Charles Cosler is a New York-based theatre consultant. As a college student he attended a theatre conference at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, MI, and was so impressed with the university's theatre, and with its production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that he transferred from a small southern school in Ohio and became one of the very few out-of-state students at a state school in Michigan. While he was there, he made friends with theatre professionals from the APA-Phoenix Company, which came to Ann Arbor each year, and to the Flint Musical Tent in Flint, MI. He moved to New York the day after his graduation in January 1969 to join his friends and start on a design career in the Big Apple. Ellen Lampert-Greaux spoke with Cosler.
Ellen Lampert-Greaux: Please define the role of a theatre consultant.
Charles Cosler: I believe that a consultant, of any discipline--acoustic, theatre, arts management, landscape--is only as good as his or her experience in their chosen field. Only a person who has worked on many productions on many different levels--school, regional, stock, university, television, film, community--can know the labor-intensive process of birthing a theatre production. I started very early--I had a children's theatre (children performing children's literature for family audiences) at Shiloh Church in Dayton, OH. We did three productions in the summer. I had to direct, build the sets, get the moms to make the costumes; we had a great time and it was such a great experience. I remember that I had asked some of the dads to come help build sets and was somewhat scattered and disorganized and one of them pulled me aside and said, 'I'd like to help, but you need to organize this so that when I come to work, I can make the most of my time.' That was an important lesson for a 16-year-old to learn!
I also worked briefly for Bob Benson at Kliegl Bros. This was during a big boom in college and university theatre building, and we worked with Joel Rubin, Ed Peterson, and Rodney Kaiser, all of whom I see now at USITT and other trade shows.
ELG: Have you ever worked on Broadway?
Cosler: Yes, during the period that I assisted Broadway designers Peter Harvey, David Mitchell, David Jenkins, John Conklin, and Kert Lundell, I learned the craft of designing scenery professionally. Peter always talked about finding the 'solution' to the play. This has stuck with me and I find that in my theatre design work now, I am always trying to find the solution to a complex set of criteria, budget, site, architects' vision, aesthetics, equipment choices, etc. I also did a lot of scenic chargeman work on regional theatre productions mounted for television that were on WNET's Theatre in America series.
ELG: How does one become a consultant?
Cosler: I have been asked many times how one makes the transition from working in the theatre to being a theatre consultant. The answer is pretty straightforward. In New York, many Off Broadway groups lease raw space that needs to be made into a theatre for a specific production. Don Marcus, who had great success with the Ark Theatre in Soho, took a loft space and I helped him lay out the seating and lighting positions and designed several shows. My first Off Broadway show, three 1-acts by Frank Gilroy called Present Tense, was in the Circle Theatre on Sheridan Square that later became the Circle Rep. The theatre was a big open room, and we had to figure out how to use the space and change three complete sets of props quickly. Making a theatre and designing the show was natural transition to consulting for architects on theatre buildings.
After many years of hand-to-mouth existence as an itinerant designer in regional theatres and a two-year residency at Center Stage in Baltimore, I joined Roger Morgan Studio as an associate and became vice president in a very short time. I continued to design the occasional set, and did some great productions at Syracuse Stage with Terry Schreiber and Arthur Storch--one of the first productions of K-2; Pygmalion, Peter Nichol's Passion, and Pinter's Betrayal.
ELG: How did your business get started?
Cosler: I started my own firm in 1985 and thought I would have this dual track of designing productions and designing theatres and soon realized that while the synergies between the two were great, I needed to focus to make the business work.
In 1990, I landed a great project in Singapore--Jubilee Hall/Raffles Hotel. I was hired as the prime consultant and Larry King (one of the founders of KMK, now with Artec) and Andy Smith, of Boyce Nemec Designs, helped me with acoustics and A/V, respectively.
ELG: What did you learn from this first big job?
Cosler: Working on the Raffles was very much like doing a show. They wanted a theatre that looked like it was designed as part of the original 1920s hotel, but fully equipped for modern theatre productions, and business meetings. We did a lot of research into Swan and McClaren, the British firm that designed most of the government buildings when Singapore was a British colony, and used all our historic preservation experience gained on such projects as the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, the State and Ohio Theatres in Cleveland, and Town Hall in New York. The key word for this project was integration. The visual ceiling is a grid of faux-painted beams, which masks catwalks, sprinklers, emergency lighting, and downlighting for the space. T he rear-illuminated shutters, fan lights, fans, custom period lighting, seating, and carpet help to lend atmosphere, and conceal recessed speakers and lighting effects for an audio/visual tourism show about the Raffles and Singapore, which is shown many times a day.
ELG: What were the challenges in working abroad?
Cosler: Working in a foreign country, with a radically different culture and different methods for business and construction, on a fast-track project, required me to use all my persuasive powers to justify the need for importing the necessary specialized theatre equipment, and to get the change orders required for a building that was already under contract. This space was originally meant to be a flat-floor ballroom. To retain barrier-free access, we insisted that the floor be depressed to achieve the rake for excellent sightlines.
ELG: How do you specify systems, such as lighting?
Cosler: I have always been interested in lighting, and while I was at Kliegl, took a basic architectural lighting course with the IES. The church I grew up in was designed by Alan Tate when he was with Rambusch and features a three-primary-color lighting system in the chancel that is still being used today. I love lighting historic theatres and churches and have been fortunate to win IES Lumen Awards for our lighting in St. James' Church and Jordan Hall in Boston. More recently, I was on the board of the Designers Lighting Forum, presenting lighting education programs to architects and designers.
In our design of dimming systems and rigging, we constantly search the marketplace for products that are appropriate for the level of use. For Shea's Buffalo, a historic, 3,300-seat theatre completed in March 1999, we designed a dimming system with a very elaborate DMX distribution system to permit the users to control many moving lights, scrollers, etc. For a junior high school here in New York, the system is a very small dimmer-per-circuit system with one or two DMX outlets. The DMX outlets will probably never be used by the school personnel, but they may be used by outside groups that rent the space.
ELG: What are some of your recent or current projects?
Cosler: Our most recently completed project, Hensel Hall/Franklin & Marshall College, is the rehab of an existing 800-seat hall into a 500-seat recital hall for the music department. We laid out and designed a new profile back for the seating, designed the lighting, custom chandeliers, and acoustic draperies, and a modest stage lighting system.
Currently we are working on the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, an exciting new building by Zaha Hadid; the complete rehabilitation of the Akron Civic Theatre; a performing arts center for Wilton, CT; a new theatre for Mohawk Valley Community College; and a new stage house for the Princess Theatre in Decatur, AL.
ELG: How do you approach a new project?
Cosler: With every decision that we make in my firm, there are really three essential criteria: how can we add value for our clients, how can we make this theatre a better place in which to work, and how can we make the public areas as interesting as possible within the confines of an overall construction budget?
Two or three things you might not know about Charles Cosler: He is a great fan of This Old House and Home Time and dabbles in home improvement projects; he loves swimming with his dog Reba in Provincetown, MA; he competes in the kitchen with his friend Waddy, but admits that when it comes to cooking, Waddy wins hands down; friends call him Chuck.