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Issue Date: April 2014 Issue


The Velocity of Eric Coble

As the leading man of Cleveland's theater scene for more than a decade, playwright Eric Coble is taking his act to Broadway with the debut of The Velocity of Autumn at New York City's Booth Theatre.
Rebecca Meiser

Eric Coble forever has a pen — or three — in his pocket. Whenever a thought or question or piece of dialogue comes into his head, he scribbles it down on the nearest blank surface — whether it's a scrap of paper, a playbill or a tissue.

Today, Coble's long, lanky frame is compacted into a seat at Phoenix Coffee Co. in Cleveland Heights, furiously writing on a brown paper napkin.

"Middle school Heathers?" he writes in lettering small and tight as a knot.

"Angels inside: What happens when you are no longer alone in your body?"

These are not just random musings, Coble explains. They are the core questions of plays — as yet unwritten — currently in the cerebral works. At any minute, there could be as many as a dozen ideas peeking out from behind the curtain.

"Most of my plays start as questions," Coble explains. "I think what if and that starts me down the long path."

At 44, Coble still has the buoyant, youthful glow of a teenager. His blue eyes sparkle underneath rimmed glasses, and his face is as smooth as pressed linen. While others have grown up and found engineering or medicine or carpentry, the playwright has not lost his childhood wonder or love of telling stories. "It's a spigot I can't turn off," he explains.

This constant curiosity — this love of finding and turning over philosophical questions and characters, stretching the ideas to the outermost edges of belief — is perhaps Coble's greatest gift. He has penned more than 90 plays: a modern-day adaptation of Pinocchio, a farce on Macbeth about the preschool admissions process, a collaboration with Les Roberts about the holidays in Cleveland and a stage version of Lois Lowry's hit novel The Giver among others. Together, his plays have been performed on four continents and dozens of cities.

Until now, however, none of them have gotten him to Broadway. That will change April 21 when The Velocity of Autumn, Coble's play about a feisty, aging artist fighting to retain her independence and creativity, opens at New York City's Booth Theatre.

On this February morning, Coble has just returned from a very snowy casting call in New York for the play's understudies. "They only have a few minutes," he says of the actors who auditioned. "They were looking for the outer edges, pushing the characters as far as they could."

• • • • •

It's the same kind of creative friction that sparked Coble one evening in 2007. While walking in his neighborhood, Coble stopped for a moment at the house of his octogenarian neighbor.

Recently her children had grown worried about her living alone and were trying to move her to assisted living — a move his neighbor was greatly opposed to.

"She'd lived in this house for the vast majority of her life," Coble says. "She wanted to die there too."

As he stood outside the Cleveland Heights colonial, his mind began to whirl: What was she thinking? What would happen if she decided she wasn't going to come out? What would it look like if she refused to move? Who would reason with her?

His neighbor's predicament spoke to him.

Coble went home and over the next few years, the questions eventually found their marks. What he sketched became The Velocity of Autumn, the story of Alexandra, a strong, independent, aging woman, who sets up Molotov cocktails all around her Brooklyn brownstone that she threatens to ignite if anyone tries to make her leave.

The character that emerged also looked and felt a lot like the strong, healthy mother of his childhood.

But when the play opened in 2011, audiences did not see Coble's mother or his neighbor. They saw their own mothers, grandmothers and selves.

Ironically, by writing one of his most personal plays — one that his mother has yet to see or even read — Coble also created his most universally understood one.

"That's the nature of art," says his wife, Carol Laursen. "The more specific you get with details, the more it resonates."

• • • • •

Coble likes to say that every experience is a story, and every person a storyteller.

His own begins in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was born 44 years ago.

His mother, Jan, had spent her 20s and early 30s flitting from city to city, taking temporary jobs to support her artistic, gypsy ways. "She never had a career as much as a bunch of jobs," Coble says. "She loved being able to just leave when she got tired of a place. She had a deep hunger for independence and never wanted to be dependent on anyone."

While working as a secretary for the U.S. Air Force in Iceland, Jan found out she was pregnant. She gave the father an opportunity to be part of her son's life, but he bowed out early. "My mom always wanted to be a single mom," he says. "That way she could make any decision she wanted."

That included delivering her baby in Scotland.

"She did her research and learned that Scotland had a lower infant mortality rate than the United States," Coble says. "She thought, Hey, I've never been to Scotland."

By the time Coble was 2, Jan had taken a job teaching elementary school on a Native American reservation in New Mexico. In the small home, with just a few toys and a 8-inch, black-and-white TV, Coble was expected to create his own stories, fill in the emptiness with his imagination. So he play-acted tales that included Godzilla and adventurous chipmunks. He filled stacks of typewriter paper with comic book meanderings.

"They were total rip-offs of Alice in Wonderland and Captain Kangaroo," he laughs.

Every Saturday afternoon for the Metropolitan Opera's live radio performance, Jan would drag an easel into the living room and disappear for hours into the art and music. Her son was invited to sit and listen, but "if I made a sound I had to leave the house," he recalls. It taught him how to "give yourself wholly to an experience," he says.

Given this background, it was no surprise when Coble drifted toward the arts in high school. As a sophomore, he was cast in the play Damn Yankees.

"I loved the whole make-believe aspect of theater," he says. "And I loved the thrill you got hearing the audience's approval at the end of the play. I thought, Theater, of course! That's what I'm going to do with my life. I'm going to be an actor. From that point on, I acted in everything I could get my little paws on."

For a long time, Coble stuck to this plan, pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in acting. He didn't take his first playwriting class until he was a second-year graduate student at Ohio University — and that was only because the school required it.

But as he sat in class, Coble realized that he'd been studying playwriting for years. "I was in so many great plays — plays by Shakespeare, by Gibson, by Shepard and Miller — and I'd be saying their words every night and hear other actors say their words every night," Coble says. "Through those experiences, you really start to think about how you use dialogue, how you set up timing for jokes."

In the class, Coble wrote his first play, Tying Knots, an autobiographical farce about young romantic couples whose lives converge in one night. He submitted it to the school's annual spring playwright's festival, where it was accepted and played to largely positive reviews.

"I owe a lot of my career to that play," Coble says. "If that hadn't gone well, we wouldn't be here talking."

• • • • •

Coble's mother had hit a crossroads. In 1996, after a few of her close friends passed away, she began to consider how she wanted to spend the rest of her life, says Coble.

So she moved from Colorado, where she'd lived for years, to Cleveland Heights.

For more than a decade, everything was fine. Jan enjoyed being in Cleveland, close to her son and grandchildren.

The parts of Alexandra that resembled Coble's independent mother in The Velocity of Autumn rang true.

Like Jan, Alexandra had lived in Topeka, Kan., and spent her 20s wandering around places such as Puerto Rico and Iceland. Like Jan, Alexandra spent her Saturdays painting, with the Metropolitan Opera playing in the background.

"You should remember me," Alexandra tells her estranged youngest son, Chris, as "a young woman running past exhibits with her little boy, laughing, trying to name each artist as we went."

"Some of the seeds of the story come from real events with my mother," Coble admits. But that's as far as he'll go. "The character is as much a reflection of me as anyone else," he says.

The play had its world premiere at Boise Contemporary Theater in Idaho in April 2011. When The Velocity of Autumn opened a year later back home at Lakewood's Beck Center for the Arts, however, Jan fell gravely ill.

The show was a success, selling out night after night. But it was hard for Coble to enjoy it.

"It was the biggest plummet in health she'd ever had," he says. "For a long time it looked like she wasn't going to make it."

As Jan became weaker, she began to more closely reflect the fictional character's decline. No longer could she do her own laundry, buy her own groceries, take out the trash, relying instead on Coble to do these things.

She wasn't even able to see the play during its Cleveland run. "This is the one I think she'd really like," he says.

• • • • •

During a potluck dinner hosted by the head of the theater department at Ohio University, Coble met fellow acting student Carol Laursen. He brought a bag of potato chips to the party, while she brought a bowl of raw cookie dough and 200 plastic spoons.

He was impressed.

"I had two thoughts," Coble laughs. "That's so creative, and I hope no one gets salmonella."

The two started dating and when Coble took a one-year internship at the Cleveland Play House in the early '90s, the former biology major with wit as sharp as her bangs followed. By 1994, the couple was married.

During the day, Coble acted in children's plays and filled in as an understudy and reader in major Cleveland Play House productions. He spent nights and weekends curled up in his apartment working on a set of three interlocking plays that explored isolation and the effects of technology on a community.

Set in the near future, residents of an unidentified city are instructed to shutter themselves indoors out of fear of violence, disease and pollution. Locked inside their own homes, the community's only connection to each other — and the outside world — is through computers, fax machines and telephone headsets in their ears that supply updated news reports.

Sound-Biting, the second play in the series, premiered at the Dobama Theatre in 1996 to a packed audience and critical acclaim.

"I felt the same rush I felt when I got on stage for the first time in Damn Yankees in high school," he says.

By then, Coble and Laursen had their first child, Trevor. While Laursen worked as a lab technician at University Hospitals to help pay the bills, Coble played the role of stay-at-home dad.

"I would sit with Trevor draped over my shoulder as I wrote down notes," he says. "I encouraged Trevor to take lots of naps."

The experience changed him.

"There's no way to say this without sounding cheesy or sappy," he says. "But it deepened my sense of connection to other human beings in the world. It made me feel like I understood the world and people better. It gave me a connection — and telescope — into the rest of the world."

• • • • •

From the moment lead producer Larry Kaye first read The Velocity of Autumn script in 2011, he believed it would end up on Broadway.

"It's just a gorgeous play, and it's so funny," says Kaye, who saw the production in Cleveland. "The question of aging — and what happens toward the end of life — is a subject that just really resonates with people."

Kaye, who produced the Tony Award-winning American Idiot, had hoped to bring Velocity straight to Broadway. But he couldn't find a space that would work.

He wanted Coble's play to show in an intimate theater on Broadway (he felt American Idiot could have had a longer run if the venue had been smaller), but couldn't find the right fit.

At the same time, a spot opened up at the Arena Stage's 514-seat Kreeger Theater in Washington, D.C. Still overwhelmed with all the attention the play was receiving, Coble was happy to use the Arena Stage as the play's East Coast testing ground.

"Eric really tapped into something with [Velocity]," says Estelle Parsons, the Academy Award-winning actress who played Alexandra in Washington, D.C., and will reprise the role on Broadway this month.

"They just leap into the play," she says. "They embrace it, because they recognize something in it."

Within days of its opening, Velocity became one of D.C.'s must-see plays. The owners of the Booth Theatre, who had heard about the play from its previous runs, came down from New York City to view the performance.

"They were really enthusiastic when they saw the audience response to it," says Kaye. "They really believed in it."

Last year, the Booth owners offered Velocity a spot in their theater. The marquee for the play went up last month.

• • • • •

Wandering through Coble's living room is a little bit like walking through a flea market — there are interesting odds and ends everywhere and nothing seems to match.

In the middle of the room sits an old weather-beaten coffee table from Ikea, surrounded by a large hand-me-down brown corduroy couch Coble and Laursen received from neighbors, and a solid wooden rocking chair Laursen received from her parents, after Trevor was born.

On one of the walls hangs a woven red-and-yellow God's eye yarn weaving that Coble received in elementary school. On another hangs an unframed poster of Branford Marsalis, whose concert Coble and Laursen saw together on their first date.

The Cleveland Heights house is full of these nostalgic pieces that make it a home, make it comfortable. But the third floor attic — a cluttered room warmed by a radiator heater, cut off from cable and any landlines — is where Coble retreats to let his mind wander and to do the majority of his writing, sketching and thinking.

An open futon takes up most of the room with blankets and pillows strewn across, creating a nestlike atmosphere. It is here, on this futon, with his back pressed against the wall, that Coble composes most of his plays.

He does not write on a computer — preferring the fluid naturalness of pen on paper — and writes on whatever is available: notebooks, backs of previously published plays.

"With paper, I can cross things out, sketch in arrows pointing to thoughts on what a character is thinking and just generally capture the heat and passion of a moment better," Coble says.

Until now, Coble's most successful original work has been Bright Ideas, a reimagining of Macbeth in a preschool admissions office.

When Coble's son Trevor was 3, he entered the preschool system. Coble had heard stories about the competitiveness of the preschool application process, but he'd waved them off. But even at Trevor's granola, co-op-style school, Coble and his wife had to get in line at 5 a.m. to ensure their child would have a spot.

"It seemed intense to me," he says. "But there were people doing much more than that. They were literally trying to register their child at birth. I was struck by how much these parents really loved their kids and how short a step that was from obsession."

That started his mind down his favorite path: What if a parent was desperate to get his child into a good preschool? What if he killed someone to make sure he got in? How would he do it?

"In a lot of Eric's plays, the main characters at the center are trying as hard as they can to live perfectly normal lives, while the world around them is defying them," says Seth Gordon, the former associate artistic director of Cleveland Play House. "Eric's plays take place in worlds that are just barely hanging on to reality."

After opening at the Cleveland Play House in 2002, Bright Ideas played in regional theaters across the country and made its off-Broadway premiere in New York in 2003. Critics loved it. Variety called it "a tidy little gem of comic insanity," and The New York Post declared it "funnier than anything on Broadway."

The reactions brought a smile to Coble as well.

"Everyone who read it in Chicago and New York and Washington, D.C., all asked how I knew their city so well. They all thought their own city was the only one going through this," Coble laughs. "I was writing about Cleveland."

• • • • •

Today, Coble spends his time criss-crossing between Cleveland and New York, sitting in on understudy auditions, inserting scalpel edits such as commas and word changes and participating in media interviews.

For a playwright happiest sitting at home, sipping tea with his family, the experience is unfamiliar territory.

"When you're doing these press interviews, there's all these flashes and cameramen shouting, •Look over here, look over here,' " he recounts. "When they're throwing questions at you, all you can do is try to figure out how to answer it — hopefully in a succinct and interesting way — and respond to what's in front of you."

Whether his mother will get to see The Velocity of Autumn on Broadway is a question that remains unanswered. Coble hopes she will make it to New York City.

But it might not be the only Coble play that ends up on Broadway.

Southern Rapture, a comedy about the real-life drama behind the production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America at the Charlotte Repertory Theatre, has been optioned for New York.

Opponents of Kushner's production have objected to the story's "perverted form of sexuality" and nudity and have tried to prevent the show from being performed.

In February, producers held a reading of Rapture, featuring Emmy- and Tony-award winning actors. Coble is waiting to hear whether a theater will pick it up.

Though it is fun for Coble to see his name lit up on a Broadway marquee, at his core, Coble says he will always be a Cleveland writer.

"I put on my first play at Dobama Theatre, when it was just a basement in Cleveland Heights and had a staff of two and was run by a bunch of devoted volunteers," Coble says. "That's the theater I come out of. And that's how I imagine, to this day, all my plays being done. That's the audience I continue to write for."


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