The Coterie recently hired Jonathan Thomas, previously the theater’s director of development, as its managing director, and Heidi Van, a veteran actor/director/playwright who made her professional debut at the Coterie in her 20s, as interim producing artistic director. (photo by Jim Barcus)
Roiled by allegations of sexual misconduct by former artistic director Jeff Church, the company instills new leadership and new protocols
It was a long, bleak winter at the Coterie.
The award-winning young-audiences theater company at Crown Center marked a decidedly unhappy holiday season late last year. First came the unexpected loss of longtime executive director Joette Pelster, who died in her sleep the day after Thanksgiving — only a week after she announced her intention to retire. That was followed by the death of artistic director Jeff Church, who in late December took his own life in the wake of snowballing social-media allegations of his not-so-secret life as a sexual predator.
It had the look of a catastrophic collapse following decades of success. Pelster had used her fundraising expertise to bankroll Church’s ambitious artistic goals, which led to the company’s growing national reputation as a theater whose best work was aimed at teens and young adults. Church had, among other things, taken a Coterie show, the family-friendly musical “Lucky Duck,” to a brief New York run at the historic New Victory Theater on 42nd Street. It wasn’t officially a Broadway debut, but it allowed the little young-audiences theater company from the Midwest to plant a flag in the fabled New York theater district.
But after revelations that surfaced about Church, his achievements at the Coterie suddenly seemed long ago and far away.
The theater’s board of directors quickly hired a firm to look into the allegations about Church’s behavior and assess weaknesses in the theater company’s management that allowed him to apparently carry on predatory relationships for decades. (Note: As of this writing, there have been no public allegations that Church carried on sexual relationships with minors.)
For the next few months the firm, Fine Line HR Consulting, conducted dozens of interviews and drew certain conclusions about Church’s actions and whether others at the theater company may have borne any responsibility for failing to intervene, even after rumors about Church’s activities were common in the theater community. Indeed, theater folk often spoke of Church’s predatory sexuality with young adults as “the worst kept secret in Kansas City.”
The unraveling of Church’s reputation and sex life began with a video posted by Dashawn Young, a former Kansas City actor now based in Florida. The Pitch broke the story about the video and interviewed Young, who described going on a few dates with Church before being assaulted by the artistic director after a pool party in 2017.
Young said he was motivated to speak out after disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape on Dec. 19.
“I knew I had to say something,” Young told The Pitch. “All I can see is his face, when he was on top of me, with this disgusting grin. I tried to laugh it away and asked him repeatedly to stop, but he kept laughing while saying, ‘I don’t care what you want.’ This was the great Jeff Church, who I’d looked up to since I was a kid.”
Soon others came forward, posting accounts on social media about their own traumatic encounters with Church. One of them was Mark Manning, who was an actor and theater artist in his 20s and helped found the alternative theater group Big Bang Buffet. Now he is well-known as a DJ on KKFI-FM. In going public about his experiences with Church, Manning said he hoped he might help others with similar stories.
“I was worried about people who came forward with their stories, that they might blame themselves for what happened,” Manning said. “I posted this thing on Facebook (saying) victims, please don’t blame yourselves.”
Veterans of professional theater — and the performing arts generally — will tell you that it’s not unusual to encounter dictatorial, abusive and manipulative behavior among directors and artistic directors. But stories about tantrums, emotional abuse and predatory sexuality more and more seem to describe a passing era. In the current atmosphere, it appears the same-old same-old will not be accepted or tolerated — especially in nonprofit arts groups that depend on money from businesses, endowments, foundations and wealthy individuals.
What the Report Found
On March 29 the Coterie released a summary of the findings. The Coterie chose not to release the full report, which was prepared by Fine Line HR Consulting, “out of respect for the privacy of witnesses who asked to remain anonymous, including victims of Church’s conduct.” Those interviewed for the report included 35 witnesses — victims, board members and employees. The report was supported by documents and “other information,” which were not included in the summary.
In addition, some interview requests were declined. And Actors Equity, the union for actors and stage managers, chose not to share any complaints about Church that may have been lodged by union members regarding Church’s behavior.
According to the summary, the Fine Line HR investigators concluded that Church, “on multiple occasions, engaged in nonconsensual sexual acts against adults. These instances took place mostly at private social gatherings at Church’s homes.” In addition, the inquiry “found no evidence that any of the sexual misconduct alleged to have been instigated by Church happened at the Coterie or at Coterie-sponsored events.”
In addition, according to the report, Church used the Coterie’s Instagram account to have “inappropriate private conversations with a consenting adult” and that “at least one youth actor” viewed the Instagram interaction.
The report did not corroborate any claims of sexual assault against children, nor did it find evidence that past or current Coterie board members knew about allegations of sexual misconduct. It also found “no corroboration that Pelster was aware of non-consensual sexual acts by Church against individuals associated with the Coterie.”
Among those interviewed were “several witnesses who worked with Church, some for decades, who did not observe him engaging in inappropriate behavior. Nevertheless, the investigation found credible those witnesses who reported (that) Church forced himself on non-consenting adults.”
The summary included comments from Theresa Stoker, the Coterie’s current board president: “We have a tremendous amount of empathy for the victims of these heinous actions. We want to thank all of those who came forward to share their very personal and painful stories. It took a great deal of courage. Their cooperation was vital in helping us gain a broader understanding, which will in turn help us maintain a positive and nurturing environment at the Coterie for generations to come.”
For some people in the theater community, the summary was inadequate. Lisa Cordes, who was employed at the Coterie before Church’s arrival and continued working there for several years, said that she, as well as others, had brought rumors of Church’s behavior to the attention of Coterie management. But apparently no action was taken.
Manning, who believes Church abused scores of young men, found the report lacking.
“I was a little disappointed,” he said. “They didn’t get all the information right.”
Manning said he had compiled a list of 24 people who contacted him personally with descriptions of being victimized by Church.
“There’s so much to this story we don’t know,” Manning added.
Cordes, whose children performed at the Coterie when they were still young kids, offered this assessment of the investigation on Facebook: “No accountability, no apology, no reparations for victims. How can an institution not accept responsibility for three decades of criminal behavior by its leader? The hair-splitting that these acts did not happen ‘at the Coterie Theatre or at Coterie-sponsored events’ indicates a willful ignorance of the power this man wielded and how the theater community operates.”
Even before the release of the summary, the Coterie leadership had no choice but to move forward and try to stabilize the organization — and to create a new reality for its employees. In March, the company announced new leadership. Jonathan Thomas, the director of development, in February was promoted to managing director. Heidi Van, a veteran actor/director/playwright who made her professional debut at the Coterie in her 20s, was named interim producing artistic director.
“It is a lot of adversity to lose both leaders, particularly Joette, who had such an influence on the arts in Kansas City,” Thomas said. “And then to lose Jeff about the same time.”
Thomas said there were now protocols in place meant to safeguard employees (including youth actors) from abusive or exploitative behavior.
“First of all, I’d like to say there is no way we can stop all human behavior that is negative,” Thomas said. “What we can do as an organization is to hold people responsible.”
Now, when young cast members — or even people on the technical crew — report for work, they are given “a chain of contacts of multiple genders and multiple stations within the organization so that they can feel supported and encouraged,” Thomas said. “We are not going to stand for any negative behavior from anyone. The best way to make sure this kind of behavior is noticed is to give advocacy to everyone in the organization.”
The biggest challenge facing the Coterie?
“There is still a lot of healing that needs to happen,” Thomas said. “Some people feel guilty. There’s hurt in the theater community. Our challenge is to continue our great work on the stage while internally feeling that everyone is supported and taken care of.”
In other words, there’s plenty of work to do.
“I think what I’ve experienced over the last few months is the grief of many people who believe they should have known,” Thomas said. “But (Church’s) behavior was focused so that it was not easy to see. Victims didn’t know how to effect change. We need to make sure people have the freedom to come forward . . . We can be positive about reinforcing that support now. Even this many years later, the courage it took for victims to come forward and speak their truth is remarkable, and we are very grateful to them for coming forward.”
The Coterie is looking for a new permanent artistic director and Van, who was offered a six-month contract to help guide the theater artistically, said she has tossed her hat in the ring.
“I am interested because I’ve been here and I’m doing the work right now, but I respect the process,” she said. “I started my career here and continuing to guide this organization into the future is an honor. I’m grateful to be here. It’s a dream job for me.”
Through the years, she often worked with and for Church. What does she think of him now?
“I can’t say that he was not a mentor to me, because of his ability with text analysis, because of how he taught me dramatic action and ripping apart a script to find the dynamics in it,” Van said. “He was inventive and he was challenging. He challenged what children’s theater was. It’s difficult to reconcile that with a side of him I did not encounter.”