Michael Cooper: Masked Marvels and Wondertales
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second St., Troy
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $10 (student price), $14, $18
Michael Cooper can’t call himself the “Man of 1,000 Faces.”
Actor Lon Chaney is long gone, but still owns the title and the reputation.
Cooper could settle for the “Man of a Dozen Crazy Faces” — that’s what people will see Saturday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Cooper will perform his one-man show, “Masked Marvels and Wondertales,” at 2 p.m.
Among the masked characters will be a crawling baby, a deranged bull and a hooded fish smoking a pipe. They’ll all come to life with detailed, hand-crafted and head-covering masks that Cooper has made and uses during performances.
“The newest one in this show is a bull mask,” said Cooper, 59, in a phone interview from his home in central Maine. “My masks have little surprises in them — a big nose that actually sneezes. The fish blows bubbles. The bull blows smoke out of his nostrils, the ears wobble and horns wobble. There’s kind of a crazy joy to that mask.”
People are supposed to feel crazy joy during Cooper shows.
“I’m trained as a mime, I’m a sculptor, I’m a storyteller,” he said. “I love writing song lyrics and singing a little bit. If you combine all of those things — and of course, there are the stilts I do at the end of the show; I’m sort of known for my stilt dancing — if you combine all of those things with a sense of humor and a person who’s down to earth and accessible and some [audience] participation, I think you can keep an audience going.”
People will meet a nutty chicken and a man who plays with wild horses. They’ll also learn some Cooper family history.
“Everything I do pretty much is from my own life,” Cooper said. “I don’t tell any secrets, but I do bring in my family. My show is a family show, in two ways. It’s a show for families, but it’s also really about family, so the show opens up with me crawling out on stage as a baby. When my wife and I had our first child a long time ago, I celebrated it by making a mask. I never even thought I would use that mask, it was simply something fun to do, but it ended up being a kingpin in the show.
“So I do kind of a baby thing at the beginning,” he continued. “I evolve into his grandfather and the grandfather takes care of the baby. I also do a piece about my father, who is a veterinarian and he still works full time; he’s 86 years old. When he was a teenager, he broke in wild horses, that’s one of the reasons he became a veterinarian and so I do kind of a physical rendition of him breaking in his first wild horse.”
The show ends with a tale about giants. That’s where the stilts come in, that’s when Cooper becomes a 10-foot-tall dude who shows that big, thin men can be nimble and graceful.
“I am a giant at the very end, that’s when I do all the crazy high-kick dancing on stilts,” he said.
Cooper has been performing for almost 30 years. His training includes six years with highly regarded mime teachers Etienne Decroux of Paris, France and Tony Montanaro of Paris, Maine. He has presented his show in places such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Hong Kong International Children’s Festival, The Comedy Store in Los Angeles and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Making the masks that are so popular in Cooper’s work is part of the fun.
“I like to think I’m as much as a sculptor as I am a performer,” he said. “I’ve sort of studied and kind of figured out that one of the ways to make a mask expressive is to not make it too expressive. If you paste a very particular expression on a mask, then you’re really boxed in to that aspect of the character’s emotion. But if you can make a kind of lively neutrality in the mask, then you can go a lot of different directions, depending on how you move or if you’re going to speak. Most of the masks are silent, but not all of them.”
The shows are physical gigs. Covering up in large clay masks covered with shells of paper or cloth is not the most relaxing stage experience.
“You’re not always comfortable,” Cooper said. “There are some kinds of strange positions you have to get into in order to make these characters come to life. But I love what I do, and as far as claustrophobia, if you did have a touch of that, you might not want to do masks for a living. But I don’t think I have any of that myself.”
“Masked Marvels” is a family show. Cooper said it’s not just for kids.
“In the old days, there were kid performers and if the kids were enjoying it, the parents were happy,” he said. “But now there are a lot of performers. If you’re going to be a good family performer these days, you really have to know how to entertain the adults as well. When I do shows entirely for adults, my repertoire is quite similar to what I do for the family shows.”
Working alone can be a challenge.
“You never know what’s going to happen in a live performance,” Cooper said. “You have to play off the audience and if something goes awry, you have to be able to work your way through it. All of that is very important if you’re a solo performer.”
Cooper can draft help. It happens every show.
“I do participation, so a lot of people get the chance to get up on stage,” he said. “And if they don’t, there’s sort of a vicarious participation.”
The man in the mask wants people to leave entertained. Enlightened, too.
“I think they can understand that creativity and performing is not some unattainable thing, but is very doable,” Cooper said.
“I like to think I remind the entire audience that creativity is a birthright. And that’s a good message nowadays because I think this celebrity worship that we’re engaged in teaches us that performing and art is for the very special people and the rest of us can sit around and watch it or listen to it. I like to think that’s not true and it’s sort of my mission to prove that to my audience.”