Strollers president John Varda: 'Passions run high in theater, as you know, and, unfortunately, this stress led to a difficult cast meeting that caused a number of people to take offense.'
Management of the Strollers Theatre. Cooper's wife, Lee Ann, the Bartell's managing director, predicts "an end to community theater in Madison" as a result of the controversy that is embroiling three nonprofits.
Leo Cooper has been one of Madison's best-known arts leaders for 45 years. He quit the Strollers board Wednesday, Feb. 6. His departure involves Mercury Players Theatre and raises concerns about the Bartell, where Lee Ann Cooper has served as managing director for more than five years. The Bartell provides home stages for six area theater groups. The Coopers have helped lead Strollers for decades.
Before the resignation, observers from several theater troupes questioned the involvement of the Cooper family as both landlord and tenant at Bartell venues. "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."
The Bartell's president, Sarah Whelan-Blake, says of the controversy, "It is a serious problem, but we all will survive."
'My daughter was scared to death'
It started merely as a backstage argument, after a Strollers performance of Noises Off on Thursday, Jan. 31, for which Leo Cooper served as producer. Leo complained to director Jewell Fitzgerald so loudly that it disrupted a Mercury performance also being held in the Bartell.
"It was so loud that people downstairs heard it, and there was another show going on," says Whelan-Blake. "Everyone involved called me."
"Passions run high in theater, as you know, and, unfortunately, this stress led to a difficult cast meeting that caused a number of people to take offense," says John Varda, Strollers' president.
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. Whelan-Blake says that she received notification of a pending, internal, formal complaint from Mercury president Bonnie Balke, but that so far she sees the Bartell as uninvolved, except for discipline of its managing director, Lee Ann Cooper.
Children of actor Mark Huismann were present when Leo Cooper expressed his anger to Fitzgerald, upsetting Huismann, Liz Angle and other Strollers performers. In an e-mail to the Bartell, Huismann complained to Lee Ann that it was "lunatic behavior."
"My daughter was scared to death and could not sleep last night," Huismann wrote. "She was afraid Leo was going to hurt somebody. I finally got her to sleep last night after 2."
In response, Lee Ann wrote, "If your kids have never heard the word 'fuck' before, they need to get out more. As a responsible parent you should not have brought your kids backstage."
She added, "Leo's actions and behavior last night have the complete support of the Strollers board," and threatened to "turn [Huismann's] e-mail over to the Strollers attorney, Grif Dorschel, and sue you for slander, just in case you think I'm kidding."
Referring to her family's involvement with Strollers, Lee Ann also wrote, "We've been doing this for 45 years and we don't need you telling us what to do." The note was written during work hours, at 12:23 p.m. Friday, using the Bartell e-mail account.
'The Bartell will collapse'
Wednesday, Feb. 6, again during her work hours, at 11:24 a.m. and using the Bartell e-mail account, Lee Ann warned Varda, Huismann and other Strollers personnel not to speak to the press. Whelan-Blake was not informed of any of these communications.
"I am asking all of you to think twice about taking this incident to [Isthmus]," Lee Ann wrote. "It would destroy Strollers if this incident was brought to the public."
She added, "If Strollers is brought down, the Bartell will collapse and that would bring an end to community theater in Madison."
Whelan-Blake says that's nonsense, but that Lee Ann's apparent conflict of interest will have to be addressed. "She should not have sent that out under the Bartell name," she says. "We can't have that happening."
Whelan-Blake, Terrell and others all express remorse over the controversy, and emphasize that it's nearly a cliche that emotions run high during productions; ironically, that's the central theme of the backstage comedy Noises Off, which set recent events in motion.
Says Varda, "Strollers dealt with the complaints internally." Leo and Lee Ann Cooper have been unavailable for comment. They have not responded to e-mails, and their home phone number, which also served as Strollers' official number for ticketing and other information, was disconnected Wednesday. Lee Ann is on sick leave from the Bartell.
Strollers Theatre was founded in 1958. Leo Cooper, age 62, has served at various times as Strollers' president, and as a director, producer, actor, and designer of sets, costumes, props and sound. He met Lee Ann at Strollers in 1965. Both were leaders in the founding of the Bartell.