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Theater program has come a long way

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By Brad Bowman

Things have come a long way for Henry County Public School’s theater productions.

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Choir and Theater Director Russell Cooper remembers putting on productions in the Henry County Middle School cafeteria with a makeshift stage and hanging a drop curtain from the ceiling.

“We would have to tear down the sets and make sure things were in order for school the next day,” Cooper said. “It’s really neat to see how far things have come.”

The new high school auditorium was completed in the fall of 2009 and seats 451.  The control booth has a light board with 98 dimmers. It can handle up to 1,024 channels.

The theater program’s production of the Wizard of Oz set a record of more than 100 attendees in the audience. Cooper works with Henry County Middle School eighth grade language arts teacher Jill Clark. Both would love to fill the house.

Cooper’s dynamic background in music began at a young age. He started singing in the Louisville Youth Choir and performed regularly in all-state choir. As a music major at the University of Louisville, Cooper performed as a member of the Cardinal Singers, attended the Kyoto Symposium in 2005 and a symposium for modern composers in Tallin, Estonia called Voices of the Baltics where he also performed as a member of the Cardinal Singers. He  also sang in the Kentucky Opera’s Chorus.

 Cooper graduated from UofL in 2007 and actively sought a teacher’s position.

“My parents bought a farm in Henry County in 2005. I was looking for a teaching job and there just wasn’t anything available for choir directors,” Cooper said. “My parents were getting the Henry County Local and I saw an ad for a job fair at OVEC (Ohio Valley Education Cooperative). I met Crickett McClure and everything fell into place.”

Cooper teaches three choirs for grades 6-8 from the middle school, a high school choir, and a high school theater class. Students in Cooper’s theater class learn different acting styles and methods, the history of theater, character development and have the opportunity to direct other students. Cooper designs the class to be an exploratory setting where students don’t just study plays like Liz Estrada and Waiting for Gidot but experience every aspect of working on a production.

“Theater class is learning by doing,” Cooper said. “We did a minimalist set for Wizard of Oz where the only thing on stage were wagons with every thing on wheels. I had people, mostly female students, who would have never touched an impact wrench. It’s just another side of theater I want them to learn.”

Cooper has been focusing on Shakespeare. He has instructed students in his theater class about how to interpret Shakespeare’s language so it doesn’t sound like basic rhyming poetry, the physicality and movement of performing Shakespeare especially in comedy. Cooper’s instruction for Shakespeare has been deliberate in order to prepare them for the fall production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cooper encouraged students to attend the Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at Central Park in Louisville this summer.

“It really means a lot to me,” Cooper said. “This production will be an exciting one. This is the first year we have done Shakespeare and it is also be the first time that I will work with some students I have taught and see grow for the last five years.”

It is the growth and transformation a student undergoes after being exposed to music and theater that drives Cooper’s passion.

“James Clark was a band student who played the trombone. He was a strong musician. When he was a sophomore he auditioned for Bye Bye Birdie,” Cooper said. “He went from that role to Scrooge in Christmas Carol. He now attends the school of music at UofL, but he came back and thanked me for the experience he received from acting. He said it increased his confidence in himself and performing. To me, that is a great success. You don’t have to be an actor to get something from the experience.”

Unlike professional theater that is dominated mostly by males, Cooper says the theater program at the high school is dominated by women and he hopes interest will grow and change that.

“I see things going in the right direction. I would love to see more people get involved,” Cooper said. “There are students who are very capable even if they have never sang or acted.”

According to Cooper, show attendance has grown over the years. The program receives more exposure by students coming to see their friends in productions. Cooper said his strengths in music compliment Clark’s background in theater. Together the two have fine-tuned their processes for a stronger program.

Iam the assistant director, which means I call lighting cues , sound cues help with moving sets  and help run rehearsals,” Clark said. “Cooper is more of the type A. We bounce ideas off of each other in regards to roles during auditions. The kids really look up to him even when the personal dynamic changes with different productions.”

Clark graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts from Centre College. Her parents took her to an outdoor theater to watch productions of South Pacific or Bye Bye Birdie, and she was instantly hooked.

“I never wanted to be famous. I just love the live aspect of theater,” Clark said. “It is superior to movies because it is done from beginning to end without the ability to retake scenes.”

The theater program puts on at least two productions every year with a musical in the spring. Cooper and Clark seek a range of traditional well known plays like Anything Goes with music by Cole Porter mixed with a broader range of modern material for the benefit of student exposure like Lysistrata/Liz Estrada.

“Theater gives kids a chance to step outside themselves into different roles and allow them to see different things about themselves they normally wouldn’t,” Clark said. “It’s not about being famous. It might help them look at the world differently, stretch their mind a little bit and if we can do that we have taught them something while they also have fun — and take pride in what they have done.”

Auditions for A Midsummer’s Night Dream are open to any Henry County Public School student, and will be on Aug. 29 and 30 after school in the auditorium. Performances will begin Nov. 29 and run through Dec. 2, with advance discounts for  ticket sales.

For more information about the theater program visit their Facebook page at Henry County Public Schools Fine Arts or follow the program on Twitter: @HCPSfinearts.

E-mail us about this article at news@hclocal.com