This fall, Bobb Cooper, producing artistic director for Valley Youth Theatre, begins his 17th year with the company. He talks about taking risks, keeping the audition process positive and why theater “families” bolster the confidence of young actors on stage—and in life.
Talk about what drew you to the theater.
It was something that I knew I needed to be a part of. I wrote my first play when I was in fifth grade. There was a stump next door to my house in a vacant lot. I would have all the neighborhood kids come down. We were recreating the TV shows “Lost in Space” on this stump, and also “Leave it to Beaver.” I’m dating myself a little bit. I didn’t even know what I was doing at the time, but literally, I was directing. I knew that it was my calling. Actually, it is something that helped me get through high school.
High school was a challenge? A bumpy ride?
If it weren’t for theater, I wouldn’t have graduated high school. I have really been on my own since I was 15. It was theater that gave me a place, a sense of belonging. It was the camaraderie and friendship. And the risks that you need to take there; it was OK to take those risks there. The challenges and the learning experience and all of that kept me in school. It can mean the same thing for the kids here.
So it was like having a second family.
Absolutely. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, if you’re a boy, a girl, 7 or 17. It is all about working together as a team and understanding and respecting each other and their differences and working together to put on an incredible production.
But not every child has an opportunity to belong to this family—not every child can be cast. There’s plenty of tension surrounding the audition process. And if you don’t get the part, isn’t that yet another way that kids can come to feel excluded?
The last thing we want to do is make any child feel that they are not worthy. We talk before auditions about the matching process, and how if you are not cast or not called back, it does not mean that you failed. It just means that the match was not there for you this time.
How do you explain this to kids?
I use this silly analogy. If a mouse comes for an audition, and we are casting for the role of an elephant, even if the mouse has won many awards, and is a fantastically talented mouse, the mouse doesn’t get the part because we are looking for an elephant. So the mouse goes away feeling secure and fine with himself and the mouse keeps on auditioning. We strive to make that audition process as positive as possible.
Still, it’s tough. Any tips for parents on how to help a child cope?
The unfortunate part of this business is that if you really want to be in this business, you are going to have to have a strong exterior to just brush that off and move on and not to take it personally. If the call doesn’t come and the child is disappointed, don’t ever say, “Well, don’t be disappointed,” because—hello—we are going to be disappointed! It is about managing that disappointment and not internalizing it and feeling bad about yourself. It is OK to be disappointed. I was an actor. I have been disappointed many, many, many times.
During an audition, do you sense when a young performer like Emma Stone or Jordin Sparks (both of whom have performed at VYT) has that “certain something?”
I see children every day that I think have something special. I have seen many Emma Stones that have not gotten to where Emma Stone is right now. So many factors are involved in becoming a working artist and elevating to a celebrity superstar. The stars aligned for Emma Stone, and she did have a special “something.” The moment I saw her, I knew there was something about that child and I worked with her for a very long time. But I have worked with other young people for whom the stars have not necessarily aligned. You could be the most talented person in the world, and not make it (as an actor). It is about being at the right place at the right time.
What’s the takeaway, then, for kids who commit hours of time to performing and don’t necessarily enter the profession?
We give them the encouragement, we help them get the tools that they need in order to be successful. Not just in the entertainment industry, but in life. I think that if you believe in yourself and you focus on your dreams, and you don’t sway away from that, you are a lot closer to making that magic happen.