An Interview with Gregory Cooper

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Theatre & Performing Arts

Gregory Cooper is an actor, writer, director and improviser, working in Auckland and Christchurch. Heroic Faun No. One (The Basement, Auckland; June 23-30) is a one-man theatre show based on his experiences as an extra in Hollywood extravaganza ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’.

RENEE LIANG: How did you start as an actor?

GREGORY COOPER: I think my first acting role was playing Peter Rabbit when I was seven. I don’t think I had any lines but I had to do a lot of hopping and skipping, which is similar to what I do in Heroic Faun, except with lots of lines to remember as well. I learnt speech and drama from a wonderful woman called Kay Scrivener and began doing some amateur shows before getting hooked on improvisation or theatresports at high school.

RL: So what was being “behind the scenes” on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe like?

GC: Very surreal. Your whole life becomes consumed by the film. You get collected from your motel at 3.30am and you don’t get back until after 8pm. In a way it’s like being in prison in that everything is taken care of. You’re told where to go and what to do, all your meals are provided and you get to know your fellow film-mates very intimately very quickly, especially if you’re sharing accommodation. It’s not remotely glamorous. In the show I describe it as a life of ‘eating, sleeping and shitting’ with a bit of acting in between if you’re lucky

RL: How did you get the idea for writing Heroic Faun No. One?

GC: It wasn’t until after finishing the shoot and returning to ‘normality’ that I truly realised what a unique and bizarre experience I’d had. I thought the behind the scenes environment is fascinating to many people yet it’s a world few get to experience and would make a great piece of theatre. Telling it from the perspective of a newbie near the bottom end of the acting pecking order also allows the audience to feel as if they are going through the same things. The whole Tilda Swinton ‘scandal’ that went on while I was there was a bonus however I won’t give too much away about this.

RL: Tell me about your writing and rehearsal process.

GC: To write I need to get away from the internet, which is getting harder and harder to do. I wrote most of Heroic Faun when I was performing down in Christchurch at the Papanui Library, which thankfully didn’t have free wifi. The writing process continued through the rehearsal process and is still continuing today. After each rehearsal I rewrite based on discussions with my director as I’m sure the script will be changing through this season based on audience response.

RL: Is the play more fiction or more autobiography?

GC: Everything that happens in the play happened during my three months on the film… sort-of. Events and characters are heightened and a degree of artistic license is taken however it all started with real events.

RL: How much do you steal from your own experiences when you’re writing?

GC: Up until this play not much at all!

RL: How do you survive as a full-time actor/writer/director in this country?

GC: With some difficulty. The industry is very small in this country so you need to be very versatile and adaptable. I’m lucky that my improvisation background has given me the opportunity to specialize in corporate entertainment through various companies in New Zealand. For the last few years I have been a Creative Director for the Auckland events company Conartists. I’ve also maintained a close association with The Court Theatre in Christchurch who have produced a lot of my children’s show scripts and I return there at least twice a year to direct. It’s all about building and maintaining relationships with other people in the industry and being professional so other people want to work with you.

RL: What’s working in the corporate sector like (as director of Conartists)?  Any tips and tricks for getting work?

GC: In general working in the corporate entertainment sector is very satisfying. Successfully MC’ing a three-day conference, doing a great show at a product launch or even just getting everyone laughing at 8am is very rewarding. Financially it is rewarding as well. Professionalism is the key. Companies are usually paying a lot of money to have you there and they rightfully expect you to nail it every time. You also have to be prepared to fight for what you know will work. Often there will be people with no experience of organizing events telling you how things should run and you’ll have to put them right as diplomatically as possible. The best way of getting work is to get in contact with existing entertainment companies or just devise your own unique entertainment package and market the hell out of it.

RL: At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve been involved in making (writing, directing and acting in) children’s theatre for years. Have the themes changed much?

GC: No. Children are natural storytellers and a good story will always engage and entertainment them. The Court did an adaptation I wrote of Cinderella last year and it pretty much sold out before the first performance. Yes, children are now surrounded by iPods and Wii’s and the internet but good actors telling a good story creates a special sort of magic. I played the Big Bad Wolf once and a seven-year-old boy came up to me in the foyer after the show with some bacon sandwiches. He’d been to see the show the day before and was so sorry for the hungry wolf he’d asked his grandmother to make some sandwiches for him to take back the next day so the wolf could have some lunch. It doesn’t get much better than that.

RL: What advice would you give to someone wanting to produce children’s theatre in this country?

GC: Don’t patronize the children. They are incredibly perceptive and savvy and can smell condescension a mile away. Just tell a good story with characters they will care about. Fart and snot gags are always useful as well.

RL: You’re shortly to return to your old stomping ground, The Court Theatre, to direct Two Fish and a Scoop, Carl Nixon’s cross-cultural love story, set in a Chinese takeaways.  How did you get involved in this?

GC: I’ve known Carl for many years and was asked to direct a two day rehearsed reading of the show last year. It went very well and Carl was encouraged to use the experience to re-write the script and submit it to Ross Gumbly the Artistic Director for inclusion into the season. Luckily they have asked my back to direct its World Premiere in October.

RL: Do you think Christchurch audiences are ready for this show?

GC: Yes. It deals with issues of racism and violence against the Asian community and I hope it will be a challenging and thought-provoking piece. As far as I know nothing of this nature has been staged in Christchurch before and I hope some of the large Asian population of the city will come to see it.

RL: What’s next for you?

GC: I’m relocating to Melbourne to dip my toes into the theatre/corporate entertainment/directing world over there. The airfares between New Zealand and Australia are getting cheaper by the day so hopefully it’s only a matter of time before both countries can be treated as one artistic market.