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Trouble at the Bartell
All hell breaks loose after a backstage conflict

Strollers Theatre performed Noises Off at the Bartell Theatre on Jan. 31. Afterwards, producer Leo Cooper complained to director Jewell Fitzgerald so loudly backstage that it disrupted a Mercury Players Theatre performance also being held in the Bartell. Then all hell broke loose in local community theater.

Cooper resigned from the Strollers board last week. Three more board members resigned, including Strollers' president; after that, Cooper returned. Cooper's wife, Lee Ann, the Bartell's managing director, has been accused of having a conflict of interest.

Observers question the involvement of the Cooper family as both landlord and tenant at the Bartell. "That is a very strong conflict of interest that will have to be addressed," says veteran Strollers actor Bart Terrell. "The managing director should be independent of the participating theater companies." Strollers is one of six member companies at the Bartell.

Actor Liz Angle was present when Leo met with the Noises Off cast after its Jan. 31 performance. She says, "[The Coopers] have treated their actors unfairly and were verbally abusive."

Says Terrell, "If Leo were not married to the [Bartell] managing director, that behavior would never have been allowed."

What began perhaps as just a personality conflict quickly escalated. Former attorney and Mercury board member Alan Hart announced plans to file a "formal grievance" against Leo Cooper. Says Mercury president Bonnie Balke, "The matter is still under investigation by Mercury Players Theatre."

The Coopers had no comment for this article.

The Bartell's president, Sarah Whelan-Blake, says that so far she sees the Bartell as uninvolved, except for possible discipline of managing director Lee Ann Cooper. Lee Ann waded into the controversy on Strollers' behalf during work time on the Bartell email account."It is a serious problem," Whelan-Blake says, "but we all will survive."

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