By Jason Cooper
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Jason Cooper. All rights reserved.
2. First Love
Every year when I was very young a traveling theatre troupe would come to my small Catholic school and set up a stage in the cafeteria to perform. Usually, the play would be some version of a fairy tale mashed-up with whatever hot topic was plaguing society at the time, like “Little Red Riding Hood Says No To Drugs” or “Goldilocks And The Three Sexual Predators.” I lived for the days those actors would come. I remember waking up excited on the mornings I knew they were coming. I would push and claw, and pull hair to get to the front of the cafeteria so I could sit up close. Those actors cast a spell on me; I was mesmerized. I sat there on the cafeteria floor legs folded beneath me, mouth agape with awe. I wanted to do what they were doing.
My first taste of being on stage was in the first grade when I – along with the rest of the first graders – played a mouse in the school Christmas program. As sickeningly adorable as a wall of six-year-olds in mouse ears and whiskers must be, I took the role very seriously. My teacher made a passing remark about how cute my dimples were, so I smiled so hard my face was sore the next day. I was going to “out-mouse” all of my classmates. I began to do some strange modulation, which I thought of as dance, but probably looked like a full-body spasm, which caused my mouse ears to slide down over my face. I noticed a few people in the audience react to this with laughter and, WHAM! a ham was born.
As a kid, my plan was simple, and my path was clear, to become a child star turned teen idol. I figured I’d become a singer first then segue way into movies. Basically, I thought of myself as Cher. I know Madonna is more my generation, but let’s be frank, she’s a terrible actress. I always felt that my big break in Hollywood was right around the corner, never mind the fact that I lived in Kentucky and was in the fourth grade.
I discovered how much individual attention you could get by being in a play when I was in the fifth grade. I was chosen out of all the boys in the school to be one of the main characters in that year’s Christmas play; there weren’t even tryouts; they just handed it to me. I thought I was hot stuff; I also got to get out of class early to rehearse, I thought it was the biggest deal. It was the feeling of being singled out for a positive reason that I liked. It feels like someone saying “hey, there’s something special about you,” and it is that feeling that fuels most performers. The need to perform filled a void in my life I didn’t truly understand until I was an adult who’d spent a reasonable amount of time in therapy. The reason I was chosen to be in that play in the fifth grade, which of course was kept from me at the time, was that the teachers had met among themselves and decided to give me the part because they could see that I was isolated from the other kids in my class, particularly the boys. They could see that I had no outlet because everything available for a ten-year-old boy revolved around sports. If only they knew what a monster they were creating.
To say that I lived in a fantasy world would be not entirely accurate. To me – 12-year-old me that is – I was going to be a star, there was no fantasy about it. To say that I was a wee bit detached from reality, well, that was probably a little more accurate. I figured that by the time I started high school I’d be a pop singer/movie star/Tony winner -oh yes, my sights were also set on Broadway.
I grew up on musicals. Personally, I have a penchant for movie musicals, specifically, bad ones. High art like Xanadu, The Pirate Movie, Annie, The Wiz, and do not get me started on the influence Grease and Grease 2 have had on my life. Conversely, I am fortunate enough to say that I received early exposure to Musical Theatre. The original concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar was a staple in our house. My mother loved Andrew Lloyd Weber’s hippie masterpiece. At my Catholic school, our music teacher who had bright orange hair and always had lipstick on her teeth taught us to sing “What’s The Buzz” and “Everything’s Alright” which now that I think about it is a strange song for schoolchildren to sing.
My sister got her hands on the Original Cast Recording of Annie, which I immediately snatched out of her hands and clutched in my own. I had the entire show choreographed and blocked before bedtime. When the film version of Annie came out, I was very judgmental, “I prefer the stage version,” I would say condescendingly to the two little girls I’d coerced into discussing the topic with me. Also, I was six.
My mother took my sisters and me to see several touring Broadway shows when they came through town. I saw the national tours of The Pirates of Penzance and Barnum before I hit double digits. While most kids would have been bored out of there gourds, I was transfixed, not just by what I saw on the stage, but by what I imagined was going on behind it. When I was 12, my sister came home from college for the weekend and effectively changed my life forever. On that fateful visit my sister brought with her the original cast recordings of Phantom of the Opera, Evita, A Chorus Line, and Les Miserables. I sat on the floor of her bedroom, and we listened to each one, while my sister told the story of each show in specific detail. She explained to me the plots, the source materials, the casting, and the histories behind the shows. She made me a cassette tape of each show, and every night henceforth I would go to bed with one of the shows singing me to sleep in my Sony Walkman.
I was obsessed; I started seeking out any cast albums I could get my hands on. Did you know you could get those at the library? Did you also know that no matter what anyone tells you Original Cast Albums always sound better on vinyl? My mother tried to put the smackdown on my passion when she overheard me playing “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” from A Chorus Line at full volume and she proclaimed it “too filthy,” then forced me to go outside and mow the lawn. The course of my life was set; I was going to be Jean Valjean, Che, and The Phantom. I was going to play Judas, Rooster, and Marius. My life was going to be spent on stage. I’ve played precisely zero of the previously mentioned roles by the way.
In the eighth grade, I auditioned for a professional company production of A Christmas Carol. It was my first audition, at school they would assign me parts – I realize now that it was probably because no one else wanted to do it – but I was not nervous. I was confident that I had it in the bag; after all, what had a lifetime spent singing and dancing to Donna Summer records in my basement prepared me for if not a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens?
At the audition, my confidence wavered a bit when I saw the other boys in the waiting area. It never occurred to me that I might not be the only boy who wanted to do this. I didn’t get the part. In fact, they were probably more likely to cast me as young Ebenezer Scrooge’s little sister Fan than young Scrooge himself. That should tell you a little about my reading of the material. However, I was undeterred. Stupid fool, if only I’d read the room, oh the horrors I would have spared the future me.
Tomorrow’s chapter: Teen Dream
Jason Cooper has worked in professional, regional, and community theatre for over twenty years. After receiving his BFA in theatre performance he spent three seasons with the award-winning Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, TN. After working in theatres all over the country for a time, Jason settled in Chicago and worked with The Chicago Dramatists, Apple Tree Theatre, and Red Moon Theatre before returning home to Louisville to become a high school English teacher. Locally, Jason has worked extensively as an actor and director primarily for Pandora Productions, CenterStage, The Bard’s Town, Derby Dinner Playhouse, and Stage One.