Backstage during a performance, theater people are supposed to be quiet.
The greatest laughs for Stephen Diehl often erupted in silence, behind the scenes, where the act of stifling the powerful guffaws could make the big man with glasses crouch like a gleeful child.
But for those who knew Diehl, perplexity lurked beneath the laughter. Behind the scenes, shadow could accompany the light, refracting and obscuring him when others tried to see him more clearly. Diehl, the manager of the Coaster Theatre in Cannon Beach for nearly 20 years, was multifaceted.
He welcomed newcomers to the stage warmly and yet cut off longtime friends with cold disavowal. He generously gave his time and care to loved ones but also readily delegated hard work to them. He nurtured complex theatrical productions and cultivated delicate bonsai gardens, but refused to follow medical advice or tend to his own health. "I don't think any one of us knew one total person," says Colleen Toomey, who worked with Diehl more than six years as operations manager of the theater.
EntrancesHe did not plan a career in theater, but an interest in art and design emerged early, says his sister Stephen Diehl tries out a bike.and theatrical colleague, Sue Diehl of Nehalem. Years later she would build stage sets at the Coaster, and he would design them. As children, she was a tomboy who played with toy tractors, and he was a well-dressed, classy lad with an interest in architecture. Born in Sacramento and raised in Northern California, he studied arts and design at the College of San Mateo.
A need to assist an ill aunt in Mount Angel brought him to Oregon, and the gatherings of artists lured him to Cannon Beach. His work in town included laying carpet and groundskeeping for Coaster Properties through theater owner Maurie Clark, whom he met at gallery events. A friendship took root. Eventually Clark hired Diehl to oversee the theater as well as to serve as its producer and artistic director.
In those early years, Diehl wore many hats, from selecting plays and scheduling seasons to designing sets and coordinating the box office. He hired his multi-talented sister to build the sets. "He was a great people motivator, kind of like Tom Sawyer with painting the fence," Sue Diehl says. "He'd sit back and we'd work our butts off, but he always made you feel good about it."
Inclusions and exclusionsThe notion of stepping on stage terrified him, but he encouraged participation by people of different backgrounds - including children and adults new to theater. He helped to fill the Coaster with music, art, singing, dancing, drama and comedy.
With close friends he sometimes simply shared his time. An insomniac, he would call at late hours, or bring coffee and a basket of snacks for a scenic drive. "Off we'd go to sit in the van above Manzanita and just stare at the moon reflected off the phosphorescent waves, not speaking at all," director Victoria Parker says. "Stephen had an incredible sense for phenomena and magic, and could be incredibly at peace in the experience of beauty. As wacky and social as he could get, he could also be utterly serene." However, Diehl could distance himself from others when troubles arose, placing them out of the circle surrounding him - and the Coaster.
Stephen Diehl had a creative side, but another strength was encouraging others in the world of theater to stretch themselves."When you were one of his chosen people, you were annointed. When you were cast out, you were dead to him," Valerie Ryan says. "I have been in both positions, and believe me, so have lots of others." Diehl told close friends that as a young adolescent he had discovered his mother dead following her mental illness. The experience gave him insomnia to the end of his days, and to some it offers part of an explanation for a tendency to sever relations when rifts appeared. Intuitive and street smart, he was severely dyslexic and struggled with simple letters or forms - but no one knew it. "He surrounded himself with people who could fill in his insufficiencies and then sometimes came to resent them for it," Ryan says. "Not unusual. "
Moving from the "A" list to the "B" list was a form of honor, "because it meant he cared enough to dislike you, in his Stephen sort of way," adds Lenore Morrison. Diehl helped her direct and write adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" in the mid-1980s, followed by the creation of a series of fairy tales in structured improvisation. "I myself moved from A to B but back to A."
"Stephen became distant from me, as he did with a lot of people. It hurt because we had so enjoyed one another - we were sister and brother companions, equals, buddies," Parker says. In her case, a misunderstanding arose about striving for artistic perfection; he took it to be a striving for superiority.
However, she adds, "I always understood that Stephen's preference in people would not extend where ego seemed in charge. Even though Stephen misread a lot of situations with people, even though he was not a great judge of action and interaction, he valued above everything else a community theater where no one jockeyed for or played into intellectual or artistic hierarchy. The value was one I highly respected in him."
Diehl's involvement with the theater diminished as his health deteriorated. A few years ago he was diagnosed with diabetes, but friends and family members say he did not like to relinquish control, even to tend to medical and dietary recommendations. Diehl already had been planning to take his bow from the Coaster when its owner and benefactor Clark died four years ago, and the theater's management structure evolved into its more widely inclusive nonprofit structure. By early 2004 he sold his home in Tolovana Park and planned to travel. He endured considerable pain, particularly in his feet. He bought a car and drove down the West Coast. Ultimately he headed to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where on Cinco de Mayo he died after a fall from a balcony. Before the fall, though, he had left a note.
Morrison says while deeply saddened to hear how Diehl saw fit to end his life, loved ones also take reassurance. "He was somewhere he loved, he was on holiday, and I think his health had deteriorated to the point where he felt it was time to say goodbye."