Landscaping thespian

In his college days, John Stadelman wasn't sure what he wanted to do in life.

Today, it might appear that he still struggles with that question, but the Ashland 56-year-old would tell you he has settled into a life that combines his first love, the theater, with a passion for landscape design.

Stadelman, owner of Green Man Gardens, has a thriving business designing mostly residential but some commercial landscapes in the Rogue Valley.

He also hits the boards now and then as an actor in productions at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, and he performed in six seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He directs, too.

He got the acting bug early on.

"I got bit hard in Yakima, Wash., when a group of us in grade school were taken to Davis High School to see 'Rags to Riches,' a show for kids put on by, I think, Seattle Rep.

"My class assignment was to interview one of the actors. After that, I remember not being able to sleep well for a few days. I just knew I wanted to do what he did."

When he was in high school, he did a bit of community theater and some school plays. His parents didn't exactly squelch the idea of theater, but they cautioned him about considering acting as a career. So when he enrolled at Stanford University, he majored in English and communications.

"Most of the theater I did there was associated with the Boar's Head," he said. The campus group's projects ranged from short pieces to full productions of major works. Stadelman had parts in the musicals "Guys and Dolls" and "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris."

Upon graduation in 1976, he still wasn't sure about a career.

"I was so confused about what to do, I applied to a film school, a law school, and a couple of drama schools. I got accepted by three different schools — Boston University for theater, film school at USC and law school at USC."

He was able to get a decision about film school deferred, so he enrolled in law school. After three years, he received his law degree and passed the bar.

"One of my regrets was finishing law school," he said.

He realized midway through the course that a law career was not for him and thought it was a waste of money to continue. But he was taught not to be a quitter, so he stuck it out. As soon as he finished law school, he enrolled in USC's film school, where he earned a master's degree in film production.

He found work doing music videos and commercials. Soon he landed jobs on several feature films, including "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984) and "To Live and Die in L.A." (1985).

It was on a trip home to Yakima for Christmas one year when he stopped in Ashland on the way and was struck by how much he liked the community.

"I came here often as a child with my parents to see the plays, and later on my own whenever I could."

He decided to get some prices of rentals and when he returned to L.A. he knew Ashland was where he wanted to be.

"When I got back after Christmas, I did some bad movies and more commercials," he said.

He felt that his life was being consumed by the long hours of his work, sandwiched in between watching his garage door open to the gray L.A. skies in the early morning and close after dusk.

He moved to Ashland in 1985.

"I decided to write screenplays and try to get a job as an usher at OSF."

One of his successful screenplays was an adaptation of L.M. Boston's "The Children of Green Knowe" for B.B.C., for which he received residuals for several years. And he got the OSF usher's job.

After acting in an SOU production of "Side by Side by Sondheim," he decided, what the heck, and auditioned for OSF.

"When the guy who was playing Bob the Saw in 'The Threepenny Opera' wanted to leave the role early to get ready for a summer show, I was approached to take his place. The first thing they asked me was what size I was. They wanted to make sure I could fit into his costume."

He could, and he got the job. That was in 1986.

"I was making in a month what I made in a week in L.A., but I was happy," he said.

He played mostly small roles for OSF over six seasons and also took acting and directing jobs up and down the West Coast.

But what about the gardening? How did that fit in with the theater work?

"I was living in an apartment where the Members' Lounge is now," Stadelman explained. "Outside, next to the garbage cans, there was a beat-up planter box and a couple squares of dirt. It was ugly. I decided to repair the planter and put some plants in it and in the two squares of dirt."

It gave him a lot of satisfaction to beautify the area. OSF theatre and set designer Richard Hay and other festival people expressed their appreciation for his work.

"Later on, I helped a homeowner friend by designing her gardens and soon people were offering money to me."

He decided if he was going to get serious about it, he should learn more about the art of landscape design.

"I knew I was already over-educated, but I started investigating options."

In the U.S., the choices were mostly courses in landscape architecture, which took three years to complete. And all were expensive. But he heard of schools in Europe that offered an accelerated course without a public works component, and that suited his needs perfectly. He finally settled on the KLC College of Design in Chelsea, England.

"They were quite well known for interior design, but had been offering landscape design for about five years."

He moved there, rented a small apartment in a home and enrolled in the 14-month course.

"I fell in love with Chelsea," he said. "The school was in a beautiful building overlooking the Thames."

Stadelman said it was a very intense experience.

"It was the hardest work I ever did. Up at 6 and to bed at 1 a.m. Sixteen started the course, but by the end of the first semester, only 10 remained. It was grueling. I was the only one in class who didn't weep," he said.

Even though he was away from Ashland for more than a year, friends knew when he was returning, and he had landscape design work waiting for him before he got off the plane.

It was then that he formed his company, Green Man Gardens, and began taking on assignments in the winter of 2005-06.

Since then his business has continued to grow, mostly on the strength of word-of-mouth recommendations.

He has done little advertising and the company isn't even listed in the phone book.

He doesn't like to use a CAD (computer-aided design) program. He prefers a hands-on approach. Among his tools are a drawing board, colored inks and pencils, and file cabinets.

"I do design work on a flat-fee basis," he said. "And I offer project management by the hour. I like to work with licensed and bonded local contractors."

He consults with his clients about what kind of look they want and provides them with preliminary sketches before working up the final plan, complete with plant lists.

He works up specifications, calls for bids, and then helps his clients decide which bid to accept. Some clients take it from there, working directly with the successful bidders. Many others choose to have Stadelman manage the project and deal with the contractors instead.

One of his designs was featured on the Ashland Spring Garden Tour last year, sponsored by the American Association of University Women. The home, owned by Rick and Joanne Soued, is located off the old Siskiyou Highway. He used 90 boulders in creating an artistic landscape out of an amorphous one.

He enjoys solving problems and meeting landscape challenges.

"A Water Street residence was having trouble with trees dying because the water was running off. My solution was a river of grasses to hold the water in."

Another favorite project was Slim Jim Lane, a shaded walkway for pets awaiting adoption at the Jackson County Animal Care and Control Center. It was designed to keep dogs off the hot asphalt during summer weather and provide a cooler walk for volunteers.

"I loved helping transform a useless hillside into a beautiful, shady place to exercise dogs," Stadelman said.

Meanwhile, he has continued to act and direct, appearing in several Cabaret musicals, most recently "Whodunit...The Musical" in 2010, and "Kickin' The Clouds Away" and "Holiday Memories" in 2009.

He has helped Ashland High School by directing several musicals for the drama department, and provided a lively narration for Camelot Theatre's "Spotlight on Dinah Shore" in January, which included a duet with star Renee Hewitt.

Recently he enjoyed seeing his son, Charlie Bass, in a starring role in Ashland High School's production of "Chicago."

"It was the wildest thing," Stadelman said, "watching him come out on the stage and seeing how much he looked like me.

"I was so impressed with his performance, how easy he was on stage, playing the role with such aplomb."

His son will attend Willamette University next fall, but hasn't decided on a major.

Meanwhile, Stadelman continues to mix it up with landscaping design and theater. However, lately he's been getting more dirt and less greasepaint under his fingernails. He's been working on eight landscaping projects this spring and had to turn down a couple of opportunities to audition for Cabaret productions.

"But the door is always open," he said, smiling.

Jim Flint is a former Washington State newspaper publisher and editor, now living in Ashland.

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