OSF actress Coulson's joy was 'infectious'
Actor Catherine E. Coulson, a longtime member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s acting company, died Monday at her home after a battle with cancer. Coulson, who spent 22 years with OSF, was perhaps best known for her role as The Log Lady in David Lynch’s television series “Twin Peaks.”
Company members remembered her as a consummate professional with a big heart.
“We’re just devastated,” said Christopher Liam Moore, who directed Coulson in five plays. “She was open, creative, warm, generous, funny, smart.”
“She was such a joy to work with,” said actor Michael Hume, who appeared in eight plays with Coulson. “We became really tight.”
Coulson performed in more than 50 productions with the festival starting in 1994. Among her favorite roles were Clara Stepaneck in 1997’s “The Magic Fire,” which traveled to the Kennedy Center in 1998, Catherine in Robert Schenkkan’s 2005 drama, “By the Waters of Babylon,” a part written for her by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and Mrs. Gottlieb in 2009’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”
Coulson also worked at the Ensemble Theatre of Santa Barbara, Denver Center, San Jose Repertory Theatre and Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch said in a statement, “I am deeply saddened by Catherine’s passing. She was an integral part of this company, not only as an actor, but as a passionate advocate for the arts, for theatre, for OSF and for the community of Ashland.”
Coulson grew up in Southern California. Her mother was a ballet dancer. Her father worked in radio and television as a producer and public relations executive. Coulson trained as an actor at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., and San Francisco State University, where she earned a master of fine arts degree.
In the early 1970s she was teaching an acting workshop at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles when she met film director David Lynch. He cast her as the nurse in his cult classic “Eraserhead.” She also served as special effects technician, assistant director and still photographer for the picture.
In 1990, Lynch cast Coulson as The Log Lady in “Twin Peaks,” a role that brought her international recognition. The character carried a small log with which she seemed to have a psychic connection and offered advice and warnings based on visions. Townspeople saw the character as crazy. Coulson later attended the Twin Peaks Fan Festival and other events related to the series.
Other film and TV credits include “Portlandia," “Psych,” “Calvin Marshall,” “The Secret Life of Houses,” “Another You,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” and “Redwood Highway.” Other OSF roles included Big Mama in 2010’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Mattie Fae Aiken in 2011’s “August: Osage County,” Granny, Giant and Milky White in last year’s “Into the Woods” and General Matilda B. Cartwright in this year’s “Guys and Dolls.”
When Coulson and Hume played Mr. and Mrs. van Daan in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” things got so intense in rehearsals they yelled at each other. Then they laughed. The script called for them to spend a lot of time in a bed on the set of the cramped apartment where their characters hid with the Franks from the Germans. They spent the time talking shop, plays, casting.
“If we were good method actors we should have been talking about Nazis,” Hume said. “She was so much fun sometimes we’d just howl.”
Coulson gave Hume a photo in which she, a stately woman in high heels and a big wig, towered above him. When he asked an actor friend about the photo his pal said, “Michael, it looks like she’s taking you for a walk.”
Moore said in reading a play he would sometimes hear Coulson’s voice.
“Other actors loved working with her,” he said. “We’ve been swapping stories. A lot of them are about her generosity. When young actors joined the festival, she’d reach out to them.”
When Rauch was directing Coulson for the first time as a guest conductor in 2002 in Robert Shenkkan’s “Handler,” Moore drove up from Southern California to visit, bringing the couple’s little son Liam, and strolled into a rehearsal not knowing Ashland.
Coulson walked up to Moore and gave him a long list she’d prepared.
“Here are things you can do in Ashland with a toddler,” she said. “And when are we going to have lunch?”
“Her heart was so big,” he said, “it was infectious.”
Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at firstname.lastname@example.org.