Jason Cooper with Michael Drury (left) and Jack Wallen (right).
By Jason Cooper
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Jason Cooper. All rights reserved.
8. Welcome To The Chicken Coop
I came home and started graduate school, which had been my plan years earlier when I graduated from college. I had been gone for five years, and much had changed. For starters, there were a lot more theatre companies, and many of them were doing exciting work. I was a much better actor than I had been when I left my hometown six years prior and now that I was thirty-something I was finally the proper age for a lot of the roles that I was right for.
I teach high school now – English, not theatre, because I actually wanted some job options – and I work a great deal in local theatre. I gained a reputation as being good at broad comedy. I have become the go-to person for camp. I have worn wigs and pantyhose more times than I can count. Gradually over time, I was able to break out of that typecasting and play roles I never dreamed I’d be able to play, more serious and dramatic parts.
Recently I tallied up my credits, and I have been in over 76 productions. Two years ago, I was asked to direct a production of Legally Blonde: The Musical. I had never directed before, and I was not particularly fond of the show, but with over twenty years of experience, I felt ready to step up to the challenge. Since then, I have directed six more shows, a mix of plays and musicals, and with that, I’ve found my new passion.
Live theatre is a cruel mistress. I have missed out on countless parties, birthdays, cookouts, weddings, dinners, lunches, brunches, vacations, road trips, pool parties, dates, christenings, bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras, work functions, holidays, and sleep because I have a rehearsal or a show. There are times when you work like a dog, and still, the show doesn’t work. Sometimes you bear your heart and soul, giving it everything you’ve got to an unreceptive audience. Sometimes your pants fall off (me), sometimes you forget to put on your pants (also me), set pieces break, music cues are off, lights burn out, cell phones ring, people talk, people eat, people unwrap candy for 15 minutes straight. Actors forget lines; we miss cues, our voices crack, we fall down. So many things can go wrong and will go wrong; it is Murphy’s Law. All that work and sometimes a show is just a disaster.
So why do I do it? Why does any sane person do it? Well, first of all, most of us are not sane, and secondly, even though it can all go terribly wrong, it can also be magic, pure magic. There is no feeling like the anticipation of being on stage in front of that audience. My favorite place in the world is waiting backstage in the dark, watching the action unfold, and waiting for my cue. There is no rush like it. There is no feeling as good as the feeling you get when everything works, and you receive that applause.
I could go on and on about how theatre is the Great Mirror forcing society to face itself warts and all. The theatre is a teacher, it takes us to the past, it posits the future, and it exposes our universal truths. And theatre is our storyteller; it passes our culture and or stories down from generation to generation. Shakespeare’s plays are 400 years old, and they have lost none of their potency. I could say all of these things, and I would mean them. But the truth is, I do it because I have to. I do it because I love, it is my passion, and it feeds my soul. Maybe it is because I am starved for attention, or perhaps I do it because I somehow need the affirmation of an audience, whatever the reason, the theatre has given me life.
Now that I am in my forties, I am begrudgingly starting to accept the fact that maybe I may not ever become a teen pop star. I mean, perhaps with the right lighting and wig it could still happen, but the chances are looking slim, especially since I now have the eyebrows and nose hair of a one hundred-and-two-year-old man. In the meantime, I have decided it is time to launch my dream project, my own theatre company: The Chicken Coop Theatre Company. I wanted the name to be a play on words with my last name, Cooper.
“Why don’t you just light yourself on fire?” My friend asked me when I told him I wanted to start my own theatre company. “Why would you want to do that?” He added.
He didn’t stop there “there are already a million of theatre companies in this city, and most of them are turds,” he said.
While I disagree with him on the fecal elements of some of our local theatre troops, he is right about one thing; why would I want to do this? There are already too many theatre companies in my town all vying for space and struggling to get butts in seats. Why on Earth would I want to add to that? Why would I take on that struggle? My answer boils down to this: because I want to.
Getting back to the question, why would I want to start my own theatre company? I know first hand how difficult it is to make them work. I know how competitive the market is, and it is true, there are too many companies already vying for an audience that is in decline. It makes no sense for me to do this, I am better off just to keep working for other companies as an actor and a director. That would be the sensible thing to do. But there is a fire in my belly, the same fire my Grandmother fanned when I was young, the same fire I felt the first time I made an audience laugh. I am feeling it burn for the first time in a long time. The voice in my head – underneath the ones saying no – is saying yes. We get one shot at life, once chance to go after the things that we want. All of my life’s experience has led me to this point. I have a vision and a voice that I want to put out there in the world. Truthfully, it could all blow up in my face, but I don’t care. I have created a 501c non-profit business, I have formed a board of directors, and last fall, we launched our first full-scale production to much success. I am fully committed to devoting my life to the arts; I suppose I am just a masochist.
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.