Interview: Christian Coulson on Greg Keller’s new play, “Dutch Masters” at the Unicorn

Christian Coulson talks about theatre. Larry Murray photos.

Photo above by Larry Murray.

One of the most pleasant surprises when they announced the Berkshire Theatre Group’s 2011 season was the inclusion of British actor Christian Coulson in the new play Dutch Masters by Greg Keller.

The play which receives its premiere this week also stars Amari Cheatom, who originated his role earlier this year in a workshop production.

There is little doubt about about the breadth and depth of Coulson’s acting – he has made his mark in all three major mediums: live theatre, film and television.

Chris Coulson’s theatre resume includes Journey’s End in London’s West End, Ghosts (Gate Theatre, London) the UK national tour of Festen, Romeo and Juilet (Liverpool Playhouse), Rumble Ghost (PS122). He is a founder member of QWAN, with whom he has performed Swan!!! and Notes!!! TV includes Gossip Girl, Charles II, Hornblower, Miss Marple & Little Britain. Film includes Four Feathers, The Hours, and the role of Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Directing includes Jeffery and Cole Make It Bigger and Kim Smith: Misfit. He is also a professional photographer. You can see his work at www.coulsonphotography.com

Christian Coulson is remembered by many as Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.


The Mysterious Dutch Masters

We sat down to chat on the patio of the Unicorn Theatre the morning after the first preview. Coulson was remarkably calm, what with opening night only a few days away and reported that things went pretty well with just some minor technical glitches.

But something unexpected did happen.

At the end of the first public performance, those in the audience were so transfixed they remained firmly planted in their seats.

Kate Maguire, Artistic Director of the Berkshire Theatre Group had warmly welcomed the brave first preview crowd, and that she looked forward to hearing their reaction after the show. She meant on the patio, but they stayed glued to their seats and before you could say “improvisation!” there was an informal talk-back with the actors and creative staff. Of such unexpected moments is theatre built.

I was curious to find out more about the show itself, since the capsule description in the press materials said little beyond this:

In the summer of 1992, two young adult men find themselves on the same subway car headed uptown. One white, one black, the two will discover over the course of one afternoon exactly what it is that unites and divides them. A dramatic comedy that continually surprises and defies expectation, Dutch Masters is a shocking examination of race relations in our time.

So we asked the lead actor just what it was about. “The problem with talking about it,” replied Coulson, “is that it is indeed a bit of a mystery, and the journey the audience takes with this play depends on not knowing where it is going. It starts with a situation which then grows, spirals and changes so it is hard to talk about without ruining the experience.” Surprise is one of the most important elements of the theatrical experience, and it appears that the playwright Greg Keller employs it here.

Christian Coulson is performing at the Unicorn Theatre in Dutch Masters. Larry Murray photo.

So is it safe to describe it as a mystery, thriller or psychological study? “All of that but mostly it is just a very good story. I don’t know how to explain it precisely, but last night you could hear the audience gasp, and there was surprise, some were clearly quite nervous, too. This play has an effect on those who watch it, and I just don’t know how to pare it down to one descriptive word.

“Greg (Keller the playwright) has written something that sort of changes its shape all the way through, as the characters become different things to each other during the course of the story.”

The play is what is called a two-hander, two actors who tell the story. “It’s one act, seventy minutes and set in New York in 1992. They meet on the subway, the D train. Everything in it is very specific. I have had a very good time with the director (Brian Roff) exploring all this detail,” said Coulson.

One question that arises when all the words are spoken by just two characters is how difficult it is to learn and perform. How did it compare for example with playing Osvald in Ghosts, is it tougher? “I am not sure if lines-wise it is, but I have never been in something before where I never leave the stage, it is just two people all the time. It is both extremely rewarding and very exhausting.

“Every moment you are rehearsing a play you are working, there are no down moments to catch your breath. Often those quiet moments are used to think through the new things while the others work on their stuff. Greg Keller has been here to help, and then very sweetly will go away for a few days to let us catch up. His impetus is amazing.”

New plays often have rewrites and changes. “There are a couple of places where he has gone back and forth on what he feels should happen at that specific moment, though most changes have been very minimal. Because of the arc of the play, small changes can have a big effect. A change here will have repercussions elsewhere.” In film there is a person who tracks this continuity, it’s their full time job. “Yes, someone sits there and makes sure we have the newest version at all times.”

“I want to tell you how wonderful it is to have the writer be another actor, and such a brilliant one. I saw him recently in Cradle and All at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and he was amazing,” Coulson enthused, “And it is wonderful to have someone you can trust, who looks at the material with both the writers brain and the actor’s tools. He understands the sometimes weird questions that actors can ask as they think about the role from a different angle.” Topped off by director Brian Roff the creative team seems to functioning smoothly. “He’s fantastic, and they’ve worked together before so things move right along. Brian has a strong idea of what he wants, and is good at molding things into that.”

“They did a workshop of Dutch Masters at The Cherry Pit, and Brian Roff also directed there, and Amari Cheatom (his co-star) was also in that cast.” Seth Numrich played the role that Christian is undertaking in the Berkshires.

A Londoner by birth, he is now making his home in New York City. And the Berkshires. Larry Murray photo.

Amari Cheatom has impressive theatre credits including: Zooman and the Sign (Signature Theatre), The Lower Ninth; A Ballad of Sad Young Men; Origin Story (Sundance Theatre Festival); When January Feels like Summer (Sundance Theater Festival); The Toilet (New Federal Theatre); and Age of Grace.

Stage, Screen, Televison – is there a difference?

Christian Coulson has worked – and has followers – from each of the three careers he seems to run simultaneously. (Four if you include his wonderful photographic work.) Is there a different style of acting for each? “The major technical difference,” responded Coulson thoughtfully, “is who has to hear you. In the film the only person that actually needs to hear you is the other person in the scene, so you can play it however quiet it needs to be. They’ll pick it all up on the mike, whereas on stage you have to project so the last row can hear you. But I don’t find a big difference overall. Acting that is disproportionate on stage looks just as strange as acting that is disproportionate on camera. Something that feels truthful can appear huge on camera, but in the end it must be specific to the scene, so that we can believe it.

“The luxury in filming is that you can try lots of different things and let the editor figure out what the route through them is. On stage, you try lots of different things in rehearsal, but the director winnows those down until the final choices find their way to the audience. You can also go deeper with things on stage because you have way more time to be in dialogue with people. In film, you turn up on a day and shoot a few scenes, with long waits in between.” Often you are isolated in between takes, and the kind of rehearsal and interaction you get in the theatrical process is largely missing.

“When I first started to do film, I did not enjoy it at all, but today I find both rewarding.” They just have different ways of getting to the same place. “It’s sort of a minor complaint, but one of the frustrating things about filming is that you wait for hours to do a take, it’s not a hardship but it is certainly a mental challenge. I waited a month once to do a scene in the Sahara Desert, every day going a little bit crazy. And in Harry Potter we spent eight weeks on one scene. A lot of that was for special effects, but the last week you are just exhausted from doing the same scene over and over.”

Finally the conversation turned to his work with QWAN (Quality Without a Name), a group he helped begin, and which other Berkshire Theatre Group actors – Randy Harrison, for example – are part of. The group does parodies, writing and acting their own material. “What’s lovely about it is that these evenings are all just so relaxed. We didn’t talk about it before, but when we started we ended up with something that we did just to make each other laugh as much as possible. But it is not exclusive, we invited everyone else to come in and share it with us. It is so much fun to do things this way.

Christian Coulson and Amari Cheatom in Greg Keller's Dutch Masters. Photo by Christy Wright

“I have never done anything where people have as warm a response. It’s like there would not be any reason to go unless you were planning to simply enjoy yourself. It would be very churlish to turn up with like critical lenses. Each time a QWAN show starts, so far, we are on stage warming up and if people want to say “hi” or chat a bit that’s ok. When we did Swan we were doing dance stretches to warm up, but were happy to see everyone.” The QWAN events are described as more like parties where the audience becomes the invited guests.

Regardless of where he is performing, Christian Coulson puts his all into every role. Dutch Masters promises to be an exciting theatrical event with a new play and new faces for the Berkshires. An ex-pat British actor now residing in the United States, the Berkshire Theatre Festival has freshened up its pool of actors, and we are the luckier for it.

The World Premiere of Dutch Masters by Greg Keller is Directed by Brian Roff and stars Amari Cheatom and Christian Coulson. At the Unicorn Theatre of the Berkshire Theatre Group from July 19-August 6.For ticket information go to www.berkshiretheatre.org

Berkshire on Stage Readers “Bonus”

We like to occasionally reward those of you who actually read these long interviews with a little treat, something unusual. The video below is not anything like Schindler’s List or Gone With the Wind, but if you are multi-tasking you could miss Christian Coulson among the many quirky characters in this incredibly funny web-based series. We like it a lot. And here’s a tip: he’s the one with the English accent.

2 thoughts on “Interview: Christian Coulson on Greg Keller’s new play, “Dutch Masters” at the Unicorn

  1. I saw this very wonderful, sensitive play. I lov3d it. What is the sigificance of the title, “Dutch Masters”

    Doris Soman

    • As they explain in the play it is a reference both to the Dutch Master Painters and to the Dutch slave masters in West Indies. It also is a cigar box, one of the props in the play. I found the title a bit of a red herring as to its connection with the characters.

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