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Twin Peaks Log Lady takes root in San Jose Rep's Elephant Man

by Teresa Strasser
Northern California Jewish Bulletin, March 10, 1995

As the Log Lady on the TV series Twin Peaks, actress Catherine E. Coulson became a cult figure, sparking the world's imagination with her wacky characterization of a woman who was able to prophesy through a stump of wood.

The show, directed by David Lynch, became a huge hit internationally.

"I can't tell you how much wood I've written on," says Coulson, referring to the enormous number of logs she's signed since performing in the series and reprising the role in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

So popular was the Log Lady that the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., wanted to acquire her log for display. The actress turned down that request, only to be offered what she would only call an "astronomical sum" from a Japanese investor for the historic piece of Ponderosa Pine.

Coulson is keeping her log. After all, she says, the role and the precious prop have allowed her to branch out.

Currently, she is in the Bay Area for a run of The Elephant Man, which opens March 17 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

"Acting is acting," says Coulson, who has been performing since she was 5 years old. "But, having a real international following has given me a chance to give back. It's opened doors for tikkun olam [healing the world]."

In between costume fittings and dialogue coaching sessions for The Elephant Man (Coulson is learning five dialects for her multiple roles in play) the actress spoke by phone about her life and career post Log Lady.

Since Twin Peaks, Coulson has been a spokesperson for several groups, including an organization that plants trees in memory of people who have died of AIDS and another group working to save ancient forests.

Twin Peaks fame has also allowed her career in the theater to blossom as well.

In what she can only call beshert, or destiny, she and her husband, Marc Sirinsky, were both offered jobs in Ashland, Oregon. Coulson was offered a season at the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she will be returning after Elephant Man to play the Duchess of York in Richard II and the mother-in-law in Federico Garcia Lorca' s Blood Wedding. At the same time, her husband was offered a job as the resident rabbi at Temple Emek-Sholom.

Coulson, a Jew-by-choice who began studying Judaism in the 1970s and converted in the '80s, realizes she is not the typical rebbitzen.

"Sometimes people who visit Ashland come to services and say, 'I just saw you on stage,' and I answer, 'Yeah, I'm married to the rabbi,' and people enjoy it. I think the congregants appreciate that the rebbitzen has a career in the arts. They are very supportive," says Coulson.

Each week before rehearsal, Coulson attends a Torah study group at synagogue, and says Jewish studies are not only "soul-satisfying," but help her with her craft.

Analyzing Torah and poring over scripts, she says, are similar. One looks for innuendoes and subtext, tries to understand the characters' voices.

"When learning Torah, you study, study, study and hope it becomes part of you. The process of acting is the same. You study, study, study and then at some point, you let it fly and hope you have become something more as a result of your study," she says.

One of the roles Coulson has been studying for The Elephant Man is that of a Pinhead, a singing Belgian circus freak with a sloping forehead and unusually small brain. Like the title character, severely deformed British medical oddity John Merrick, the Pinheads are outsiders, marginalized by society.

According to Coulson, the play is much more theatrical than the naturalistic film about the Elephant Man, directed by her "good buddy" David Lynch. On film or on stage, however, the story seems to have a lasting impact on audiences.

"This is such an appropriate play for our time. It's about an outsider who touched and repelled many people, as homeless people, retarded people and people with AIDS do. What we have to learn is something we can all use in our lives.

"We come to discover the purity of spirit that lived inside the Elephant Man," says Coulson.

The Elephant Man opens the day before Purim. While Coulson says she hates to be away from her 8-year-old daughter Zoey, the dressup holiday is an appropriate time for a play about characters who wear masks. (Several characters Coulson plays are masked members of the British nobility who come to teach Merrick culture.) The Purim message of seeing behind the mask, is perfect for the Elephant Man, says Coulson.

In another example of destiny in Coulson's life, her encounter with the role of the clairvoyant Log Lady was itself foretold.

When she was working on Eraserhead, another creepy Lynch cult classic, the director cast her as the Log Lady 18 years in advance, she says.

"He said, 'Catherine, I really want you on a television series to play this girl, a wise character who carries a log and people learn about themselves as they learn about the log," Coulson recounts.

Years later, after the actress had earned her master's degree in acting from S.F. State, acted professionally in the Bay Area and in her home city of Los Angeles, and started a family, the phone rang. Lynch was on the other end asking, "Are you ready?"

Does a log talk?

Coulson signed on right away, and hasn't stopped signing logs since.

The Elephant Man runs March 17 to April 19 at the Montgomery Theatre, at the corner of San Carlos and Market street in downtown San Jose. Tickets and information: (408) 291-2255.

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