Courage at The Coterie

An interview with Jeff Church, Artistic Director of The Coterie

The Coterie is a children’s theater that’s not just for children. Since taking the helm as artistic director in 1990, Jeff Church has made it his goal to turn the theater into an interactive experience for audiences of all ages—a goal that fits right into The Coterie’s mission of opening lines of communication between races, sexes and generations. Under Church’s leadership, The Coterie has become a nationally recognized theater and the ground floor for a stunning number of new and reimagined productions that have spread all across the country. Kansas City Spaces sat down with Jeff recently to discuss The Coterie’s current play, as well as how he has transformed the theater during his tenure.

Kansas City Spaces: Tell us about the play you’re currently producing.

Jeff Church: The Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock is a play that takes place in 1957 after the nine African-American students who enrolled in Little Rock Central High School spent much of the year trying to be the first black students in that school. At the climax of the play there’s an incident between Minnijean Brown and some of the white students in the cafeteria. She is expelled, the action of the play stops and the audience is asked to imagine themselves as citizens of 1957 in a town hall meeting, and to debate whether it’s safe enough to let the kids stay in that school and to continue the integration process. The debate—asking people to put themselves in that context—is a really unique theatrical experience.

KCS: Why did you choose this play, and what do you hope your audience will take away from it?

JC: We’ve been doing plays since 1999 that have in some way asked the audience to participate. Our space is very intimate, and it really makes for a very dynamic experience when you can have a group of people all listen to the same material, hear a diversity of opinions and then arrive at agreement in that space. Teachers have also asked us to provide an experience where the students don’t just sit down to watch a play and get back on the bus. Our response to that was to use our space dynamically and develop these kinds of participation plays that don’t make anyone in the audience feel like they’re ever on the spot.

Empathy is always the number one experience that we get in theatrical productions such as those at The Coterie. Beyond that, with these plays where we look at history, we hope that audiences take away a sort of understanding that with these dilemmas we face, history has some answers for us in how we could behave and function today. We did a play last year called And Justice For Some: The Freedom Trial of Anthony Burns. We had chosen to do that play before Ferguson, but then after the incident in Ferguson, we knew we had this responsibility to turn the piece into an effective dialogue. And it turned out really well. I hope for the same thing with The Nine Who Dared, that looking at the dilemmas the characters are facing will have resonance with the kinds of issues we’re facing today. One of our goals is to produce shows that break down barriers between races, sexes and generations, and this play fits that mission very well.

KCS: One of your goals has been to transform The Coterie to be a multigenerational theater. How have you gone about achieving that? How successful do you feel you have been?

JC: There are a number of ways an artistic director can interpret a mission, and my take on The Coterie was that it was a concept, a place where a group of like-minded people could come together. And so I wanted to see a multigenerational, intergenerational audience be in the room together. I thought that would be the most effective way at getting the best possible experience and the most reach. With theaters for young audiences, oftentimes adult think, “We’ll bring the kids and the kids will enjoy it, but there won’t be anything in it for me.” What we have strived for is for our plays to work on all levels—that for the very young person or the teenager or the college student or adult or even the senior, there is some layer in our plays that all will enjoy. Our desire to attract a multigenerational audience has probably been a key to The Coterie’s success. We often hear from people how surprised they are enjoying the show, comments such as “I liked this play as much as my child did.”

KCS: You’ve been at The Coterie for a while now—what keeps you there?

JC: Every now and then I think I have run out of ideas. I want our programming to be unlike anybody else’s in the country. We might do one or two plays that other kids’ theaters do, but by and large our plays are unique, and you won’t see them elsewhere. Or if you do, you’ll see them at The Coterie first! For example, we have what we call our Lab for New Family Musicals, which is where we work with Broadway composers and writing teams and help them arrive at a streamlined, family-friendly running time with a cast size that can be produced in smaller theaters such as ours. We’ve also had the chance to work with Disney on My Son Pinnochio and with Dreamworks on Shrek the Musical and Madagascar. And that keeps me on my toes. I have to be vigilant about finding properties and projects that we could be a part of. It’s been good for us, and I think it’s been fun for Kansas City artists to be on the ground floor of something.

KCS: Speaking of Kansas City, what would you say you like best about the arts scene in Kansas City?

JC: I want to say, in the strongest of terms, that this is a town with a very lively arts sector, and the quality is very, very high for all the different performing arts. I think theater in Kansas City is particularly advanced and sophisticated for a city of this size. In fact, because we have such a large pool of professional actors and artists, we don’t have to import a lot of talent from New York and Chicago like other cities do. We can cast a lot of very challenging plays from our local acting pool. So when you are seeing a professional production here in Kansas City, you are truly supporting local artists and the local economy.

The Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock is playing at The Coterie through October 21.