Famed choreographer Martha Graham said, "Theater is a verb before it is a noun, an act before it is a place." At the Market House Theatre, no one's life could be best described by action words better than that of Michael Cochran. Engage, impress, dazzle, create, execute, emote, develop—all verbs that are tailored to his daily activities.
Granted it is not a one-man show. A talented supporting cast of staff and volunteers make the Market House a success. But of all the roles, Michael's is the most versatile.
His sustained energy and enthusiasm deny the fact that he's been at the helm of the theater for thirty of its fifty-year history. And Michael is now in the middle of one of his busiest seasons ever with an ambitious production of Les Miserables.
"It's probably one of the most challenging productions the theater has done," he says. "I feel like I say this every year for whatever the next big musical is that we are going to do! The thing that keeps me going is setting those challenges out there." And the task of bringing Les Mis to the Market House was one he could not resist.
In less than 48 hours before the announcement of the 49th season, Michael received a surprise phone call from Music Theatre International. With the release of the Les Mis movie, the rights for the stage production was granted exclusively to select venues across the country, and the Market House was selected to be one of the first community theaters in the country to do the show.
"This would be the biggest challenge I've had to do, and yet I thought there was enough talent in the community to pull this off," says Michael who relies heavily on the abilities of his actors. "This little space is incredible for an audience/actor relationship, but it's got real limitations to it. The building is thirty feet wide. The offstage is three feet. When we look at doing big productions, I have to figure out how to scale that production into an intimate theater space. Our shows are about character, story, and relationship with the audience."
The more he thought about Les Mis, the more confident he felt. Michael decided to direct. That doesn't mean there were never any second thoughts, however. "As I announced it, I thought, 'What have I got myself into? I can't believe I just agreed to do this!'" His faith in the potential acting pool remained unshaken, and he knew it was the right choice. "We want to step up to a level of quality and achievement that Les Mis could offer us."
After securing the cast, vocal rehearsals started right away. "I sat in rehearsals, and our musical director Cindy Miller was playing, and we noticed within the first week that everyone had to stop listening to CDs of the show. It doesn't work in our space. They were listening to people singing in a 5,000 seat theater, and that sound was meant to carry to 400 feet away. It just doesn't work here."
Michael is ultimately crafting a uniquely Market House Theatre production. "I want it to be about our actors' performance of it and not them trying to be what a Broadway person did."
Michael admits that the adaptation does often make him nervous. "It always scares me when someone says, 'I saw this on Broadway, and I can't wait to see Market House Theatre do it!' But they're smart enough to know we can't do Broadway. They want to see the person who has an incredible voice from our local community to play that part."
When it comes to developing a person into a role, Michael truly shines. "We don't just entertain, we change lives. The creative process is one in which you are allowed to explore and make mistakes and discover how to communicate emotion and feeling, and all those things transfer into daily life. Our mission is to improve the quality of life of the people who live in this community and share incredible stories like Les Mis." He loves to see that end result long after the lights are dimmed. He knows the lessons of the theater translates to the varied roles he plays every day.
"My day starts at about 8 in the morning and will end up about 11 at night. I'll spend the day between fundraising, trying to figure out what grants we'll write, approaching people like the Toyota Foundation who gives grants in Kentucky; trying to do marketing for the next production, creating ads for the newspaper, doing interviews for radio, getting press releases out; at night rehearsing Les Mis Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays there's another production in here, and I'm the set designer and lighting designer there, so I am working with the director. I'm meeting with arts groups and the mayor to talk about goals for the Renaissance area district. I'm networking with people to talk about what's going on at Market Theatre and show we benefit them.
"In between all that, I have to be an artist and try to do creative, quality work with limited time. You're trying to devote enough time and energy to create something you are proud of and not just crank it out. I work a lot of long nights. It's a tough, constant balance. I have to be a jack of all trades."
There's always a part of the creative process simmering underneath, however. He's been staging Les Mis in his mind. "What does it look like? I imagine the scenes and where the people are, and I create the scenery around that. I stage it in my mind." He already envisions church windows and discovering what is seen through them. "
The overriding theme of the show is kind of about faith. It's about the moments of asking 'Who am I? What is God calling me to do?''" The crux of Les Mis is simply a reflection of his own life. It is in these very moments that Michael's creative life and his day-to-day job intersects. The goal for the theater to change the lives of the people in our community starts with him. "
There's something about this little place and the community support it has. People say they can't believe we do all this stuff in this tiny little space. It's people. That's the basis of it. My job over the years has been to figure out how to create magic on stage, whether I am in a meeting to talk about fundraising or working on a set design. It all goes to support the talent that is here so that when they walk out there, their friends and family say, 'I had no idea they could do that!'" When that happens, I know I've done my job effectively."