Interview: ORSON WELLES at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre ~ A Conversation with Director Lee Cooley

Insights into Welles ~ the man and the play

By: Apr. 09, 2021

Interview: ORSON WELLES at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre ~ A Conversation with Director Lee Cooley

In 2015, on the occasion of the Centennial of Orson Welles's birth, The Great One was remembered for his cinematic genius and achievements...and even his transgressions. This was a complex man of the monumental variety. A plethora of articles exists chronicling his life and accomplishments, one of which is Alex Ross's in the December 2015 issue of The New Yorker ~ The Shadow ~ A Hundred Years of Orson Welles.

In the show ORSON WELLES, Michael Druxman, a prolific author of 77 works including a virtual slew of plays about iconic celebrities, has created a dramatic profile of this enigmatic character.

On April 22nd, Don Bluth Front Row Theatre brings Druxman's play to the stage. In advance of its upcoming premiere, I was delighted to talk with director Lee Cooley about the production.

PAINE: WELLES was initially scheduled to open on January 14th. COVID-19 certainly threw a wrench into that plan.

COOLEY: Yes and no. Our last live production at the company's location on Shea was in February 2020 ~ a one-person show about Mary Todd Lincoln ~ but that building sold and we relocated to the Village at Via Linda off 90th Street in North Scottsdale.

PAINE: Okay, so then came COVID.

COOLEY: Yes, and with it came inspection and installation delays. The running joke during rehearsals has been, "We open in a month!" I can't tell you how many weeks in a row we've said that.

PAINE: You must be thrilled to have the play finally open.

COOLEY: Absolutely! Sometimes, trying to mount this show felt like Orson Welles himself trying to finish DON QUIXOTE or THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, but instead of financial delays, we faced pandemic delays.

PAINE: After a run of successful roles on stage, you made your directorial debut in 2019 with DEATHTRAP for which you received an ariZoni Award. What is it that draws you to step in front of the stage and direct?

COOLEY: I wasn't drawn, I was pushed. (Laughs) When I was younger and had more brain cells, acting was easier. But as I've gotten older, directing seems a little bit easier -- although it can be more time consuming. I wouldn't have been as good a director, if I hadn't acted first. I have great respect and empathy for actors.

PAINE: How did your stage experience inform your directing style? In fact, how would you describe your directing style?

COOLEY: I've worked with a variety of directors over the last 40 years - some more considerate than others. I "retired" from acting in 2013 and was "rebooted" in 2017 by actor-director Gary Caswell. He gave me permission to learn lines at my own pace, as long as I knew them by opening night. That may not be fair to other actors but it helped me manage my anxiety.

As far as my own directing style, I would have to say it's collaborative. There is no way that I can channel characters in the same way that my casts do. I can help with blocking and delivery, but the magic comes from creating together. Keath and I have been working on WELLES for so long, that I couldn't tell you who came up with what exactly. In the end, all that matters is that we've done our best to entertain the audience.

PAINE: What attracted you to the character of Orson Welles?

COOLEY: I've always enjoyed Orson Welles - as an actor, a director, even his commercials.

PAINE: You've done extensive research on him, too. How is all this Wellesiana influencing your directorial decisions regarding staging and atmospherics?

COOLEY: After his Hollywood heyday, Welles had to make some concessions to achieve his new goals. As have we at the theater ~ working within the confines of opening a new venue during a pandemic. These circumstances forced us to be more creative but less in a tributary way. Although, Keath Hall does pay homage to Welles with an uncanny performance!

PAINE: What stands out most as an intriguing or unique aspect of Welles's life?

COOLEY: I'd have to say his stamina, on stage and off. For whatever it ego, entitlement or need of approval...Welles was persistent in pursuing whatever or whoever caught his fancy.

PAINE: He was nicknamed the Great One. What in your estimation merited that distinction and distinguishes him from the other film makers of his time?

COOLEY: What separated Welles was his versatility. He started out in live theatre, moved on to theatre of the mind (radio), then film and television. He could've been a one-hit-wonder after CITIZEN KANE, but he had more to say. After the thrill of shooting films was over, Welles often lost interest before the final cut. Perhaps "The Great Procrastinator" would have been more accurate. Maybe he was afraid to finish.

PAINE: How did you come about casting Keath Hall as Welles?

COOLEY: Ten years ago, I saw Keath play Don Pedro in a production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and thought, "He'd make a great young Orson Welles!"

PAINE: In the play, Welles is 70. Has Keath aged that much in 10 years?

COOLEY: Yes, he's had two boys since then! (Laughs) Druxman's story about Welles spans six decades. If you're familiar with Hollywood in the 40's and 50's, you'll find a lot of Easter eggs in this show.

PAINE: But Welles made some movies after that - including two that were released posthumously.

COOLEY: Yes, but the playwright doesn't focus exclusively on films. Welles cut his teeth in the legitimate theater.

PAINE: Including his so-called "voodoo" MACBETH set in the Caribbean.

COOLEY: Yes, and Marc Blitzstein's THE CRADLE WILL ROCK - both of which are featured in our show.

PAINE: Doing the play has been on your bucket list for quite a while. Why has it taken you so long to mount WELLES?

COOLEY: (Laughs) that's a funny sounding question! In Phoenix, there seemed to be little interest in one-person shows that weren't musicals ~ Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, sure. But Welles? We'll see.

PAINE: How did you get WELLES greenlighted?

COOLEY: I was approached about acting in a one-man show last fall but said I'd rather direct this one and give someone else the line load.

PAINE: Does it usually take you three or four months to launch a production?

COOLEY: Sometimes longer. DEATHTRAP opened in May of 2019, but I started preparing in the fall of 2018 - it took time to find the right crossbow! As a matter of fact, Keath was my combat choreographer.

PAINE: I hear that you're a devil for details.

COOLEY: Our sound designer, Roger McKay, calls me a "detailian" - which is better than "anal retentive," I suppose.

PAINE: Can you share some examples of this trait in WELLES?

COOLEY: Well, I wanted a hat like Welles wore in F FOR FAKE, so I had one re-blocked at a hatter in Texas. I commissioned an artist to create a 1940's pulp novel cover that never really existed. Oh, and I ordered period-accurate magazines and wine bottle labels -- all at my own expense, mind you.

PAINE: Sounds like you've invested more than just your time.

COOLEY: I have and that reminds me of a line from Welles' AFI acceptance speech in 1975: "I use my own work to subsidize my work."

PAINE: When you're not at the theatre, what sort of work do you do?

COOLEY: I'm director of marketing and communications for the Scottsdale Area Association of REALTORS®.

PAINE: What do your colleagues think about your love for live theatre?

COOLEY: I hope they'll buy a ticket and come see it!

PAINE: Thanks, Lee. Break a leg!

ORSON WELLES runs April 22 through May 22 at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre in Scottsdale, AZ.

Socially distanced seats are available online at or by calling the box office at 480-314-0841.

Photo credit to Lee Cooley ~ L to R; Cooley, Hall

Don Bluth Front Row Theatre ~ 8989 E. Via Linda, Suite 118, Scottsdale, AZ ~ ~ 480-314-0841



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