In Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour, a little girl destroys her teacher's life with accusations that the teacher is gay. In Arthur Miller's The Crucible, mere mortals are tried and convicted as witches by their peers. In the best theatrical tradition, recent behind-the-scenes shenanigans at local companies have combined the best elements of these dramas in what one wag is calling "more than the usual backstage Peyton Place crap."
In recent months, three artistic directors at three community theater companies -- one a children's theater, the other small troupes that offer children's theater programs -- have been accused of inappropriate behavior with minors. Two of these three staffers have been fired. And while theater representatives are tightlipped about exactly why they've sacked their artistic directors, the theater community has been buzzing about the issue for months.
The problem with children's theaters, the story goes, isn't that they're being run by pedophiles or overturned by vindictive brats. The trouble, some say, is that the boards of directors of these kiddy companies are teeming with overambitious stage parents.
"The real story is that there are power struggles that are disguised as a response to inappropriate behavior," says T. John Weltzien, who until recently was the artistic director of both Scottsdale's Stagebrush Theatre and the company's Greasepaint Scottsdale Youtheatre. "It's an easier way of moving things along, to say that you're firing someone because they were inappropriate with your kid, and not because you didn't cast their kid in your show. That's petty, and not a good enough reason to get rid of someone, but maybe the fact that you're uncomfortable with a gay person working with your kids is a good enough reason."
Weltzien and his lover, Stagebrush costumer Timothy Slope, were ousted from the company last spring for what Slope calls "unspecified causes." Weltzien says that, with no explanation forthcoming from his former employer about why he was fired, he's had to rely on the rumor mill.
"I was never directly accused of anything," Weltzien says. "But I have friends [at Greasepaint] who told me, in private, that there were concerns about me being gay and working with children's theater." Members of the Stagebrush board did not return calls from New Times by press time.
Similar rumors have made their way to former Theater Works artistic director Gregory Jaye, who was asked to resign last month over what the theater called, in a resignation letter, "recent unacceptable social behavior with minors associated with Theater Works."
Jaye was reportedly asked to resign after a pair of complaints were lodged against his company. In one instance, the parent of a kid in a recent production complained that an adult cast member groped their child; in another, kids were reportedly caught quaffing cocktails at a cast party. While it's no surprise that Theater Works CEO Mike Foulds refuses to discuss Jaye's dismissal, it's ironic that Jaye -- who wasn't present for either alleged incident -- is reluctant to talk about his situation.
"The last thing I want to do is say anything that will harm the reputation of Theater Works," Jaye says. "I'm proud of that theater, and of what I was able to accomplish there. I don't want the theater to suffer."
The indignity of being fired was compounded, Jaye says, by the way he was dismissed. "I was given no opportunity to defend myself," he reports. "I was called to the house of the president of the board and handed a letter requesting my resignation."
Like Jaye, Weltzien was given no chance to defend himself against rumored allegations that he had misappropriated funds and was, Slope says, "supposedly using the theater's computer to download Internet pornography."
"The bad thing is that one situation can set off a chain reaction," Slope says. "Someone at Stagebrush gets accused of inappropriate behavior, and somebody else thinks, 'I should accuse Bobb Cooper of that; that'll show him!'"
Slope is referring to the artistic director of Valley Youth Theatre, a downtown kids-only company of some renown. Cooper minces no words about recent accusations leveled at him from a young actor.
"There was a certain 19-year-old who, after I didn't cast him, went around saying that I was a pedophile and a child molester," Cooper says. "I'm sorry. I have a wife and a daughter and I work 12 hours a day at this theater, trying to better our community. And all my hard work could have been destroyed because some little punk didn't get cast in a show."
Cooper says he confronted the youth, but that reports of their meeting have been exaggerated. "I didn't beat him up, despite what you may have heard," Cooper says. "But I did ask him what the hell he thought he was doing, and I told him that directors call me all the time asking for referrals of child actors, and that I wouldn't ever recommend him to any theater."
Slope, who says he was asked to have an adult female present when he did costume fittings on kids at Greasepaint, believes that "the gay thing" is merely an excuse. "Parents seem willing to send their kids to a theater run by gay people, until their kid doesn't get cast in something," he says. "Then the accusations start to fly."
"It's not about who's gay," according to "Lola," a theater freelancer who says she'll never work again if New Times uses her real name. "Because every parent knows that their kids are going to work with tons of gay people in the theater. It's all a political witch hunt."
Lola points out that Weltzien's Greasepaint replacement, actress Robyn Ferracane, was fired soon after she settled in. "They threw her out because she wouldn't play the game. She worked like crazy for almost no money, but she wouldn't cast kids just because their mom was [influential]. So she was out the door."
Ben Tyler, who recently resigned from his post as artistic director of Desert Foothills Community Theater, experienced similar woes. "If I hadn't quit, I probably would have gotten fired," he says, laughing. "[The board] wanted me to cast by zip code -- to give preferential treatment to actors who lived in the area. I wanted to cast the most talented performers who showed up to audition."
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That attitude will eventually triumph, Weltzien believes. "In time, it'll go back to being about art and not people's petty issues," he says.
Jaye is also hopeful, but more cautious.
"If something good has come from this," Jaye says, "it's that artistic directors have learned to cover their asses with an employment contract."