In this two-part interview, we look into some corners of the secret garden in the life of actor Jeff Coon at a time when American family structures are changing and expanding. Jeff talks about his life as a problematic father on stage in the magnificent production of The Secret Garden at the Arden, and as a happy father of his two children—his daughter, Piper (9) and his son, Jackson (8)—who are being brought up jointly by him and his life mate Joey Abramowicz and Jeff’s ex-wife and her new husband.
It all started with Jeff Coon, a talented young theater student at a high school in Cape May, NJ, who studied, worked hard, and became one of Philadelphia’s most popular actors and singers. He was offered quite a few roles as a father, including Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins at the Walnut Street Theatre, Mr. Addams in the Addams Family at the Media Theatre (see Jeff’s interview on his role as father on stage and off stage), and now the tortured Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden at the Arden Theatre.
Dedicated to theater arts, he reached out to the children of the next generation, encouraging them via a scholarship offer to their parents to move forward through the study of theater arts:
Twenty-five years ago, I was some version of your kid. I was figuring out who and what I was and wanted to be. I had some great teachers who pointed me in directions that I didn’t necessarily expect, but enjoyed anyway. […] That’s part of why we’re establishing a scholarship […] because I want to be able to give a small token of my thanks to the community that helped foster me by doing the same thing for another kid interested in the arts.
Henrik: How do you prepare yourself for the role of a father?
Jeff: One of the first methods that I use in trying to find my way into any character is by asking myself how the character and I are most alike.
Archibald Craven and I are most alike in that we are both terrified of being “not enough” for our loved ones. Archie has become emotionally crippled by this fear. He blames himself in many ways for Lily’s death, he blames himself for his son’s ailments, and he removes himself] from as much human contact as possible as he doesn’t want to harm anyone else in his life. It’s why Mary Lennox’s arrival at Misselthwaite is so disturbing to him at first. He’s incapable of being a true guardian for her because he’s afraid that she’ll fall to harm as well.
Could you give an example of your role as a fearful father and guardian in The Secret Garden?
Thankfully, my fear of being “not enough” is not nearly as extreme as Archie’s, but it is absolutely a real emotional burden I place on myself. I constantly struggle with what being a good father means and how sometimes the disparate “job requirements” don’t always work in tandem.
How do you interact as the stage-father with the two stage kids for whom you’re supposed to be father for the boy and guardian for the girl?
I think there’s something similar in my relationship with the two actors, Bailey Ryon [as Mary Lennox] and Hudson Orfe [as Colin Craven]. They’re both so good and such good kids that I strive to be as good as I can be for them and the rest of the show. They’re not precocious or precious. They’re amazing young actors without pretense or over-inflated senses of themselves. Bailey already has a Tony Award, for goodness sake, so who could blame her if she did? They both inspire me to be as present as I can be in each scene with them. Hopefully, I can help them have a lifelong memory of an experience that is filled with adults who care about them—an experience that I hope is fulfilling for them.
Could you give me some examples where and when Bailey or Hudson, your stage children, moved you?
Where to start? The first time I heard Hudson sing “Round-Shouldered Man,” I wondered how I was ever going to be able to get through this show on a daily basis without breaking down. His voice was angelic. And then you spend time with him and you realize that he’s one of the most gifted musicians at ANY age you’ve ever met. Ask him to show you his solfegg sometime and I defy you not to be moved and impressed.
Bailey’s work moves and inspires me on a daily basis within the show. She’s so extraordinarily good. There is something otherworldly about that young lady. I don’t know how to put an exact label on it other than to say that you’d have to be an automaton to NOT be moved by Bailey. Her spirit is irresistible.
Could you give me an example where Piper and Jackson, your own children, moved you?
Again, where to start? I’ll give you an example for each of them that I think typifies who they are as people. The other day I was watching Jackson [Jax], Piper, and their little brother Wyatt ([my ex-wife] Hattie’s child with [her new husband] Craig). There was a thunderstorm coming. We were all in the same room but not “together.” Jax was playing a game on his Nintendo device, Piper was reading on the other side of the room, Wyatt was watching Bubble Guppies on Nickelodeon, and I’m sure I was on my phone. There was a BIG thunderclap, like a window rattler. And Jackson yelled, “What was that?” I said, “It’s just thunder, buddy.” And he said, “Where’s Piper?! Where’s Wyatt?!” I said, “We’re all right here, bud.” And then he was fine. I was moved by his unfiltered response of wanting to make sure that Piper and Wyatt were ok. That’s Jax to a tee. And Piper.
Do you have another example? One day you may even write a play or a musical about your children.
We had a cat, DeeDee, that died almost a year ago. And we had a small service for him in the backyard where I dug a hole and we all said a few nice words about DeeDee and then I buried him. Jax took a brick and a Sharpie and made a little headstone for him. And then, promptly, forgot about it. Piper, however, would make sure that every time she saw that gravestone it was free of leaves and remained undisturbed. She even would take a Sharpie and make sure that what Jackson had written remained readable. She took care of the gravestone as if it were the cat himself. That was incredibly moving for me. Just the other day she asked why the brick had been moved. I said I moved it because I didn’t want it to get bumped or bothered when the lawn was cut. She begrudgingly allowed that was at least a good enough reason for me to not be berated by her right then and there.
An Interview With Jeff Coon On The Arden’s ‘Secret Garden: Part 1: An Outstanding Father On and Off the Stage by Henrik Eger.
An Interview with Jeff Coon: Part 2: Raising His Two Children in His Own Special Secret Garden by Henrik Eger.