Professor Juggles Variety of Musical Projects
After a brutal 2020, Shelley Cooper is back in musical heaven as 2021 is shaping up to be busy and fulfilling.
The Augustana College assistant professor of theater arts recently filmed two special performances for Circa ’21; she’s directing a new college production of “Into the Woods” this month; choreographing the next Circa mainstage show in March, and directing the Circa musical after that; performing a one-woman original show at the Black Box Theatre in late March, and then going to Orlando, Florida, to do the same show by June.
Plus, her regular musical theater teaching schedule at Augustana.
“I’m excited, though. I am beyond grateful. I went from being bored out of my mind, to having a lot of really exciting things on the horizon, which is very needed right now, honestly.”
Part of her pain in 2020 was seeing the Augie rock musical she was directing last spring, Green Day’s “American Idiot,” canceled before its April performances. Over 20 students were in that show, and its future is unclear. But three of the cast members performed for the online Circa ’21 cabaret, “Let’s Fall in Love.” Cooper says it was very hard to have to cancel last spring’s musical.
“It’s kind of one of those very sensitive topics, in my opinion. It almost, it hurts so much. When I was going to my office for the first time this semester and found my ‘American Idiot’ score, it was just like – with all of my blocking notes in it – I don’t know. I hated-slash-loved seeing it.”
A 35-year-old native of Louisville, Kentucky, Cooper has a master’s in musical theater from the University of Central Florida. She’s performed all over the world, including Chicago, Thailand, Brazil, China, Bulgaria, and Walt Disney World.
She’s taught at Augustana since 2017, and the last musicals she directed were “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Dames at Sea,” the latter for the Mississippi Bend Players in 2019. Cooper sang last September at the Speakeasy in a one-woman tribute to two towering female talents – Mary Martin and Ethel Merman.
She’s directing the 1987 Stephen Sondheim musical, “Into the Woods,” which combines classic fairy tales with an original tale of a baker and his wife, to be performed at Augustana February 25-28, only for limited audiences of students, faculty and staff.
It’s the college’s first collaboration by the opera and musical theater programs, and chamber orchestra. Cooper is doing stage direction; with vocal direction by Michelle Crouch, and orchestral direction by Daniel Chetel. They wanted to give more time with the vaccine rollout and figure out how to do a show in a Covid world, Cooper says, noting the 21-person cast and 12 in the chamber orchestra will all wear masks. It’s fitting because “Into the Woods” is about hope and overcoming challenges, and we all need a little bit of that now.
“I know these rehearsals, for some of these students, it has been something that has kept them going throughout all of this pandemic. It was important for us to do something and to do something this academic school year. That was very much at the forefront of the theater department and music department’s minds.”
They rehearse in masks, six feet apart, and after they leave each space, they sanitize it, and everyone has assigned seats. Everyone in cast and orchestra will be masked for performance as well. The costumed performances can only be attended by a limited number of students, faculty and staff.
They divided the 165-minute show into sections – split between Centennial Hall with the orchestra (with some students on stage and in the hall), and after 30 minutes, they cross the street to Brunner Theatre, and perform with Crouch on piano, moving back and forth over the course of the show. The sections in Centennial will be the larger group scenes, with a concert feel. Cooper says for royalty rights, they’re not able to stream “Into the Woods.”
“It’s a really ambitious project, but the students are really rising to the occasion. Every single one of them are coming to rehearsal, giving 110-plus-plus-plus percent.”
The show is also special for Cooper since she played Cinderella in 2016, in Syracuse, New York. At the time, Cooper’s mother in Kentucky was dying from Parkinson’s as she was n dress rehearsals, and died during opening night of “Into the Woods.” The next week, Cooper came back to do the show, for the rest of the run. The Act II ballad “No One Is Alone” took on extra dramatic weight with her mom’s death. And she calls it "the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a performer.”
“It is perfect. It was exactly how I feel and it’s exactly how I feel when someone tells me a significant person in their life has died. This show is a little bit deeper than just…It’s perfect for the students. It’s perfect for Dr. Crouch and Dr. Chetel’s abilities, and Ellen’s abilities as a costume designer but truth be told, there is this added level from me.”
“No One is Alone,” which Cooper sang in the show, always chokes her up and is relevant during this isolating pandemic.
"Absolutely. And for our students, dealing with their struggles and things that they’ve lost – the losses they’ve gone through with this pandemic, it really has special meaning. So when I think about, what does this show mean? It’s that searching for hope but at the end of the day, my biggest message from it is, ‘no one is alone, truly.’”