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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 1.0° F  Fair
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Strollers Theatre to shut down
Bartell Theatre controversy causes a chain reaction
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Madison theater continues to be rocked by controversy and resignations.

On Feb. 19, Lee Ann Cooper resigned as managing director of the Bartell Community Theatre. That same day Strollers Theatre, which she and her husband, Leo, led for decades, announced it would leave the Bartell after its production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which closes April 5. Strollers is shutting down, at least temporarily.

"If Strollers is brought down, the Bartell will collapse, and that would bring an end to community theater in Madison," Lee Ann had earlier said in an email to Strollers personnel, warning them not to speak to the press about spiraling controversies.

Strollers has by far been the Bartell's most frequent tenant, and the company's loss will create a sizable gap in the venue's schedule and present an income shortfall.

The chain reaction of events began Jan. 31, when Leo Cooper argued with the director and cast of Strollers' production of Noises Off, which he produced. The argument was so loud that it disturbed Mercury Players Theatre personnel, working on a different floor.

Lee Ann Cooper responded to concerns of one Noises Off cast member whose children were present, using her Bartell email account.

"If your kids have never heard the word 'fuck' before, they need to get out more," she wrote.

Some perceived a conflict of interest in Lee Ann's serving as the Bartell's managing director while protecting the interests of her husband and troupe. Doug Holtz, former president of Mercury, called for "removing Lee Ann as the managing director of the Bartell."

Leo Cooper resigned from the Strollers board Feb. 6 and then returned the weekend of Feb. 9, following the resignation of three other board members, including its president, John Varda.

"The Bartell is saddened by the resignation of the Strollers and the managing director, Lee Ann Cooper," says Sarah Whelan-Blake, the Bartell's president. "We are actively working on filling the void left by both resignations and feel confident that the five theaters [remaining] at the Bartell will continue to produce exciting theater."

"Strollers will not be producing shows anywhere," says Leo Cooper, who is serving as Strollers' president. "The Strollers board unanimously agreed to take this hiatus not because we are short of actors or directors or money but because it is very difficult to find people to produce shows and do the day-to-day running of the Strollers Theatre for no money. The Strollers board is considering hiring a full-time producer, which might solve the problem, but until that happens Strollers needs to take a break to regroup."

Lee Ann Cooper served as the Bartell's managing director since August 2002. "As the Bartell has grown and prospered it has become apparent that one employee is not sufficient," she says. "It's just too big of a job for one person to do it all."

The Coopers say they look forward to retirement.

The Bartell opened in 1998 after seven local theater troupes, including Strollers, joined to create a permanent home in the former Esquire movie theater. With Strollers' departure, the Bartell will be shared and governed by five groups.

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