Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

December 9, 2023

Musical theatre professor brings unique experiences and enthusiasm

Shelley Cooper is the newest addition to the theatre department at Augustana. Photo by LuAnna Gerdemann

Shelley Cooper, Augustana’s newest professor in the theatre department, had a fairly roundabout trip before arriving in the Quad Cities.  With the experiences she has gained in her travels and the enthusiasm she has for theatre, she is prepared to take on the task of organizing and heading Augustana’s musical theatre program.  
Cooper received her BA in theatre arts from Hanover College, a Midwestern liberal arts college in Hanover, IN. She then attended the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where she received her MFA in musical theatre.
While in Orlando, she worked as an actor for the Orlando Philharmonic, the Orlando Repertory Theatre, Walt Disney World, and Universal Studios, including the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  She was also an adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida following receiving her Master’s Degree. It is from here that her path takes a few atypical, yet very impressive, turns.
“First, I went to Germany for a month,” Cooper said.  “There, I did my one-woman show that I wrote for my thesis.”  This one-woman show was titled “La Divina, The Last Interview of Maria Callas”.
From there Cooper has had a whirlwind tour from China, to New York City, to Thailand, where she became a professor in Bangkok.
“I really believe that there are very interesting careers outside of New York City in (musical theatre),” said Cooper on accepting the job in Bangkok.  “I’ve always wanted to be a little bit different and go off the beaten path and think outside of the box.”
In Bangkok, Cooper worked at Mahidol University and developed their musical theatre program for two years.  
“It really embodied the spirit of creating your own opportunities, working with cross-culture, and patience,” said Cooper.  “They very much wanted the Western Experience.”
According to Cooper, musical theatre in Thailand is really the mega-musicals, such as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Phantom of the Opera, as well as golden age musicals.  She said this worked to her advantage, as they didn’t have much of the basic framework and were so hungry for it that they were easy to mold.  Her students performed the very first production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” in Southeast Asia.   
After Thailand, Cooper returned to the United States, where she performed Nelly in “South Pacific” in Lousiana. She then went to Albany, New York for a directing fellowship that had an emphasis in musical theatre.  While she was in Albany, she also acted as Cinderella in “Into the Woods”, Helena in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” and Ariel in “The Little Mermaid”.  
Following this, she went to an international conference in Austria, where she was invited to teach a Master’s Class in São Paulo, Brazil last summer.  And then, the opportunity to teach at Augustana arrived.
“I was intrigued for two reasons:  Location and because the opportunity to teach musical theatre arts in a liberal arts school was very appealing to me,” Cooper said.  “The fact that I would be a part of building and creating that would be exciting if not a very fun challenge.”
Cooper is grateful for how accepting the Augustana community has been.  She said that she has found that her students in the classroom, where she is currently teaching Intro to Theatre, ask a lot of questions, which she said she really enjoys.
“I think, ‘Well they’re making me do my job!’” Cooper said.  “I appreciate that they’re engaged and interested, even if they are non-major students.”
With Cooper leading the change, Augustana will be developing a brand new musical theatre curriculum once the school moves to semesters. One of her goals is to expand the Musical Theatre Dance class to focus on different sections, such as jazz, advanced jazz, and certain types of tap, as opposed to how all styles are currently taught in one ten-week course. There is also a goal to work with the music department for voice lessons and to establish a choir component.  Everything currently being discussed is a component of the moving parts that will hopefully to fall into place with the switch to semesters.
“We want to make sure the focus remains in the liberal arts, while also retaining the triple threat mentality, which is acting, singing, and dancing,” Cooper said.
There are also plans to have a musical every year. Following 2016’s “Sweeney Todd” and 2017’s “Titanic”, this year’s show will the “The Drowsy Chaperone”, a comedic love-letter to 1920’s musicals.
“(‘Drowsy Chaperone’) was very deliberate to be different from ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Titanic’, because first-and-foremost, there’s enough stuff going on in our world, let’s laugh right now,” said Cooper. “But also, (Drowsy) employs so many different techniques . . . Learning how to tap dance, how to do those big 1930’s showstoppers, those big 11 o’clock number ballads.”
Cooper says that she wants to maintain a variety of shows, including exploring the Golden Age and shows for singers.  However, she says it “really boils down to what students we have and how we can showcase them best.”
In terms of her career, Cooper says that some favorite parts include Johanna in “Sweeney Todd”,  Ariel in “The Little Mermaid”, Nelly in “South Pacific”, and Helena in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”.  As mentioned earlier, she has also written and performed her own one-woman show, “La Divina, The Last Interview of Maria Callas”.
Maria Callas was one of the first opera performers that Cooper encountered and she fell in love with it.  She then decided, “I want to sing like that”.  Her senior year of college, she was in a play called “Masterclass” about Callas. She loved the play but thought it took some dramatic liberties. For her thesis, she had actually thought she would end up getting a role in a musical.  After not getting the role, she decided to write a one-woman show on Callas.
“Thank the lord I didn’t get that part,” Cooper says, as she laughs and reminisces.  “It was taking that situation that I thought was horrible and making it a whole lot better.”
She first premiered the show at Orlando Repertory Theatre. She has since performed it in Germany, multiple theatres in Thailand, and is looking for other opportunities to perform the show.
Cooper, as every actor does, also has some dream roles.  In terms of performance, she wants to be Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” and for directing, she hopes to one day direct “Next to Normal” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”.
In all, Cooper is excited to bring her energy and international experience to not only the Augustana theatre department but the entire Augustana community.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Augustana Observer Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Activate Search
Musical theatre professor brings unique experiences and enthusiasm