Meet Professor Shelley Cooper

This past week, I was fortunate enough to sit down with my professor and director, Shelley Cooper, for an interview. Shelley is Augustana’s new professor of musical theater arts, but she has taught at many other places, including Vienna, Austria, and Thailand. After working with Shelley as a director and a professor, I knew I wanted to sit down with her and talk about her experiences as a woman in the theatrical industry, some of the fascinating things she's experienced in her life, and what her art means to her.

The theatrical industry is, in general, a business simultaneously dominated by women and controlled and managed by men. How has that shaped your approach in working as a theater artist? 

I find it unique because there typically are more women, especially if you’re looking into acting. What was interesting was when I got into directing. When I got hired, people would say comments like, “Oh, I’m really happy they hired a woman for this job,” like that’s such an innovative concept, and I never knew how to respond to that kind of comment. In terms of acting, the competition for women is just so much steeper. When I was in New York City completing my directing fellowship, I would watch actors come in. And the women were always so much more put together than the men. They gave more of a thought, they were always more prepared, they looked better, and the guys were always, bluntly put, a lot sloppier. But it sucked because the guys could get the callbacks a lot easier than the women. So, from an acting standpoint, I felt bad as both a woman and an actor, but it was so painfully clear, anytime I’ve sat in auditions for seven hours a day, how reality actually looks. And it was perhaps even more interesting to see that dynamic. Some of my male friends being in that room, noticing certain things for the first time, where I had known that my whole life, and this was just a painful reminder. For them it was, “Oh, that’s what you go through.”

Are there any specific instances that stick out to you? Where you personally felt discriminated against for being a woman?

I guess my experience with it on the casting side of things is that, often times, we would go into casting being worried about finding, being worrying about “I hope the right guys come in,” and I knew the women were going to come in and bring it. I have never gone into a casting process worried about a female role, period, which I think is an interesting thing to think about.

For directing, it is dominated by men one hundred percent. I try to think about how to navigate those waters. In some of my first jobs, some of the people couldn't even bother to remember my name, or if I was an assistant director or a choreographer attached to a director, they might know the name of the director but they wouldn't’ know my name. I was always kind of doing the “picking-up-the-slack work.” And it’s really not an insult to any of the male directors I was working for. They were actually quite wonderful with me. It was usually the cast’s response that was problematic. This is a pattern in the industry that’s repeated itself a lot. For example, you look at Annie Get Your Gun, which had its lyrics and books originally written by Dorothy Fields, but Irving Berlin, the last-minute composer, gets the recognition for its creation. And not many people know that story.

Has there ever been a directing or performance challenge that you’ve really struggled with, whether the environment wasn’t very good, or people weren’t listening to you?

In the beginning of my career once. I was the choreographer for a production of Godspell, and I was also in the show, so it was this kind of unique balance of trying to take charge despite being part of the ensemble. But I was also 22 years old and a female, and I remember people coming into rehearsals hung-over and it was always sort of a mess. So, I went to the artistic director and asked, “What am I not doing”? And he said to me, not out of disrespect but out of honesty, “Well, Shelley, you are a woman, so there’s part of that.” And it was just like, “Oh, wow. Well, screw that." That can’t ever be an excuse. But I remember that story is so ingrained in me.

It was fascinating because when the director would come into rehearsal of course they’d be, like, perfect little angels. And of course, it was partially an authority thing, but there was also this male-versus-female sort of dynamic. And I dealt with a lot of that as a young woman in the industry, and I’ve learned how to overcome it. Still, there’s this balance of, you don’t want to overcome it by screaming and yelling and being a dictator and a tyrant, because that doesn’t allow your actors to trust you. So, it’s about finding that balance of obtaining respect; and I find myself still working on it to this day, even though, right now, I feel as though I’ve struck a decent enough balance.

There is an understanding among the general theater industry that there are a lot of people who claim that theater really has no value, especially musical theater. However, I think most of us would agree that theater is very important. So, what do you personally find so inspiring and important about theater?

To me, I think why theater is important and what it does for people is theater at its core is storytelling. It’s a vehicle to tell these stories in an active, palpable, ever-changing way. And you’re able to sit in an audience with people of all different cultures and all different mindsets around you, watching a story on the stage and seeing, you know, maybe the person next to you doesn’t find that line very funny, or, maybe, you both have a comradery about finding it funny or maybe the same scene makes you cry. Or maybe one person’s in tears while another person is feeling nothing. That group dynamic is so important, that theater is this unique art form that does that so well because there’s a story attached to it. And so, in terms of audience members, theater dares to tell stories that maybe wouldn’t be told, and in innovative ways. There are shows like Ragtime that you leave feeling as if you’ve learned something you’ve never learned before, and there are other shows that are nothing but fluff but offer you a chance to escape. At its core, the beauty of theater is that it reflects real life. And that’s why people like it. It’s a story and it must be engaging, and if it’s not, it’s useless.

In terms of doing theater, I personally find importance in that theater is something that taught me a lot of skills in confidence. It taught me how to collaborate better with other people, and there’s all of you guys working together and getting along no matter what and putting this huge thing together and bringing this synthesis of these different arts together. And musical theater adds two other branches of collaboration, because you’re adding in music and dance on top of art, scenic, costumes, and all of these things come together. But at the end of the day, it not only gave me a lot of confidence, it gave me a home. And look, I’ve had a lot of bad things in my life, and theater’s always been a wonderful escape for me. No matter what, I always had that.

Is there any show that you are very passionate about performing in or directing in the future?

 In terms of acting, I really want to do My Fair Lady. I love it because it’s this play centered around a female lead who is this undefined woman, which is something you don’t see a lot of in early musical theater. I also really love how there’s this whole language-play within the script that I think is really interesting. But if I was to direct something, I think when I’m ready and I feel like it’s the right time (I’m not ready yet), I’d like to direct Next to Normal. That’s the one that I’d love to work on.

Do you have any humorous memories from productions you’ve worked on or your travels abroad?

I mean, this is a quirky story, but, as you know, I have blonde hair. And when I lived in China I had blonde hair, and in China most people may have never seen an American or Caucasian person, especially with blonde hair. Blonde hair is very unique there. So I would have people coming up to me pinching my skin to see if it was real, to prove I wasn’t a doll or wearing make-up to make me look a certain way. And one time this woman came up to me, pinched me, and asked me if my hair was “true or false.” It was very sweet and made me laugh. That’s one of my favorite stories.

Are there any places that you love returning to in your travels?

Definitely Thailand. I’ve spent the most time there so I feel that’s where I’m the most comfortable. The people there are so different than the people here in America. The very first time I went to Thailand, I remember the moment of getting off the plane. I lived in China at the time and China has this manic, fast-paced kind of energy, similar to a New York. But I got off the plane in Bangkok, which is a very big metropolis, and for whatever reason, my energy just relaxed. And living in Thailand and working with people with a calm, go-with-the-flow attitude I thought was so great for me as a person, and every time I visit there I feel myself learning more how to let go and go with the flow. It’s a second world country, so things aren’t always going to work properly or you may not get the best facilities, but nobody ever complains about everything. When I first got there, I’d be a little high strung and they’d tell me to “jai yen,” which means “chill out.” It’s so interesting in Thailand because their culture doesn’t really celebrate this outward emotion, so musical theater was their outlet to do so. So their emotional instinct to lyrics is sometimes far superior to the American students I work with because this is truly their outlet and not really accepted in daily society. Other than Thailand, I love going back to Austria. I go back to Germany every summer, but I really love going back to Austria, specifically Vienna. And I love Vienna because it’s a gorgeous downtown, the buildings are all historic, and classical musicians are the rock stars of the community, which is so unique to me. I see people walking around with their paintbrushes and wheeling their cellos and it’s just not something I really see that much elsewhere.

Finally, I wanted to talk to you about your current project. Right now you’re directing Augustana’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone, and I wanted to ask you what your thoughts are as you direct this masterpiece of musical theater. Why choose to direct The Drowsy Chaperone now?

First, my gut reaction when asked what show I’d like to direct for this season was that I needed to direct a comedy. The previous two musicals, Titanic and Sweeny Todd, while both fantastic musicals, are both shows centered around disaster and are not uplifting or happy. So, I thought, as a community, we need to laugh and have a good time. I love directing comedies, I think the genre works well with college students because I honestly think college students have a great grasp on comedy. And, right now, there’s a lot of negative stuff going on in our world and, right now, we need to laugh. And this show does this so well. When I came to Augustana for my interview, I immediately noticed and was drawn to the fact that not one person here was the same. And I say that because this show, to me, is not about everyone being the same and looking the same. Rather, it’s about a bunch of individuals thrown on a stage and that’s where the beauty and the artistry and the storytelling gets to come in. And in terms of “why now,” I think that, no matter what your political beliefs are, there is just a lot of stuff in the world that is terrible and that we can collectively agree is terrible. This is a wonderful production to lift our spirits and distract us, but, at the end of the day, have a really positive message of, okay, let’s just get through this thing called life in a positive way and make our meaningful relationships. And that’s why I chose it.

Bonus:

Shelley later wanted me to add this story onto the article because she thought it would be humorous to include:

Sometime in the last four years or so, I was casting a musical for a stock program with two other directors, both male. And what was interesting was that, during the audition process, there were two male actors who came in to audition and they were both very sexist towards me. It was so ridiculous I almost had to laugh. The first guy who came in "mansplained" the entire theater industry to me, clearly uninterested in anything I really had to say or acknowledging my credentials and work. And the second guy who came in completely refused to acknowledge me or make eye-contact with me. It was so shocking that I had people coming in seeking professional work who behaved like this and seemed completely unaware that their behavior was problematic.