The Inquirer recently ran a piece asking for examples of “moments of kindness from a stranger.” Two years ago, I took my mother to the Elmwood Park Zoo for Mother’s Day. It was crowded and the area where we had to park was a bit of a walk for her. I also had waaaay too much stuff with me for our picnic lunch and it was difficult navigating everything. I could have driven back to the gate to drop her off but that would have entailed getting back into the long line for parking. One of the young parking attendants said, “If you want, you drive and I’ll walk to the gate and drive the car back for you.” I took him up on his kind offer and at the gate he insisted on carrying all my stuff into the zoo for me, then he drove my car to the lot and returned with the key. He refused to take a tip so I asked if he wanted me to fix him a plate. He replied that it would be great as they hadn’t had time for lunch, but that he needed to get back. Once I got my family settled, I loaded up several plates and walked them down to the lot. He and the team were so appreciative of my gesture it became a comedy as we tried to out thank each other for our efforts. That was the start of a beautiful day at the Elmwood Park zoo. That kindness was continued throughout the day with all the friendly staff members I encountered. We had a beautiful afternoon as we hand fed giraffes and bison and walked the grounds. I had always hoped to find a way to feature Elmwood and I recently found a perfect opportunity. This month the park has partnered up with Prism Theatre Company to put on a socially distanced, outdoor performance of the Broadway musical “Tarzan”. This week I had the opportunity to speak to the Artistic Director of the company, the talented Troy Cooper.
I read that you’re from Mohnton, Pennsylvania. Where is that?
It’s a sleepy little town outside of Reading. It’s so small that there wasn’t cable on my road until I was 17. We were able to get the 3 major channels and Fox43 and that was it.
Yikes! Tell me about the family?
They’re very conservative in a lot of aspects but have always been really supportive. There’s never been a show that I’ve been in or a part of that my parents didn’t come to see. My mom even came mid-chemo to see one of my shows, it was the only thing she left the house for. She was a real trooper. My coming out story was interesting, at first they believed it was a phase, then it was, ‘okay, we have to support it,’ then there was some broader family involvement that included a lot of nay-saying. But when all was said and done it came down to, ‘This is who I am’ and they’ve done their best to support and love me even if at times they didn’t understand.
I have a brother who is retired after 23 years of service in the Air Force.
What’s a family tradition you miss?
When I was growing up, my Nana and Pawpaw from my mother’s side would have dinner at their house every Sunday after church. We’d all eat and watch TV, usually football or baseball, and it was just a way for everyone to connect. It became hard to keep up the tradition once they both passed away. They passed away within 3 months of each other, and though we still do it 20 years later, it doesn’t feel quite the same.
So, important question…did they have cable?
[Laughing] Yes! And I used to stay at my Nana’s house after school and we’d watch what she referred to as ‘her stories,’ as if she was a character in them.
Were you involved in theater as a young person?
Yes, I started doing theatre when I was 11. Our school did a production of Mame that I was in and then I went from being a boy soprano to a bass overnight and I didn’t know what to do with my voice. I didn’t really get active again until I started doing community theater at 16. I slowly started branching into more professional productions and it’s now what I’ve been doing since I was a teenager. I’ve taken many paths and had many mentors along the way. In part because though my parents were supportive, they stopped at paying for me to go to a performing arts college. I ended up going to State School for one semester before dropping out. I did really well at the things I wanted to study and terrible at the general studies. I just wasn’t motivated to get my ass out of bed to go study math. It was senseless to waste money to go back, I preferred to get directly involved in the industry and find mentors who would teach me. I always thought I’d be an actor, but as I grew and learned I became interested in set design and grant writing and directing and by necessity, learned other skill sets I’d never imagined. And I love it, it’s fun and exciting and keeps you on your toes.
What was the first big production you were involved in?
As an actor? Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. It was in a 1,500 seat auditorium with a huge stage. We had a giant Sphinx head with light-up eyes that was flown in and out. The costumes were exact replicas of the ones from the Broadway revival. We even had a 30 member children’s choir!
Funniest mishap onstage?
I was doing a production of “The Full Monty” and at the end there’s the scene where we strip. There’s a sequence to what we’re supposed to take off and I don’t know how it happened, I just remember being in the middle taking the shirt off and suddenly thinking, “Uh oh, I don’t think I put the white boxers on! When the pants go, I’m going to be there in a g-string while everyone else is in boxers!” And so I was. I did not let that happen again!
Tell me about Voice of Equality.
Voice of Equality is kind of where we started what we have now. The LGBTQ community saw a lot of positive movement during the Obama administration, but we didn’t make enough of a push to ensure that our allies would remain allies and that we could continue with open dialog into the next administration. As I’ve gotten older I realized that often people enter conversations and instead of truly listening, and what happens is that we are constantly thinking about ‘what do I say in response? I need a witty response, an intelligent answer,’ and by doing that, we’re missing people’s points or cutting them off before they finish their thought. After 2016 it was even worse and I realized how powerful it is to put people together in a dark room where all they do is sit and listen. They don’t have to think of a response, they can just listen. You can really get to people with positive messages that way. That was the impetus to start Voices of Equality. Since then the name has morphed a few times, and it’s now the Prism Theatre Center which we feel really suits where we are now. In the recent past, we’ve tried to take a good look at what we needed to improve and evolve and we’re very proud of where we are now. As our website says, we are “determined to shine a light into the hearts and minds of all who seek art, diversity, and a colorful perspective of our world through the theater.”
Nice, I did read your mission statement which said in part, that you were looking to “shine a light on varied perspectives and ideals. Celebrate the essential power of the theatre to illuminate our common humanity. Foster intersectional theatrical experiences that enhance the understanding of diversity, inclusion, and equity in our society.”
That’s what we hope to do.
How did you get involved with Elmwood?
We did a production of 9 to 5 and Stan Huske,y who is an editor for the Times Herald and also works with Central Theatre, walked into my office and told me he had a proposition. He also does PR for the zoo and asked if we’d have any interest in partnering with Elmwood on some family things. I figured they meant some little youth theater programs that would be cute and fun to do, I had no idea they meant a full blown Broadway show! We met with Al Zone, the CEO of Elmwood who is a real visionary, he thinks big and out of the box. I had a meeting with him and we went back and forth with ideas and I pitched a few suggestions including Tarzan, which I figured would fit in with the zoo theme but also fit with our mission. He was all for it even when I mentioned what a production of this size would cost. Of course, this was all pre-covid and the two storms that really took a toll on the zoo. Actually, our first production was supposed to be “The Boys in the Band” back in March. The night before opening night is when Montgomery County made the decision to shut all non-essential businesses. So after all the casting, rehearsals, sets designed, everything, we never got to bring it before an audience.
That’s tough. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Tarzan.
Nope, we’ve already started performances and the reception has been great. The amount of support that we’ve received from businesses, the press, and other people in the industry has been amazing. One of the reasons I wanted to do Tarzan is that it’s about having a ‘chosen’ family, which is something important to many of us in the LGBTQ community.
What have been some of the challenges?
Well, working and rehearsing in masks is a challenge, trying to communicate effectively when your eyes and body language are the only things you can use to express feelings. Singing is a whole new ballgame with a mask, but the cast has suffered all that together and it’s formed a strong bond for them. They’ve become their own family.
What’s been rewarding?
Having members of the cast and the crew talk about what it’s meant to them. Because of the pandemic, a lot of them were feeling they’d lost a sense of purpose before getting involved in this production. They felt that this allowed them to come together as a group and to do what they love.
I don’t know if you watched any of the old Tarzan movies, but many of them, like the film “Tarzan and His Mate” with Maureen O’Sullivan are REALLY racy. It was filmed right before they started putting the MPAA ratings on films and there’s a beautiful scene where Jane is completely naked underwater and Tarzan is in a skimpy loincloth. There are also a lot of sexual references.
Well, we don’t have any nude scenes, but there is a little bit of a comedic look at the sexuality, things that will go over the heads of the young ones, but make the adults chuckle.
I’m looking forward to that! Name two shows that you watch in reruns?
I could watch “Golden Girls” again and again and again and for a little 90’s nostalgia, I’ll watch “Charmed”.
I can’t tolerate racism or classicism. And I can’t take chronic lateness. Do not commit to something and then not show up when you are supposed to.
Sounds that make you nostalgic?
Anything from Andrew Lloyd Webber or Jerry Herman, they were part of my theater beginnings so that makes me nostalgic. I am a Cancer and true to my birth sign, so the ocean or the beach do the trick. I love to be by the water; it’s soothing for me. And the sound of my Nana’s voice. She had this gravely ‘pack-a-day’ smoker tone to her voice that was incredibly soothing, unless she got angry and then it was terrifying, but there’s something about it I really miss every day and have for 20 years now.
Since you’re performing at the zoo, what’s your favorite animal?
Normally, it would be tigers. I love the tigers, but here at Elmwood they have an eagle estuary which is one of the first things you see. It’s the home for several bald eagles that for different health reasons can no longer fly. So the estuary is their safe space. They’re beautiful and majestic, and regal and I love that they have a safe home here.
It is a special place, I visited once and everyone there was so lovely.
Yes, their people skills are one of the zoo’s strengths and it really comes from the top down. There’s a spirit of community and friendliness everywhere. I feel completely supported by everyone from the CEO to the folks on the ground. As an example, we opened yesterday and our programs are digital so before the show I asked someone in the office if they could run off a bunch of flyers with our QR code. He said, “How about if we go a little more environmentally friendly? I’ll make up some big signs that I’ll laminate and have our people put them out for you so you can take that off your plate.” He didn’t have to do all that, but that’s the type of courtesy and support you get here. I should mention, originally they had planned to do these shows at the Center Theatre in Norristown and they were going to rent a trolley to take people from the zoo to the theater. Elmwood saw 750,000 guests last year, and it was their way of reaching out to the broader community. I love that. Also, Sunday nights are sensory-friendly performances which is in part due to a grant they procured. They are the nation’s first autism certified zoo.
That’s wonderful. Where are the shows taking place now?
Our stage is in the lower parking lot of the zoo, which is wonderful because the trees surrounding us make a beautiful backdrop for the show, and we don’t have to pump in bird noises, they’re already there! We have spaced seating on the lawn and then we have slots for cars so you can watch from your car like you’re at a drive-in! You just tune in to a certain radio station that’s posted to hear the show.
Well you have me ready to gas up my old Toyota and head over for a day and night at the zoo!