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'Visionary’ director of Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre dies shortly after retirement announcement

The Coterie Theatre's longtime executive director Joette Pelster died on Nov. 25 at the age of 71.
Jim Vaiknoras
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The Coterie Theatre's longtime executive director Joette Pelster died on Nov. 25 at the age of 71.

Joette Pelster had led the youth theater since 1993. She passed away on Nov. 25, just a week after announcing plans to retire.

Joette Pelster, who spent almost three decades leading the Coterie Theatre — Kansas City’s premier theater for young audiences — has died at the age of 71.

“She made things possible; she was a visionary,” said Coterie producing artistic director Jeff Church in a statement. “The loss we all feel cannot be described.”

According to the Coterie, Pelster “passed away peacefully at home in her sleep” on Friday, Nov. 25, just a week after she announced her intentions to retire.

Pelster had served as the executive director of the Coterie Theatre since 1993.

On Nov. 17, Pelster said she planned to retire by the end of January 2023.

“I had been thinking about it slightly before (the COVID-19 pandemic) — as you know, that upset all of our worlds,” she told KCUR.

“I just decided as COVID ended and the staff was back in gear and we had a full season ahead of us … back in August, I began the discussion,” she said. “I just thought it was time.”

During Pelster’s tenure, the organization reports its annual budget grew from $600,000 to $1.6 million. She is also credited with expanding the theater’s community reach beyond its headquarters on the first level of Crown Center shops, through drama classes, in-school programs and community projects.

The theater, founded in 1979, now serves about 97,000 people a year with more than 350 performances.

Before she joined the Coterie in 1993, Pelster worked as the Folly Theater’s marketing director and was Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey’s first executive director. During her time with KCFAA, she launched the first AileyCamp in 1989, which became a model for other camps around the country.

She also took a brief leave from the Coterie to work with Pat Jordan to restore and reopen the 18th and Vine district’s Gem Theater in 1997.

Though COVID-19 provided significant challenges, the first struggles Pelster said she faced leading the Coterie came in her first few years, trying to ensure their standards met the same high expectations as a theater for an adult audience.

“So that took some work to build that up,” she said. “You have standards, and they shouldn't be different if the audience is 5 (years old) or 50.”

The Coterie Theatre is now a professional Actors’ Equity theater, presenting classic and contemporary productions. The union represents performers and stage managers, and provides standards for work conditions and negotiating wages.

In 2004, TIME Magazine named the Coterie one of the top theaters for young audiences, calling it groundbreaking, and “one of the nation’s most respected.”

Pelster worked closely with producing artistic director Jeff Church, who started with the organization in 1990. Over the last 25 years, the Coterie has produced more than 50 world or American premieres and productions that traveled to the New Victory Theatre in New York City and The Kennedy Center in Washington.

One season in particular during the mid-1990s stood out for Pelster. Programming that year focused on banned books, which remains a timely subject.

“We just presented plays that had been banned at the time … which was a highly successful season,” she said. “That was one of my first impressions about how important the Coterie was to the community, and me personally in my development as their executive director.”

The theater’s board of directors has not provided details yet, but a succession plan was in place.

“This news comes as a shock not only to The Coterie family, but to the entire performing arts community where Joette was loved and respected in a way that very few people achieve,” said Coterie Board President Andrew Van Der Laan in a release. “The board and staff of The Coterie extend our deepest sympathies to her husband, adopted daughter, sisters, and extended family.”

A celebration of Pelster's life is scheduled on Monday, Dec. 19, at 4 p.m. at the Coterie. The family requests donations to The Joette Pelster Visionary Fund at The Coterie Theatre “to commemorate her legacy as a Kansas City arts visionary.”

Updated: November 27, 2022 at 9:38 AM CST
This story was updated after Pelster's death.
Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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