The Coterie’s artistic director Jeff Church brings challenging and varied fare to KC and reworks a few Dreamworks productions along the way.
The Coterie's artistic director Jeff Church
A quick look at the 2015-2016 season at The Coterie instantly shatters the notion that this is simply a “children’s theater.”
Last month’s staging of The Miracle Worker broke new ground, echoing the themes of Helen Keller’s story by utilizing sign language and vocal description to reach both sight- and hearing- impaired audiences. As rehearsals for December’s A Charlie Brown Christmas get underway, artistic director Jeff Church looks forward to the eclectic mix ahead for his equity theater of professional actors. The play And Justice for Some: The Freedom Trial of Anthony Burns (1858), to be staged Jan. 26 to Feb. 21, 2016, dramatizes the trial of a fugitive slave in the Massachusetts. Tomás and the Library Lady, debuting Feb. 25 to March 18, 2016, blends Spanish and English in its tale of migrant workers and literacy, and Where the Wild Things Are, on stage March 21 to May 7, 2016, brings Maurice Sendak’s fantastical wild rumpus to life. The season concludes June 14 to Aug. 7, 2016, with the world premiere of a musical version of Dreamworks’ Madagascar, something The Coterie has been nurturing for three years.
The term “children’s theater” doesn’t really describe us, nor does “theater for young audiences.” I think we’re a kind of “family theater” that works on every level,” says Church.
The Coterie Legend
The Coterie has been part of Crown Center since 1979. “It was originally nomadic,” explains Church. “The notion was to let graduate students from UMKC use an empty storefront and then move elsewhere when that space was rented.” Originally called The Crown Center Children’s Theatre, legend has it that UMKC theater professor Robin Humphrey was increasingly frustrated by students skipping class to perform shows at Crown Center. She remarked: “When you and your little coterie of friends decide to come back to class, we’ll get something done.” When this comment made it back to the other students, they seized on the word “coterie.”
“It’s really the perfect name because it means a group of like-minded people, and I feel that matches the idea of our master classes, where we pull together drama students of a like mind from all around the metro area.”
The Coterie’s theater classes, including the Young Playwright’s Roundtable and Comedy Troupe, encompass all ages, from early childhood through high school. Coterie outreach continues with college and professional actors participating in the Dramatic Health Education Project. “We are one of the largest employers of non-union talent between ages 19 and 22 with a roster of 30 to 40 medical students and actors who travel to schools and deliver dramatic presentations about AIDS and health issues, free of charge. They then do question and answer sessions as AIDS peer educators in a dramatic format,” says Church. “So we have to teach the medical students to act and the actors to understand the medical information.”
Child Actor to Artistic Director
Church has been the producing artistic director of The Coterie since 1990. He grew up in La Junta, Colorado, where he was a child actor and then, as a teenager, started a theater group where young actors could perform shows. After receiving a degree in fine arts at Colorado College, he pursued an internship in a Missoula, Montana, children’s theater, which in turn led to a playwright-in-residence position at The Kennedy Center and teaching appointments at Duke Ellington School of the Arts (where one of his students was Dave Chappelle).
The Coterie’s national search for a playwright-director to serve as its artistic director came to his attention and seemed a perfect opportunity. Church landed the job and moved to Kansas City in December1990. He laughs about the fact that he didn’t actually write a play for The Coterie until 1996 when he adapted The Little Prince, but his playwriting skills have been a major factor in creating play concepts that can then be commissioned to other writers.
Intimate, Unique and Affordable
Nationally recognized as one of the top theaters for young audiences and ranked among the top five in the nation by Time magazine, The Coterie has thrived in its permanent space at the south end of Crown Center. With running times of 60 to 75 minutes, most productions enjoy six- to nine-week runs, accommodating school and group audiences during the day and weekend evening and matinee performances for the general public. The space is intimate, seating anywhere from 200 to 250 people.
“We know that when you have a small house, we have to do a lot of shows to make sure there’s payroll. Our ticket prices are incredibly low compared to any other theater in town, which has always been part of The Coterie’s DNA. We don’t want to price anyone out. In fact, groups can book a preview performance for about $5 a person. That’s just unheard of, not just in the region, but in the country.”
Ticket prices for the 2015-16 season were as low as $11 for youth under age 18 for regular show performances and peak at $15 or $17 for adults.
The Family Audience
Although the lifeblood of the theater used to be almost exclusively school groups, Church says that’s changed. “We feel the healthiest balance for The Coterie is more like 55 percent schools and 45 percent public audiences, which means largely family audiences. We’ve realized that schools are vulnerable. Something can happen in the legislature with budgets and suddenly a school isn’t able to make that field trip to The Coterie. As a nonprofit theater trying to do arts education for kids, we can’t be dependent on only one kind of income.”
That said, Church adds that The Coterie is determined to be the best possible field trip experience. “We’re always trying new things. We recently added time at the end of the play for reflection and discussion. Instead of saying “You’ve just seen the play, now go out into the mall,” we want the audience to have a post-show experience where they can talk to the actors and ask questions.”
From KC to Broadway — and Beyond
The Coterie has garnered major accolades with the increasing popularity of family theater. 2012 saw the world premiere of the family- audience version of Shrek The Musical and cemented a relationship with Dreamworks, resulting in the world premiere of the musical Madagascar in 2016.
“I’m certain the play will eventually be done at theaters all over, but we’re getting to do it first, and audiences will get to see what we created from a major title in our intimate, close-up space — and probably interact with the actors afterward. All of that goes far beyond just sitting and watching.”
Past Coterie shows Lucky Duck and Suessical (which initially flopped on Broadway) were reworked at The Coterie, condensed and scaled down into family shows and went on to successful runs in New York.
“It was such an honor to launch Seussical and know it’s become one of the most performed educational pieces in the country. We found a process where none of the depth of the book or songs is lost, while actually creating a more powerful experience.”
Church goes on to suggest that Shrek is far more efficient at 80 minutes. “Something happens when a 90-minute movie becomes a two-and-a-half-hour Broadway show…and in many cases it’s called ‘padding,’” he laughs. “We think that efficiency is what makes the plays so fast-moving and enjoyable.”
Christmas at The Coterie
The upcoming A Charlie Brown Christmas is a new play based on the 1965 TV special that coincides with the 65th anniversary of the Peanuts comic strip. Church expects audiences of all ages to respond to the show. “When we did Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer last year, I saw teenagers and adults get very nostalgic and protective of the experience. These characters are important to people. Who doesn’t feel like ‘the outsider’ at some point?”
Church is thrilled to see family audiences embracing The Coterie as part of the Crown Center Christmas tradition. “Along with the Mayors’ Christmas Tree, ice skating and the holiday lights, I hope people will include us as part of the experience, especially with A Charlie Brown Christmas. We’re a vital component of the family destination that it is Crown Center. Come see us!”
For more info visit thecoterie.org.