Shelley Cooper is a singular force of nature. And the assistant professor of musical theatre at Augustana College won’t rest on her many laurels come summer time.

Cooper — a multi-talented singer, director and choreographer who’s performed all over the world — will be returning to California to do a new one-woman show at the Hollywood Fringe Festival and direct a Quad Cities premiere of a fairly new musical at Black Box Theatre, Moline.

“It’s important for me as an artist to put myself out there,” she said in a rare recent day off in Rock Island, the same day she did an online musical theater workshop with college students in Thailand. “Not only for my own happiness, but I’m a professor so I don’t think it’s fair to just kick back and not doing anything. If I’m gonna talk the talk, I better walk the walk. I need to practice what I preach.”

Cooper has taught musical theater at Augustana since fall 2017.

Cooper’s copious credits include performing with Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Walt Disney World, Universal StudiosChicago Summer OperaOpera Quad Cities, Orlando Repertory Theatre, Shawnee Summer TheatreRedhouse Arts Center, Varna Opera Theatre, Bangkok Theatre Festival, the Simbiose Produções (MOVE Studio) in São Paulo, Brazil and the Venetian Macao in Macau, China.

Favorite performances are “Johanna” in Sweeney Todd; “Nellie” in South Pacific; “Cinderella” in Into the Woods, “Ariel” in The Little Mermaid; “Armida” in Rinaldo; “Edith” in Pirates of Penzance, “Berta” in Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Varna Opera Theatre in Bulgaria, and soprano soloist in Handel’s Messiah with Bangkok International Orchestra.

Her original one-woman show, La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas has been performed on three continents (including Germany, Austria and Thailand).

Cooper has performed “La Divina” on three continents including Fringe festivals in Orlando and Hollywood.

Winner of the 2021 Orlando Fringe Critic’s Choice Award for Best Individual Performance in a Drama, “La Divina” is inspired by the life and work of the dramatic 20th-century opera singer Maria Callas (1923-1977). Cooper performed it at Hollywood Fringe last August (winning more awards) and then again in January.

A review at hollywoodfringe.org said: “This show is pure perfection, beautifully written with such simplicity and a character beautifully performed by Shelley Cooper, who was fully committed to her portrayal of Maria Callas and telling her story.

“I can see why ‘La Divina’ was chosen as a ‘Pick of the Fringe’ in the 2021 Hollywood Fringe Festival! This show is absolutely exquisite,” the review said.

Back to Tinseltown in June

Cooper will be back at Hollywood Fringe in June to try out much newer music, in a new one-woman show, about her own life.

“The spirit of Fringe is to try new things – things that aren’t so commercial,” she said. “In terms of all the venues at Orlando Fringe, in Hollywood they’re a lot more spread out. There’s still a sense of community; I love them both for very different reasons.”

Cooper as legendary opera singer Maria Callas.

“You meet really cool people. You get to see art that you don’t feel that pressure for commercial success,” she said. “You can actually take some risks and it’s OK. I like that. And everyone’s got a shoestring budget too. I think that causes way more creativity than when you have millions of dollars.”

From Hollywood 2021, Cooper won “Pick of the Fringe,” Best Opera or Cabaret Show, a Gold Medal and Best Solo Show.

“I was kind of freaking out – I’d never been to Hollywood, and didn’t really know anybody,” Cooper said. “It was a big risk, but most things that are worth doing, are.”

This time around, she has a network of friends there, so it’ll be different. The new show is called “I Want to Fall in Love,” named after one of the songs by Alexander Sage Oyen, in his cycle “Moment by Moment.”

Composer/lyricist Alexander Sage Oyen

His music has been heard at Goodspeed Opera House, 54 Below, Joe’s Pub, Playwrights Horizons, The Signature Theatre, New World Stages, and venues in Thailand, London, The Netherlands and across the world.

In 2014, Cooper directed Oyen’s then-new song cycle “Moment by Moment” in Bangkok, Thailand. She met him in 2009 in Orlando, when they played Johanna and Tobias in “Sweeney Todd.” When Cooper first heard his music in New York City, she was blown away.

“It’s phenomenal music, like prodigy level,” she said of Oyen, then about 20 years old. “I loved how intuitive it was, how relatable, universal.”

Cooper singing in a concert version of “South Pacific.”

In 2017, she sang a concert in Brazil, featuring two of his songs and they were very well-received.

“I knew I wanted to do something with this music, but I didn’t know what,” Cooper said. “Finally, it came to me about a month ago.”

She has worked with a vocal coach (Jessica Lynn Johnson) she met at Hollywood Fringe. Cooper strung songs from “Moment by Moment” together, and she Zoomed with the coach, singing some.

A deeply personal look

Cooper wrote dialogue (monologues, really) for the show, based on her relationship journeys – from middle school until 2017. “It’s part stand-up, part very honest,” she said, tying the songs to her personal experience.

“It’s scary as hell, because it’s my story,” she said. In Hollywood, she saw autobiographical shows, that were very well-written and moving.

Cooper’s director is Heather Dowling and pianist Michael Gonzales (based in Hollywood). She also met them last year.

Johnson helped her develop the new script, acting as a producer. “She was really instrumental in seeing what this show could be,” Cooper said, noting it’s an hour-long show, with five songs from “Moment by Moment.”

“Singing that music, it has no preconceived notions of what it’s supposed to sound like,” she said. “I can do whatever I want. That to me is really, really exciting.”

Cooper in her one-woman show in summer 2021 for Mississippi Bend Players, Augustana College.

Cooper describes his music as “really funny, simple and just so honest.” The show touches on highs and lows of relationships.

There’s little crossover between the new one-woman show and her “Mary and Ethel: How I Learned to Sing,” her personal one-woman show done last summer at Mississippi Bend Players at Augustana.

Cooper’s “Mary & Ethel: How I Learned to Sing” is a tribute to Broadway stars Mary Martin and Ethel Merman.

One story she tells is a theater tale – her first kiss was a stage kiss, done in front of angsty teenage kids and her drama teacher. “That’s pretty mortifying,” Cooper said.

Hollywood Fringe features a solo theater community – with music and not. One-person shows include multi-character ones, she said.

“There are musical ones, but they are few and far between,” Cooper said, noting at Hollywood last year, she noted this was a void that could be filled.

She will perform for the Opera Quad Cities gala June 17 and 19 (at Moline’s Bartlett Performing Arts Center), a selection from the opera “Der Freischutz,” and go back to Hollywood Fringe after that.

Cooper went back to southern California in January for “La Divina” productions in L.A. and Ventura.

Taking on dark, thorny “Threepenny Opera”

Cooper also is an accomplished Director/Choreographer, helming a new production of the classic “The Threepenny Opetra” at Augustana May 5-8, 2022. Some of her favorite credits include The Drowsy Chaperone, Big River, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Light in the Piazza, Company, Elegies for Angels Punks and Raging Queens and Dames at Sea.

Set in the impoverished back alleys of Victorian London, “The Threepenny Opera” follows underworld antihero Mack the Knife as he tries to woo Polly Peachum and elude authorities. Created in 1928 Berlin to speak out against capitalist corruption, this musical bluntly addresses issues that remain relevant today, according to Cooper. 

“Threepenny Opera” will be performed May 5-8 at Augustana’s Brunner Theatre Center.

“In ‘The Threepenny Opera,’ Brecht argues that a capitalist system drives people to do anything to make money,” she said. “They steal, kill, and sell their bodies, and none of these actions is out of the ordinary. These activities will arise naturally because the characters live in a system that rewards ruthless competition.

“The past two years have forced us to have some difficult conversations about accountability, economic injustice, inequality for women, inequities for the LGBTQ+ communities, racism, corporate greed, privilege, and more,” the director said. “I think, if we don’t address these important conversations head on, we will be doing a grave disservice, and the same stories will keep being told.”

Cooper is leading this one Berlin story as a prologue to another classic musical, set shortly after in the same city — “Cabaret,” which she’ll direct next fall, in November. For her, “Cabaret” wouldn’t exist without “Threepenny Opera.”

Ominous Germany from ’20s to ’30s

“Threepenny” was penned in the 1920s as a “cautionary tale, warning people of what was gonna happen with Nazi Germany,” she said. “It is a socialist commentary on a capitalist world gone wrong.”

“They were starting to predict that something bad was gonna happen,” Cooper said. “They’re talking about how to lie, cheat, steal and kill to get ahead in life. The lead character is a horrible, horrible human being. There really isn’t a good person on that stage.”

In “Threepenny,” everyone looks out for themselves. And “Cabaret” was written 38 years later, but set less than a decade after the creation of “Threepenny” — in the mid-‘30s, during the rise of the Nazi Party.

“It was written in 1966, during the civil rights movement, commenting on 1930s Berlin,” Cooper said. “I love the messages. With ‘Threepenny,’ I couldn’t stop thinking about it during the pandemic. I thought the pandemic really highlighted how horrible capitalist greed could be, and ‘Cabaret’ really fits nicely into that, and Hal Prince is my directing idol.”

She also has directed the landmark “Company” (1970) in Thailand, also originally by Prince — he led the 1966 premiere of “Cabaret” (St. Ambrose staged “Cabaret” in spring 2018).

A scene from Augie’s “Into the Woods,” performed between two buildings on campus in late February 2021.

Cooper originally shelved Augustana’s “American Idiot” musical (planned in spring 2020) due to COVID and didn’t feel right about bringing it back because several students first cast wouldn’t be in it. She organized an unorthodox “Into the Woods,” performed by masked, costumed students in February 2021 in both Centennial Hall and Brunner Theatre Center, rotating scenes between the two.

Cooper became obsessed with “Threepenny” during COVID, after she was cast in a Hawaii production that was cancelled twice (in 2020 and 2021).

“I did lots of research on it; I’ve always loved Kurt Weill, since grad school,” she said. “I think he’s great.”

Influenced by the racial, social justice and economic upheavals of the past two years, she also “wanted to do something with a lot of substance. I didn’t want to direct a fluff piece – I wanted to direct something I could really sink my teeth into.”

In “Threepenny,” there is a lot of sexism, classicism, and economic disparity, Cooper said. She’s never been in a “Cabaret” production and it’s been on her bucket list to direct.

Riding out a musical storm

Later this summer, she will direct the quirky musical “Ride the Cyclone” at downtown Moline’s Black Box Theatre, where she’s done “La Divina.”

Auditions for “Ride the Cyclone” will be May 14-15 at Moline’s Black Box Theatre.

“Ride the Cyclone” opened in 2016 with music, lyrics and book by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, and tells the story of the members of the St. Cassian High School chamber choir of Uranium City, Saskatchewan, who perish on a faulty rollercoaster called “The Cyclone.”

“Ride the Cyclone” auditions will be May 14-15 at the Black Box (1623 5th Ave., Moline), and will run in August. Cooper first heard of it when it was at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where two of her friends worked.

“They became the cult following of the show – they saw it a million times, they got to know the cast, they just love it,” she said. “I didn’t see until it was Off-Broadway in New York City.”

“I loved it – it was strange; it was interesting; the music was fun,” Cooper recalled. It was just something different. So, when I was doing ‘La Divina’ at Black Box last year, Lora (Adams) goes, ‘I’m dying to do this show you probably haven’t heard of…”

They immediately bonded over it, after they both saw it and loved it. Cooper had time to direct it over the summer, with performances coming in August.

“The music is very contemporary and varies in a lot of its style,” she said. “It’s a really wonderful feature for everyone. Like everyone who’s cast in the show has a really standout feature, in a unique way. I’m really excited to do it.”

“I think the Black Box is perfect for it,” she added. “I’m really excited about doing theater like that now. I love Lora Adams – she’s a really wonderful person.”