Written by John Busbee
Photo by Duane Tinkey
How do you connect the dots from William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody to King Charles II to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee to an off-Broadway premiere? A modest house just west of Drake University holds the answer, the home of an energetic, artistic and compelling couple.
William S. E. Coleman and Linda Robbins Coleman have produced a rich tapestry of life works, often interwoven and sometimes independent. Bill is a director, playwright, author, historian and actor. Linda is a composer, pianist, researcher and editor.
“We have always considered ourselves to be our own artist colony,” Linda says with her signature throaty, effortless laugh.
“We feed (off) each other,” adds Bill, who grew up in western Pennsylvania and taught theater at Drake for 37 years.
“Nothing that I do goes out without going through him, and vice versa,” Linda continues. “We serve as each other’s editors—his set of ears, and my set of eyes.”
They first worked together when Linda, a Des Moines native, was a sophomore attending Drake, and Bill needed a rehearsal pianist for a 1973 production of “Gypsy.” Linda knew of him, as did everyone in the Drake theater and arts community. The show ended, and they went their separate ways. Bill got divorced shortly thereafter, then went to England for a yearlong sabbatical. Linda continued her education. Upon Bill’s return, their paths continued to cross—“It was destiny,” Linda says—and they officially met at a party during Labor Day weekend of 1975. They’ve been together ever since.
Despite their different talents, “we have common interests,” Linda says. “He is passionate about music; I am passionate about theater.”
Their shared love of research, history, music and theater often guided them along paths that reinforced their destiny. Bill, who’s been researching and lecturing on the life and career of Buffalo Bill Cody for more than 40 years, met Linda’s parents for the first time at a presentation he gave on Cody at Drake. Then for their honeymoon in 1977, they embarked on a Western tour to research Buffalo Bill’s legacy. At the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave near Golden, Colo., Linda found a document buried in the back of a file—a first-hand account by Short Bull, the Lakota man who brought the Ghost Dance to Wounded Knee.
First-person accounts became the foundation for Bill’s book, “Voices of Wounded Knee,” published in 2000 by the University of Nebraska Press to critical acclaim. The book marked the first time Lakota testimony was given equal voice to that of white men.
Linda’s composing career has been built through more than 60 commissions for chamber and symphonic music, jazz, theater and film. Her first orchestra commission, “Journeys,” came from the Wartburg Community Symphony Orchestra. Since its premiere in 1992, it has been performed dozens of times by regional, community and university orchestras from Hawaii to Massachusetts.
Overall, her works have been performed in 27 states—including by 12 orchestras in Iowa—and in Great Britain, Canada and Mexico. She was the first Iowa woman to be an artist-in-residence with a symphony orchestra, the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra.
Linda credits Bill with inspiring her to pursue composing. “His ear and his encouragement are what really pushed me into taking my composition work seriously,” she says. “He knows more about music than most musicians do.”
Bill never paid heed to the historical—and erroneous—belief that “women can’t compose,” an attitude that Linda says was one of the biggest career obstacles she had to face. Bill, though, established a working relationship with Linda early in her career, often asking her to create music for his stage productions. He would ask her to“write in the style of Bartok” or say, “I need some music” or “a little Mozart would be nice here,” Linda recalls. She always delivered.
In 1995, the Cedar Rapids Symphony premiered Linda’s composition “In Good King Charles’s Golden Days,” which the Milwaukee Symphony performed in 1998. “Charley,” its affectionate nickname, was one of 1,443 pieces performed that year by the major symphonies in the United States, although women composed only four of those works. Today, the piece continues to be included in both pops and masterworks programs across the country.
Linda co-founded the Iowa Composers Forum in 1987, while Bill co-founded the Iowa Scriptwriters Alliance in 1997. Both organizations serve their respective disciplines through collaboration and support as well as encouraging stronger professional standards.
Today, at age 87, Bill continues to be a prolific playwright. Since retiring from Drake in 2000, his plays have been produced some 40 times in Sydney, Australia, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well in regional, community and university theaters. Between 2008 and 2010, he won three major playwriting awards.
In 2013, he was the oldest playwright to premiere off-Broadway with his dystopian suite of plays, “A Future Imperfect.” His two most recent full-length plays are now circulating to theaters and are finalists in still another international competition, and his screenplays have received five options. Amid this, he is writing a memoir and a book about arena theater.
The Colemans maintain strong ties to the Drake community. More than 150 Drake theater alumni filled their house and backyard at a recent party. Among them were five Emmy Award winners and three Tony Award nominees. Since retiring, Bill says, “I have received more than 8,000 emails, Facebook messages and other communication from former students.”
And though the couple has no children (Bill has two sons from his previous marriage), “I guess you could say we have hundreds of children,” Linda says, “thanks to the ties with former students.”