Way Off Broadway
State of the Arts
You wouldn't expect a co-producer of Angels in America to advertise himself -- not in Vermont, anyway. But Robert Cole wears the show's promotional T-shirt "all the time," he says, whether he's reading scripts by wannabe Tony Kushners or cutting the grass on his Hyde Park horse farm.
Most people lose their shirts in the Broadway business. Cole, a three-time Tony winner, has stockpiled more than he knows what to do with. He's successfully produced almost a dozen plays in New York, including Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Crucible, Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and the 9/11-inspired Omnium Gatherum -- a runner-up for last year's Pulitzer Prize.
His "general management" credits are even longer: revivals of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Death of a Salesman, A Moon for the Misbegotten and A Raisin in the Sun, starring Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. A self-described "hands-on" guy, Cole jokes, "I wear T-shirts from shows because we didn't sell enough at the concession stand."
It's no wonder he and his wife Laura decided to call their 30 acres of paradise "Intuition Farm." Or that the trim 51-year-old -- "now a huge practitioner of 'life's too short,'" as he puts it -- is planning his own Act II. He's not semi-retired; he's "transitioning." Their new dog, a husky-shepherd mix, is appropriately named Phoenix.
Cole is frank about what drove him north. "I'm sure it's what people have always said: The business isn't what it used to be." The cost of producing theater on Broadway has skyrocketed since Cole came to New York to act in 1979. Then, "Producing a play might have cost $600,000," he says. "Today it's two million."
The process of financing a show, the producer's primary task, has also changed, according to Cole. Backers lay out more cash, he says, but they also drive harder bargains. In exchange for investing, they may ask for a place on the poster, or even "a say in the creative process," he says with a shudder. "I've never done it and I never will."
Producing any Broadway show is a gamble. But a revival with a celebrity actor attached is a safer bet than a new play with no names. Cole calculates, "If you do everything right, and you have a star, you have a 50 percent chance of succeeding. If you do everything right, and you don't have a star, it's 25."
Despite the odds, and his new address, Cole's still in the game. He's producing the revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo with Laurence Fishburne this spring -- if it's not too late to book a theater. Cole and Mamet are good friends.
He's also got a relationship with playwright Arthur Miller, whom Cole calls a "hero." The Crucible creator is currently writing what Cole describes as "his Marilyn Monroe play." The Vermont-based part-time producer will manage the production if and when it opens in New York. Cole still maintains an office there.
He's been less committal with local theater folks. The first inquiry came from the couple's mortgage officer, who had a connection to the Stowe Theater Guild. The people at the Hyde Park Opera House -- the closest performing arts theater -- have also called. "I said I'm not ready for that," Cole says. "But someday I will be."
Like a good producer, Cole is weighing all his options. "Might I open a sandwich shop in Stowe or Hyde Park? Maybe," he says with a chuckle. "It could be a school of young actors, it could be a repertory company, it could be a barn, but right now I'd like to align myself with an academic institution." Before he started producing, Cole co-founded a drama school in New York -- the Michael Chekhov Studio. He's taught acting at NYU and Yale.
In the meantime, he's working on his own writing projects -- plays, screenplays and a game show -- in an office adorned with equestrian photos, not show posters. A script lies open on a chair. From this vantage point, above the valley that leads to Stowe, anything looks possible. Half serious, half dreaming, Cole muses, "I could produce something in Vermont..."
the curtain rises this Friday on Vermont's newest theater company: On the Verge. While its name suggests edgy endeavors, the troupe's goal is anything but: "bringing theater to students and literature to life." Joshua Masters directed the inaugural show, Of Mice and Men. The first performance -- a student matinee at Johnson State -- is almost sold out. Repeat performances are scheduled for September 24 and 25 at Champlain College. Masters and partner-producer Jeremy Fraize are casting about for a spring title that will be compatible with high-school curricula. In marketing, as in theater, timing is everything.