performARTS: Coterie Theatre

Coterie Theatre

Coterie (noun) “A group of people with shared interests or tastes.” This definition still holds true for the Coterie Theatre. However, the reach has expanded beyond the confines of the theater and far into the metropolitan area with traveling school tours and theater classes. In the last 10 years, the scope has moved even beyond the metropolitan community with commissioned works that resonate nationally.

Jeff Church, the producing artistic director, has been with the Coterie for 20 years. His parents encouraged him to follow his dreams of running a theater company. For 18 years, during his youth, he ran a summer theater troupe in his hometown of La Junta, Colo. Church was a playwright-in-residence and director at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and taught at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. “When I found the Coterie, it was a perfect fit,” he says.

Coterie TheatreJoette Pelster, the executive director, has been with the Coterie since 1993. She came to theater in a more roundabout way. Initially she received a degree in political science from Creighton University and worked in Washington D.C. “I returned to Nebraska to enter the Department of Theatre at the University of Nebraska where I specialized in stage management and worked with a group of 12 directors in an off-campus theater, and later was in production management at Opera/Omaha. Both experiences prepared me for working with artists,” she says. “After moving to Kansas City, I was the first executive director of the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey which expanded my organization skills and working with an active Board of Directors. Their work in the schools also helped me to learn this city from end to end.”

“We are more than a theater; there’s more to us than plays for youth, tweens and teens,” Church says. “We have one of the largest AIDS/STD education programs.” Pelster says the Coterie has many entry points. “That’s the key to our longevity,” she says. “We can reach the teachers, the students, parents and grandparents.”

Church says most people are familiar with the school field trip experiences the Coterie offers, but then learn that the Coterie has a multifaceted nature and is a not-for-profit organization. “We now want to reach college age students. That’s where Coterie at Night came in, which can be found in different theater locations throughout the city. I think that’s how we are staying relevant. We have high school and college students coming to these shows, and people who just want to have fun with the nighttime performances.”

Coterie TheatrePelster says they stay relevant because the Coterie never stands still. There is no template. “We have resisted the formula and have defied the traditional view of children’s theater. We want to be multigenerational,” Church says. The move to commission new work has also put them outside the mold.
This season, the Coterie is bringing back The Wrestling Season by Laurie Brooks at the end of January 2012. The theater company commissioned this work in 2000. The play looks at teens, bullying, typecasting, sexual assault — and the action is explored through wrestling matches. “This is one of the plays that captures the anti model, not the after school special model where only right choices are always made. We sometimes show bad behavior on stage and characters making the wrong choices. Situations are often unresolved. The audience will have a chance to talk to the eight characters that stay in character with a referee guiding them in a post-show forum. It is called hot seating and it works, to engage all the audience.”

Initially, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns’ show based on the works of Dr. Seuss flopped on Broadway. In 2004, Church began Coterie’s Lab for New Family Musicals by working with Ahrens and Flaherty to create a theater for young audiences version of Seussical adapted from Broadway. It has since become one of the most produced plays in educational theater in United States. The Coterie’s Lab for New Family Musicals has hosted new work by musical theater artists Stephen Schwartz (Geppetto & Son), Willie and Rob Reale (The Dinosaur Musical), and Harry Connick Jr. (The Happy Elf), and other works by Ahrens and Flaherty (Twice Upon a Time and a TYA version of Once On This Island.)

Coterie Theatre“We had the chance to work with amazing Broadway composers and customize each show to fit the needs of family audiences. For example, in Seussical, Horton becomes the lead and the Cat in the Hat becomes the master of ceremonies. We knew with the revisions that we had something special,” Church says. Seussical runs through November 1 through December 1 at the Coterie. Another successful collaboration came with Lucky Duck and composer Henry Krieger, the composer of Dreamgirls. This year, the show plays at the Folly Theater before the whole show, Kansas City cast and all, heads to New York in March.

“With each play, we get to uncover a new audience and test the waters to see what might be out there,” Church says. He plans to put Spring Awakening on the Coterie stage in the near future. The staff also looks at young people’s literature and the endlessly fascinating bottomless well of history. “We don’t ever want to fall into a rut. I wouldn’t be happy if we limited ourselves to one specific genre. We like to look at what kids are reading now,” Pelster says.

The other shows are the Freedom Sisters, James & the Giant Peach, Once Upon a Mattress and the Young Playwrights Festival. The festival features the works of teen playwrights fostered through the Young Playwrights’ Roundtable, which Church facilitates. The
program starts with a school workshop called Reaching the Write Minds. Church then works with a select number of young writers every other Sunday all school year. “They are imaginative writers, hard working and have a pulse on the current events. I host the sessions and love learning about the humor of kids right now.”

Pelster says the philosophy of success for the Coterie requires fluidity. “We are a multifaceted theater company responsible for not only producing top notch theater that surprises people, but reaches out to young playwrights, offers theater classes at seven sites throughout the city, Coterie at Night, the Dramatic AIDS Education project and the transfer of a show to New York. We’re ready to move to that next level. We have been very stable and now we are ready to continue to move onward and upward.”

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