Jason Cooper (middle) with the cast of the staged reading of CLUE from 2018. Courtesy The Chicken Coop.
“There is this play I’m dying to do…”
By Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Why start a theatre company? Louisville already hosts a healthy roster of theatre companies, most of them run by people finding precious hours to make the commitment outside of a full-time job. Against the odds, two veteran actor/directors are starting new initiatives in the community: Jason Cooper (Pandora Productions, CenterStage) is calling his venture The Chicken Coop Theatre Company, while Craig Nolan Highley (Wayward Actors Company, The Alley Theater, CenterStage) and Jeremy Guiterrez (Wayward Actors Company, The Alley Theater) have chosen the moniker, Theatre Reprise. (full disclosure: both Jason Cooper and Craig Nolan Highley are content contributors to Arts-Louisville.com)
Theatre is an interpretative art in that most practitioners are engaged in producing a version of a pre-existing work. Actors, directors, and producers are eager to put their own stamp on the creation of other people, from William Shakespeare to Dominique Morisseau. Usually, within some restrictions, those creators are happy for the action.
Most of the Louisville theatre community provides that action, with only a few in a position to develop new, original material -WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre regularly produces original scripts by A.S. Waterman, who averages one new play each season, Derby City Playwrights develops new writing with a variety of local writers, The Bard’s Town hosts the annual Ten-Tucky Festival of Ten Minute Plays, Looking for Lilith specializes in devised theatre, Theatre  has an ongoing relationship with Steve Moulds and Diana Grisanti, and the still young Company Outcast has explored new writing in its early productions.
But theatre artists are a highly curious lot. Although they inevitably have favorite shows that they may return to over and over again, they also love to read plays and search for different material. So eventually, they come across scripts that get their juices flowing but for which they cannot easily imagine a production commitment coming from an existing company.
For Highley, one such play is Oscar and Felix: A New Look at The Odd Couple. “With Theatre Reprise, our plan is to produce familiar shows with name recognition that audiences love and will want to see,” explains Highley. “… but we want to put new spins on them. Neil Simon already did our work for us with our first production. Oscar & Felix is one of the last scripts he wrote, and as near as I have been able to determine, we are the first group in the area to do it. It’s the same story, with modernized and updated references, and most of the second half contains all-new dialogue and humor, even though the story beats are the same.”
In Cooper’s case, the idea for The Chicken Coop stems from a staged reading of Clue, which he produced as a one-off at The Bard’s Town in August 2018. “I have been toying with the idea for a long time, but that is when I decided to go for it.” A return of that well-received concept will be the company’s first public event on May 31. It is a fair indicator of what Cooper has in store for the Coop, whose mission statement is, “ …to enrich, educate and entertain the Louisville community through theatrical storytelling, focusing on lesser-known and under-produced works, staged readings of favorite screenplays, and cabarets featuring local favorites and guest artists.”
The Coop has announced an inaugural season beginning in the fall: The Mystery of Irma Vep (Sept 17 – Oct 6, 2019) Grey Gardens: The Musical (April 3 – 12, 2020)
So while Theatre Reprise seeks to fill a niche for material overlooked by other companies, The Chicken Coop sounds like it endeavors to provide a looser, less formal theatrical experience, at least at first.
“I’ve always tried to put my own stamp on shows I’ve directed, such as replacing the racial stereotype villains in It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman! with a different group of villains from DC comics, or using the excerpt from the movie version as a prologue to Cry of the Banshee. The idea is to keep doing that on a bigger scale with our new company.“
The Coop Caberet will take place at PLAY for one night only: Friday, May 31 @ 7:00pm. The launch event will feature performances from Jessica Adamson, Shelby Brown, Alex Craig, Michael Detmer, Mike Fryman, Erin Jump, Lauren McCombs, Tamika McDonald, Andrew Newton, Jordan Price, Jennifer Poliskie, Alonzo Richmond, Landon Sholar, Remy Sisk, Jill Sullivan, & Bridget Thomas. Tickets are $25 in advance/$30 at the door. For tickets visit: thecoopcabaret.brownpapertickets.com.
Theatre Reprise’s inaugural production, Oscar and Felix: A New Look at The Odd Couple by Neil Simon will be at The Bard’s Town, June 27-July 7 @ 7:30pm. Tickets will be available at: www.thebardstowntheatre.org
Besides Highley and Guiterrez in the title roles, their cast will include Aaron G. Whaley, Janice Walter, Gerry Robertson, Rich Williams, Brenda Marie, & Jessica Tanselle.
In a neat touch of synchronicity Jason Cooper will be directing Oscar and Felix; in rehearsals for Theatre Reprise’s debut while he kicks off his own company. It underscores the supportive nature of the Louisville theatre community.
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.