Starting on June 22, crowds will be flocking to Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre to experience a production of Oklahoma! You know the story – love and romance in the harsh conditions of the midwest, decisions of the heart, and of course, cowboys! It’s a well-known Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, but we decided to dig a little deeper by discussing how the director, Carolyn Coulson, is breathing new life into the musical.
What led you to a career in directing?
She initiates her answer with a chuckle. “I started as a dancer when I was a kid. And then when I was 12, I started dancing in musicals. And then I was a performance major in theatre as an undergraduate, and then I acted professionally for about 5 years before I actually decided I wanted to go to grad school for something else. I went off and studied medieval studies,” I pause here to tell her that I haven’t heard something that awesomely unique in quite a while.
Medieval studies, however, would prove to be just a small detour from her longstanding career in theatre and film. “I took a side job running a high school drama program, so I was doing that, but then I had to stop after a while because it was interfering with my graduate studies.” A fortuitous move with her husband would prove to reinforce her background in theatre, again, when a nearby school started offering a new degree in theatre.
“I kind of had this roundabout route, which I like to tell our students when they’re confused about what their plan is for life. I’m like ‘You don’t know! You have a plan, but you don’t really know what is going to happen!’ Really, the gist of that is that I like puzzles, and for me as an actor, it was always a puzzle to try and figure out this character and why they do what they do; why they say what they say. Actually, even when I was performing, I was always interested in how the director was putting the whole show together, which proved to just be an even bigger puzzle. So that’s what brings me the most joy. Directing is, of all the many things I do – including being a mom – one of my biggest joys that brings together all of my skillsets.”
How did this opportunity open up to you, here at SSMT?
“Well, I’ve been on the faculty for 9 years. So after a few years, when Hal Herman was still running Summer Music Theatre, I was like ‘I want to be part of that!’ and he directed everything. I actually performed for two summers at SSMT, and then the next year I started directing. One year I directed The King and I, and other years I’ve done various productions like Mary Poppins, Addams Family, My Fair Lady, and then ‘Oklahoma!’ this year.” Sporting a great resume of golden era classics, she explains, “I like directing modern musicals, but I also like taking on the old ones and thinking about them as if they’ve never been done before. Instead of thinking, ‘Well, it’s always done this way’, let’s go back and ask what is really happening here? I want to tell that story.”
How are you adding your own unique touch to this performance?
I took a step back to appreciate just how much Carolyn has contributed to SSMT. This will be her 5th musical out of a list of big, familiar productions. Some might be daunted by the task of adding their own unique touch to something that many would argue is already perfect. I have a feeling, however, that Carolyn has never flinched once in the face of expectancy, and is successfully able to express her creativity without straying too far from what’s deemed as ‘normal’.
“This is really, actually a very dark show. Although there’s joy in it, there’s some rough stuff there. So I had to try and take that on. When Dr. Albert and I first started talking about it, I said, ‘If I’m going to do Oklahoma!, I want to come at it in the most realistic manner that we can.’ I want there to be a little bit of question about whether Jud is the better person… because Jud is sort of the villain of the piece. But from the beginning of the show we shouldn’t all go ‘Oh my goodness, he’s horrible!’ There should be the thought for a while that maybe she should go to the party with him!”
The musical touches on gender issues a little, “in the fact that men and women tend to have their own songs, you know? I sat down with Bill Pierson, our scenic designer, and was like, let’s think about this. What does a prairie actually look like? What does the farmhouse actually look like in that time period? Same thing with the costume designer.” She takes this minute to tell me about a production she was in when she was 14, where everybody wore gingham as a way to portray the Midwest. “Everyone looked like a bunch of table cloths,” she jokes. When you see this performance, don’t expect an overdramatized wardrobe set and display. Coulson is going for era-appropriate reality. She views it as “a contemporary style in which to do an old show.”
What do you feel most confident about in this production?
“That’s a really hard question for me to single something out. I’m really happy with everything! Let me say two things, because they’re kind of connected: when we first started talking about doing the show, my response was I want a good fight guy! The fights are real; it’s a violent place – that kind of goes hand and hand with my interest in Jud being a viable character. I have to say, I’m really super happy with the direction Jud is going,” she continues. “I think that’s what my stamp on the show will be.”
Carolyn wants to express that she is very happy with her cast, that the whole company is delightful to work with, and her appreciation of not only getting the chance to reconnect with actors she’s worked with in the past, but her appreciation of being able to contribute to the community through directing at SSMT.