Sound Advice

Former Chico theater stalwart Coy Middlebrook returns from New York to direct Court Theatre

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING COY <br>Director Coy Middlebrook (left) helps actors Deanna Cordano and Matt Hammons develop a scene in the Court Theatre production of <i>Advice from a Caterpillar.</i>

Director Coy Middlebrook (left) helps actors Deanna Cordano and Matt Hammons develop a scene in the Court Theatre production of Advice from a Caterpillar.

Photo by Tom Angel

Even in junior high school, Coy Middlebrook thought Court Theatre was “the coolest thing,” as he puts it. Cooler still is that Middlebrook has come back to his hometown—taking a break from hectic life in New York City—to direct Court’s final show, Advice From a Caterpillar.

As many Chicoans know, Middlebrook has a long local theater résumé. He was a founding member of the once-popular Chico City Light Opera, where he directed Hair, The Wizard of Oz, Nunsense, Into the Woods and Grease. Other Chico credits include direction and choreography for University Public Events (Jesus Christ Superstar) and Shakespeare in the Park (The Three Musketeers).

In a recent telephone interview, Middlebrook talked about his developing professional theater life in New York and the witty comedy of Caterpillar.

After five and a half years in the Big Apple, Middlebrook says he is “completely starving.” The money is minimal for the work he does, but, as every aspiring artist knows, it’s part of paying one’s dues. The real pay-off is that Middlebrook is now establishing himself as an emerging director.

Middlebrook already earned an MFA from the Actors Studio Drama School at New School University and relates that he is now an actual member of the studio and “thrilled.” Who wouldn’t be totally jazzed at the opportunity and honor to develop in the environment that nurtured artists such as Alec Baldwin, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Olympia Dukakis, to list a few widely known names?

He also has been asked by the studio to co-chair its Process Unit alongside director Mark Rydell. The Process Unit develops new works, which have included The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, A Hatful of Rain and works by Tennessee Williams.

As an emerging New York City director, Middlebrook most recently served as assistant director of the Broadway revival of Bells Are Ringing. That show opened in April 2001 and closed early, but his work there led to an assignment to assistant-direct a project for Disney Theatricals, which begins soon after Caterpillar opens.

As serendipity had it, Middlebrook found time in his busy Gotham life to direct for Court Theatre and visit his mother, who still lives in Chico. Finding a suitable play was a different story, though. He wanted to do comedy, something fun because “being the last show of the season, the actors might be a little tired, so I figured that a drama might not be the best choice.”

The main thing was to find a play with characters that were a close match to the youthfulness of Court Theatre actors and their college ages, but when he began reading plays with parts for young actors he found that most of them were “quite bleak in outlook.”

Then he came across Douglas Carter Beane’s Advice From a Caterpillar. Advice had been nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award, but Beane is probably best known for his screenplay, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar.

His credits also include As Bees in Honey Drown, chosen for the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Playwriting Award and nominated for Drama Desk Best Play, and The Country Club, voted LA Times Critics’ Choice and winner of Dramalogue Awards.

“It’s a wonderful play,” Middlebrook said of Advice. “It’s complex and complicated, but Court Theatre’s young actors will totally relate to the young characters.”

The play takes its title from the chapter in Alice in Wonderland and the hookah-smoking caterpillar that asks Alice, “Who are you?” The who of the play are: Missy, a “post-modern video artist” (played by Deanna Cordano); Suit, a straight married man (Chris Harper) who is sexually involved with Missy; Spaz, a gay performance artist (Matt Hammons); and Brat, an actor who is bisexual (Rich Matli) with whom Missy falls in love. Complications ensue.

Chico State theater professor Gail Holbrook, longtime friend and collaborator with Middlebrook, read the play and describes the writing as “smart and funny.” Middlebrook talks about the irony of the play, of characters that live in the “age of communication” and have difficulty connecting to themselves or the world so that they can communicate.

“Witty” comedy, he calls it, not at all lowbrow or slapstick—a window into the cityscape in which Middlebrook has been immersed these past several years. The play is a lesson in letting go of the fast track of the world and learning to face the fears and risks involved in experiencing the kind of love that demands change.

The production will further benefit with a set design by Chico State alumnus Hector Garza, who returns to Court Theatre from the master’s program at Western Illinois University.

Advice From a Caterpillar plays through Saturday, July 14. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, including a special Discount Coupon (four tickets for $35), contact the University Box Office at Second and Normal Streets or call (530) 898-6333.