George Coleman hurried down the aisle in the Waterville Opera House, slipped in through a dark door and appeared seconds later on the big stage.
He positioned himself at stage right and waited for his cue.
“George, take a step downstage, please,” said show Director Debra Susi. “And another step. OK. Awesome.”
Coleman, squinting into the bright lights, was rehearsing for “Shrek the Musical,” which marks his 50th acting stint on the Opera House Stage.
At 80, he is well-acquainted with the theater.
“George is really an icon here,” Opera House Executive Director Diane Bryan whispered, watching the rehearsal from the back row. “Everybody wants to know George. He’s as much a fixture here as the Opera House itself.”
A tall, thin man with smooth gray hair, pointed beard and a handlebar mustache, Coleman could as easily play a Shakespeare character as he could a gold prospector.
He doesn’t seek out and audition for particular roles; rather, he just auditions for a show and takes what the director gives him, he says. In “Shrek,” which started showing last week and continues April 11 to 13, he plays a knight and a bishop.
“I like singing and I enjoy being in the ensemble — in the chorus,” Coleman said earlier, sitting in the Opera House lobby. “If somebody throws a role out at me, I think, ‘OK — they must think I can do it.’”
Those roles have been as varied as the people he has worked with over the years at the Opera House, where he also sat on the board for 25 years.
He has appeared in “Camelot,” “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “Cinderella,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Brigadoon,” “The Sound of Music,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The King and I” and “The Music Man,” to name a few.
His first show on the Opera House Stage was “The Pirates of Penzance,” in 1972. A group of local medical doctors, Tony Betts, John Towne and Bruce Trembly, had started a theater group called “Titipu Choral Society.” Coleman saw their production of “Mikado” and decided to join the troupe.
“I was just in the chorus. The musical director was Ludlow Hallman, who was the musical director at University of Maine, Orono; and the stage director was Dick Sewell. Those were fun times. I did five shows with them. I remember that when we did “The Pirates,” we were all out there onstage with mugs; and I think Bruce or John laced the mugs with 150-proof rum one night. We discovered that quickly. That was probably a dress rehearsal — who knows?”
Coleman also played opposite M.J. Rinfret in “Gigi,” back in 1977.
“It was my first solo role,” Coleman said. “I played the lawyer. ‘Gigi’ was one of very few plays that started in the movies and went to the stage, and the part of the lawyer did not appear in the movie. I did that with the Waterville Players.”
Coleman, direct and down-to-earth, does not claim to have a favorite show among the many he has performed in: “My favorite is whatever I’m doing at the time.”
While he has spent most of his theatrical life at the Opera House, he also has appeared on stage in Pittsfield, Camden, Rockport and other venues. He started acting as a freshman at Fairview High School in Dayton, Ohio.
“I got into drama because my mother knew the drama teacher. My mother was big on public speaking and projection and what-not so she thought that’d be a good thing for me.”
While a senior at Colonel White High School, also in Dayton, he got into chorus and performed in “H.M.S. Pinafore,” his first musical.
After graduation, he entered Cornell University, where he majored in geology and was in the glee club. He was first tenor.
He met his future wife, Joan, at Cornell. She was studying institutional management in the home economics department. He graduated in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in geology and entered graduate school at University of Kansas, where he continued his study of geology.
“Wilt Chamberlain and I got there at the same time. He used to hang around the student union,” Coleman said. “There was a bowling alley downstairs, and you could find him down there. He would sit there, feet flat on the floor, and his knees were three or four inches above the table. If his torso had been proportional to his legs, he’d have been close to 8 feet tall. He was the big recruit.”
Coleman married in 1956, got a master’s in geology from Kansas in 1960 and did all the necessary work for a doctorate except the dissertation, he said. A graduate assistant there, he taught geology, paleontology, sedimentology and stratigraphy. In the early ’60s, the Colemans moved to Waterville, where he taught geology laboratories at Colby College and then worked in college admissions. In 1966, he became Colby’s registrar, a job he held for 40 years.
In addition to his Opera House involvement, Coleman is the father of three girls, all grown, has worked with United Way of Mid-Maine Inc. more than 30 years and is a member of its board of directors.
An avid bird watcher, he does the annual Audubon Christmas bird count; and in February, he went to Hawaii with his sister for a two-week guided birding trip. He collects coins, reads and watches sports.
“Right now, I’m making my way through the Oz books. They used to come out once a year. I would get the new one for Christmas every year when I was a kid, so I kept up with the Oz books in the ’40s.”
He admits to passing up a few shows during his time in theater; for instance, he had no interest in “Fame” or “Fame Forever,” he said.
“I got cast in ‘West Side Story,’ which is the first one Deb (Susi) did here; but my father took sick, and I had to beg out.”
“Shrek the Musical” is about an ogre named Shrek who rescues a feisty princess. It’s based on the popular movie starring the voice talents of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy.
“It weaves in a lot of fairy-tale creatures — it’s almost a traditional fairy-tale love story,” Coleman says. “After periods of rockiness, the right people get together, finally.”
Five days before opening night, April 4, the entire cast was rehearsing for the first time on the Opera House stage. Until this point, they had worked in groups in the nearby dance studio.
“All your rehearsals are chopped up blocks, and it’s not until a day like this that you begin to get the flow of the show,” Coleman said. “You’ve got choreography rehearsals, you’ve got musical rehearsals, staging and lines rehearsals — and they all occur in different places and times, and now it’s starting to get put together.”
“Shrek” is a colorful, whimsical show, with fairly-tale characters, puppets, flying creatures and a giant pink dragon that wends its way ominously around the stage.
Coleman, who has worked with many directors over his 50 years there, says Susi is superb.
“For one thing, she doesn’t over-direct. She explains the big picture and then turns the cast loose to do their own interpretation. She’ll make suggestions as she’s doing now, and hourly. She’s on an even keel. I think it’s the evenness, and it’s all worked out so you go into up week and you never think the show’s going to come off, and it does.
“It’s like focus. All of a sudden — poof — it’s in focus.”
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 26 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]