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Stage shakeup leads to more shows for kids

Theater News
by: Eric Bartels, John Monteverde recently was fired as artistic director at Northwest Children’s Theater and School, so why the smile? He already has a new company and the same mission.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many young lives John Monteverde touched in his 13 years as artistic director at the Northwest Children's Theater and School, but the anecdotal evidence is not hard to find.

As the 41-year-old Monteverde sits in a Southeast Portland coffeehouse, the parents of Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer Steven Houser happen by. They beam as they tell their son's one-time mentor about the young man's new contract at OBT.

'He's getting more interesting roles as a dancer because of his background,' Monteverde says later. He began working with Houser when the dancer was barely out of preschool. 'The whole point of theater is the dynamics. It teaches you to work with others.'

But Monteverde's fellow co-founders at the Northwest Children's Theater and School expressed a different feeling about his ability to work with others when he was fired early last month, a move that has generated shock, chagrin and a six-figure lawsuit.

'It's messy, and it's hard for people involved,' Monteverde says. 'It's not just about me. It's been very divisive for people that work there.'

Monteverde says Managing Director Judy Kafoury and Education Director Carolyn Newsom simply tired of his dissatisfaction with the management of the organization's financial affairs. Spending priorities were misplaced, he maintains. 'Our grant writer quit shortly before I was fired,' he says.

But Newsom says Monteverde, while disagreeing about money matters, also acted disrespectfully toward staff members and fomented discord within the organization.

'He's one of the most talented creative people I've ever met,' she says, 'but there's another side that's hard to work with. He doesn't see the results of his actions.'

Monteverde says he cannot discuss the accusations and counterclaims surrounding his dismissal, pending a legal action designed to win what he calls a severance payment.

Kafoury's husband, Greg, a Portland lawyer, says the figure is $200,000.

In any case, both sides vow to move on from what all admit has been a difficult situation. Newsom says the organization is financially healthy and 'won't be hurt at all' by Monteverde's departure.

Sara Jane Hardy, who frequently served as guest director under Monteverde, has been appointed interim artistic director. Newsom says the organization is not actively searching for a replacement.

And Monteverde presided over the official formation of Blue Monkey Theatre Company earlier this week. Some supporters from Northwest Children's Theater, including costumer DeeDee Remington, have joined him.

Monteverde says the company will launch its first production in December, followed by a Portland-area tour of the play 'The Wrestling Season,' which he directed at Northwest Children's Theater last spring.

'We're looking at a much smaller environment and a more intimate experience,' he says. Because the new company's overhead will be modest, he'll be freed up to experiment with plays not taken from the more traditional or 'canonical' list of works.

He is unconcerned about whether Portland can sustain three theaters - Oregon Children's Theatre is the other existing company - oriented toward teenagers and children. He says Northwest Children's Theater built its audience steadily during his time there.

'Children in Portland go to theater more often than children in other cities,' he says.

Monteverde says making theater remains what it's always been for him, a way to teach life skills.

'I'm not trying to fill the world with professional actors,' he says. 'All art is an exploration of our place in the universe. The sooner you can start doing that as a human being, the better.

'I can try to set the example of bouncing back,' he says. 'Bad things happen. You don't crawl under a rock and die. I'm going to continue the work I always did.'

- Eric Bartels