This article appeared in the August 2010 issue of KC Stage
Jeff Church is now in his 19th year at the Coterie Theater, a professional theater for young audiences and is the Producing Artistic Director. He got his start at the age of 15 in his hometown of La Junta, Colorado, where he started a children’s theater (now called theater for young audiences) because “There weren’t many opportunities for kids to be in plays. We did not have a good junior high drama program at all. So I started a theater when I was in junior high, a children’s theater where kids could be in the plays. I was very entrepreneurial back then. I think I started it because I’ve always wanted to direct. Even back then I was gearing towards directing. Having been in plays when I was a kid, I didn’t necessarily think my passion was acting. I wasn’t against acting; I did a lot of acting in high school and college. But I really liked, and always have liked directing and organizing the concept of the production. I sure had an idea of what I wanted the set to look like, the costumes to look like, and that sort of thing. It was the director in me coming out at a young age.”
Coterie producing artistic director Jeff Church and executive director Joette Pelster.
Photo courtesy The Coterie Theatre
Throughout his years at Colorado College and as a Playwright-in-Residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., he operated his summer theater back home in Colorado. When he joined the Coterie as Producing Artistic Director in 1990 he chose to retire his original theater venture. On a national level, Jeff has been a board member of the Theater Communications Group, an NEA site reporter and panelist, and has been inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theater. “I think it’s interesting that I’ve always been specializing in theater for young audiences or children’s theater in some form and I had a long, really fun, stint in Washington D.C. I was a playwright in residence at the Kennedy Center in my 20s, and that was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. It was a lot of write-for-hire.”
“Something I don’t put in my bio is that I also taught at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts at the same time. I took my writing side and my teaching side and tried to cobble out a living in the 1980s. There were a lot of ups and downs and rewards and highlights. One of the students that I taught for 3 years was Dave Chappelle. I taught him Principals of Stage Management, Play Analysis, and a playwriting class. In the playwriting class, I was feeling like the kids weren’t really writing anything that they were passionate about so I gave them an “A” or “F” assignment and they had to grade themselves. They had to write something that shocked even them. They had half the class to write it and half the class to perform it. Everybody else in the class clearly gave themselves an “F”. They tried everything; they really tried to shock themselves but couldn’t do it. The only person who really succeeded was Dave and he wrote the Crack Baby Monologue, which is a famous routine he did in his first HBO special. I’ve heard kids over the years be able to do the whole monologue, and I think that it’s so interesting that it was a class assignment. I think he’s kept that idea in his television series, ‘don’t write if it doesn’t shock you’. If it didn’t shock him, it wouldn’t shock anybody else. All his stuff was so edgy and funny. He was doing stand-up at the time, and kept saying, ‘Mr. Church, I don’t see why I have to write a play, I’m in stand-up.’ I said, ‘eventually you’re going to want to develop characters, you can’t always be you, Dave, at the mike. There might be some other things that you want to do.’ Which was true.”
When asked why Jeff cares so much about theater for young audiences, he said, “I really think that there are several sides to that question. A personal side, I feel that there’s a lot left to explore in theater for young audiences. For example, there are a number of plays that are very common to the entire American population in adult theater that many people could name to you... from Glass Menagerie to Oklahoma. But in theater for young audiences, though we’ve been at it for 100 years or more, we only have one play everyone can name that truly began as a play, not an adaptation of a children’s story, something that was born to be onstage, and that’s Peter Pan. Since then there’s really been nothing, and I think that’s a dismal record. Or you can look at it as a tremendous opportunity. There’s obviously a lot of room for growth.”
Jeff has been doing his part to help theater for young audiences grow with the Coterie’s Lab for New Family Musicals. “Our idea for the Coterie Lab for New Family Musicals is to get Broadway composers to take a property of theirs and fashion it into a family musical and give it a life in professional theater for young audiences. It’s not a junior version. When we did Seussical, they made the junior version from our version. But our version was a professional theater for young audiences version. Yes, it had a smaller cast, but it did not have a simplified, easy to sing score. It was just as professional and challenging for singers as the Broadway original, though not as many songs, not as many characters, and not as long.” Many shows have had new life and fame through this program, including Seussical, Geppetto & Son, The Happy Elf, Life on the Mississippi, and the latest production, Lucky Duck, which opened June 22, 2010 and runs through August 8, 2010. “Over the 8 years of doing this, I’ve gotten to work with some really great people, from Stephen Schwartz, Harry Connick Jr., Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and now Henry Krieger and Bill Russell. These people have told us that it makes their plays better to come here and spend time at the Coterie and streamline and clarify what story you are telling.” One of the goals of the Coterie Lab for New Family Musicals is to create more high-caliber musicals for younger audiences, with the hopes that most shows go on from here to the national level, as Seussical did. The National Endowment for the Arts has recognized this caliber of shows, through Jeff’s grant writing skills, and has provided funding for both Life on the Mississippi and Lucky Duck. “That particular grant was probably the most difficult for me to write because it has an artistic narrative that has to be very complete and very exhaustive in its detail. But my Executive Director, Joette Pelster, and our Development Director, Patrick Yount, they’re very good at uncovering funding sources.” The Coterie Lab for New Family Musicals also is letting Jeff realize a dream of his, directing a production of The Wiz next summer!
A couple of other little known programs that the Coterie has are the Coterie at Night Series and “We also have the largest AIDS education program in the city and we partner with UMKC School of Medicine and KU School of Nursing. The Dramatic AIDS Education Project (DAEP) has proven to be very fundable and we’ve been able to get involved in some funding that other theaters would not have because they don’t have a program like that. It’s unusual to be sex and health educators, as a lot of theaters are not that. Another little known fact about is that we find a lot of up-and-coming actors because they’re on our payroll very early on. We have a payroll of about 120 people over the course of a year and a budget of about 1.4 million.”
“A big part of why the Coterie works is that, as a not-for-profit theater, we’re given the in-kind donation of our space here at Crown Center. That makes a huge difference. In fact, I would encourage any theater entrepreneurs or not-for-profit theaters that are getting started to create whatever structures you can, make whatever in-roads you can, to get out of the business of paying rent, or at least try to greatly minimize. You don’t want to be in the business in our size of theater and be looking at roof repair or high rent. Once you take that on, once you get a space that you can get in-kind or greatly reduced, you’ve got to use that. I think that it would be a shame to produce Velveteen Rabbit and those kinds of plays all year long. It would be a waste of a chance to do some really interesting plays. I think I could’ve built the Coterie to a much greater budget than what we are currently if I was to do these commercial children’s theater favorites, but I’m trying not to go that route.”
When asked what keeps him going, Jeff replied that it’s because “the theater is largely changing, there’s more shows for older ages now, and lots of fun musicals for all ages. The Coterie’s always open for change, and has become a place where you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy the shows. I like kids’ musicals, but I’m also interested in trying to redefine traditional notions of children’s theater and turn those notions on their head and make some new rules, standards and goals. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in middle school and high school to get them excited about theater. The Coterie has a great chance because we’re in a small space and you can really impact them. When we did Tell Tale Electric Poe we paired Scott Hobart, Rex Hobart, and Bruce Roach together. It was very palpable. The audience did not move for 65 minutes. They were literally working to get the language, taking in the atmosphere, and then electric score was just pulling them in. I think that we’ve had some real successes in middle school and high school to give them the one-two punch that they didn’t expect.”
Still in Kansas City, but outside of the Coterie, Jeff is directing Thrill Me, a musical in the Fringe Festival. Its run will extend through Aug 15 at the Fishtank Performance Studio. After the Fringe, it will play on weekends. “It’s a two-character musical. It’s based on the 1920’s gay criminals, Leopold and Loeb. They were young, and they were well educated, from Chicago. They read a lot of Nietzsche and they felt like they were above the law and they tried to commit the perfect crime and failed.” At the Unicorn Theater, Jeff has directed many times (Sister Mary Ignatius…, La Cage Aux Folles, Laramie Project and others). His upcoming Unicorn project A Very Joan Crawford Christmas. “I’m writing it in August and it will be performed in December. Ron Megee, a long-time collaborator of mine, and I are doing A Very Joan Crawford Christmas, as a very fun, glorious Joan Crawford giving advice on how to drink your vodka and how to keep a man. She’s an older Joan at the end of her career, doing a lot of horror movies.”
Jeff’s advice for others wanting a career in theater for young audiences? “There’s a couple of great grad schools to go to. Arizona State University, University of Texas at Austin, and DePaul University in Chicago all have great programs. I think going and getting that advanced degree is helpful. It networks you, and you go to national conferences. If you’re interested in just getting involved in theater for young audiences, an education degree and some classes in children’s literature, which are really fun to take since you’re reading children’s books, are very helpful. Sometimes taking that and a playwriting class really helps, especially if you can get the professor to let you work on trying out and adapting so you can see the challenges involved with that. I’ve also worked with big casts, sometimes as big as 100 people. It helped me to learn those large stage pictures, moving large groups of people and getting large groups of people to be motivated; to really want to stay in character and take it seriously. I think it taught me how to inspire them.”