There are only a few local actors who have the star quality to sell tickets just on reputation alone, and David Coffee is one of them. The soon-to-be-54-year-old, a Fort Worth native, has been an audience favorite since he returned to working at Casa Mañana in 1992, the theater where he got his start as a youth.
Casa patrons know him well, as do audiences in Beverly, Mass., where he has played Scrooge for 18 years in the North Shore Music Theatre's annual production of A Christmas Carol (yes, he started in his 30s). In recent years, he has also made a splash at Trinity Shakespeare Festival, performing in each of the group's three years, in both the drama and comedy (as all of the TSF actors do). He has really shone in the clown/fool roles, as Feste in Twelfth Night (2009) and Touchstone in As You Like It (2011).
Earlier this year, Dallas audiences got a taste of his talent when he played Herr Schultz in Dallas Theater Center's excellent Cabaret. He résumé also includes 20 years of Granbury Opera House, national tours and myriad regional theaters.
This week, he appears in his 75th—yes, 75th—show at Casa, Hairspray. He plays Edna Turnblad, the mother of pleastantly plump Tracy Turnblad, the girl who starts a fashion and social revolution in 1960s Baltimore. After Hairspray, he'll be in Circle Theatre's The Fantasticks, and then return to North Shore to do his 19th Scrooge there.
TheaterJones talked to Coffee about this role, making a living as a stage actor (he really does it), and what he may have inadvertently done to Ethel Merman.
TheaterJones: This is your 75th show at Casa. What was your favorite?
David Coffee: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was Casa's first show to do at Bass Hall [in 1998].
How did you first know you should be an actor?
I had a teacher in the second grade who told me I should go into acting. We had to do some sort of talent for the class, and I lip-synched to the entire cast album of The Wizard of Oz. I played all the parts. She was so impressed she had me do it for all the classes. … I later saw an ad for acting classes at Casa Mañana. ...My first show there was The Wind and the Willows in 1968.
That was when Johnny Simons ran Casa's children's theater, before he started Hip Pocket Theatre?
Yes. Jim Covault [of Stage West] was also in that production.
You are a rarity in that you're one of the few North Texas-based actors who makes a living entirely from stage work. And you've always done that. Have you ever had another job?
I worked at Watson's department store in Arlington, in shoe sales, as a teenager. In college, I was a mail boy at my father's business. …Since I started acting, I've either been playing a show, learnin' a show or forgettin' a show. I've been very fortunate.
You spent the '80s doing tours. Were they the big national tours?
No, they were non-Equity one-nighters. We did an Annie Get Your Gun that was absolutely horrendous. Our two leads were country and western stars and they orchestrated the show for a country and western band. The leading lady got bored and started playing the music…she tried to act, but the singing, was awful. Ethel Merman died while we were on tour, and we said our show is what killed her. It was in Bluefield, West Virginia. I'll never forget it. It was in a high school auditorium, and their mascot was the Beavers. And there was a sign with the Beaver creed on it.
You were part of the reason Ethel Merman died?
[laughs] I met her once. She was at the Sanger Harris in Dallas signing autographs, I just happened to be there. I told her I was in a production of Call Me Madam in a little town called Granbury, and she said "That's great, I still get a piece of that!"
You started playing Scrooge at the North Shore Music Theatre in 1992, when you were in your 30s. Has your portrayal changed as you've gotten older?
It really hasn't changed that much. I clicked into him even as a child. I never felt an affinity to Tiny Tim as a child, it was an affinity to Scrooge. For me it's just been the gradual process of aging.
You've been a standout as a Shakespearean clown (and other roles) for Trinity Shakespeare Festival. Had you done Shakespeare before?
I hadn't done it since college. Shakespeare doesn't pay, for one thing. I was scared to death. It has been so neat and rewarding. I had no preconceived notions going into Shakespeare, and I think that's why it has worked.
You understudied the role of Edna Turnblad at North Shore last year. How did that prepare you for playing the role here?
The big thing was with the fat suit [he shows the suit that he'll wear under his costume hanging on the rack]. Paul Vogt played Edna, and he told me to make sure that they give the suit a vagina [with a zipper], because otherwise you have to take the whole thing off to go to the bathroom.
How are you approaching Edna?
I've seen people play it soft and feminine and I don't do that. I don't pull any big bones about it. The femininity will come through the physicalization, but I don't do with it the voice. You just play what's there and you're OK. You don't ignore the fact that it's a guy in drag, because there are a couple of places in the show where they play it up; but other than that, you don't worry about it.
You never played a woman before?
No. I've worked with a lot of leading ladies…Cyd Charisse, Betty Buckley, Sandy Duncan, Ruta Lee, Cathy Rigby. I never thought I'd be one.
◊ You can also read Mark Lowry's feature story on Coffee in the Friday, Aug. 12 issue of The Dallas Voice, which is a TheaterJones media partner. It's online here.