steadier work).

How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

I'd like to say that it has helped, and it has – but not as much as one would hope. The best part is that I can send information - notes, schedules, scripts - to actors without the delay that mailing such things would cause.

What topics are emerging as hot issues in the field?

There are always fears that live theatre is dying, since the average age of theatre-goers is pretty high up there and now they're dying off. They aren't necessarily being replaced by younger theatre-goers. With the advent of YouTube and Digital Film capabilities, we may see a sea-change from people creating plays for a live audience to people creating virtual entertainments that audiences watch on-line, instead.

Closing Remarks

What final advice do you have for potential theatrical director students as they consider their options?

Directing classes don't even begin to teach you what it's like to direct. A director is also a boss, a coach, a therapist, a cheerleader. I'd recommend to anyone that they take some psychology, sociology, philosophy, management and ethics classes – because you really do wear many hats, as you'll learn the first time a cast member comes to you in tears because she just broke up with her boyfriend – who is also in the cast – and you can't really afford to ignore this, because they have an on-stage kiss to do, but they're not speaking to each other at the moment.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow up with Jeremy Cole personally about this interview, click here or visit his website.

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