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Flora Coker

Photo by Rebecca Vinz Flora Coker was a founding member of Theater X. For 35 years she kept company with the likes of actors John Schneider, Willem Dafoe, Deborah Clifton, Victor DeLorenzo, John Kishline, Marcy Hoffman and Rick Graham. She has played in nearly 200 productions over the course of her acting career, but Coker describes herself as a quiet person.   She didn’t grow up with dreams of becoming an actress. As an English major at the University of South Carolina in the late 1960s, she took a part in one play and then another because it was fun. She was excited to work with a drama teacher named Conrad Bishop. When he moved to Milwaukee to found the Professional Training Program at UWM’s Theater Dept., she came here to check out the scene. She didn’t enroll in the program herself, though. She just jumped in when Bishop put together the ensemble company named Theater X in 1970. Basically, Flora Coker fell in love with the theater and has given her life to it.   She’s not used to being interviewed as if she were a celebrity. But she does have stories to tell. Stories of traveling with Theatre X across the country in a VW van, stories of stretching precious dollars that came in at the box office, memories of long, heated conversations with her ensemble about what plays they wanted to work on, what they wanted to bring out in each production. Actors in Theater X were drawn to edgy themes; they weren’t afraid to grapple with difficult social and political issues. There was a white-heat intensity to their repertoire – no French farces or fluff for them. It was an exhilarating, hand-tomouth life style.   Looking back on three decades with Theater X, Coker remembers one day in Denver when the troupe received a surprise phone call from a Dutch producer. Backed by solid funding from his government, he invited them to perform in Amsterdam. “That was really a god-send!” Coker recalls. For 10 years Theater X performed for a well-funded season in Europe where they didn’t have to worry about the wolf at the door. Another auspicious turn was their decision to stage a very short piece by Truman Capote where the Southern writer looks back fondly on the holidays of his childhood in Mississippi. Flora Coker played the leading role of the kindly neighbor, fitting naturally into the part with her own background of being a Southerner herself, having grown up in Virginia. For a good 10 years, Theater X produced Christmas Memory at their Broadway venue, sometimes even offering fruit cake and warm cider to appreciative holiday theater-goers. But almost exactly four years ago, the long-running experimental theater ensemble split up, causing major shifts in Coker’s personal and professional life. She lost her ensemble company and became a free-lance performer. Thanks to the vibrance of Milwaukee’s theater scene, she has not been at a loss for opportunity. In the past four years she’s been on stage with Next Act, First Stage Children’s Theater, and the Milwaukee Rep. Just recently she was pleased to work on a movie written and directed by Mary Sweeney. Partnered with David Lynch, Sweeney has remained true to her Midwestern roots with her production of The Straight Story (about one man’s odyssey across the state of Iowa on a power lawn mower) and now with Motel, Gas Station, scheduled for release next spring. So Flora Coker’s career ranges wider than it used to. She looks to do more comic roles in the future, more roles as the mature woman she has gotten to be. In March she and her husband Ken Wood moved into a charming little house on East Meinecke and they are settling into their new digs. Ken is delighted that he doesn’t need a car to get to his office at UWM’s Film Department and she is delighted at how dog-friendly the neighborhood is. With Huck, her mixed English and French bull dog, Coker has joined the ranks of the local dog-walkers. She also enjoyed spending warm summer days working in her new backyard. Living in Riverwest suits her at this stage of her life, she says. Flora Coker is glad to be here.