Playwright, cyclist and world traveler Ira Cooper. Among his many endeavors has been teaching English in China. (photo from Ira Cooper)
“I lust to travel, to see places, to meet people and do theatre,” said Ira Cooper.
In everything he does, he forges his own path; he is not one for conforming to the rules. Even his professional definition is sprouting in all directions. He is an actor and a playwright, an educator and a world traveler, a poet and a filmmaker. In the few years since he graduated from the University of British Columbia theatre program, he has worked with children at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, taught English in China, worked as an actor in the Czech Republic, produced films and written plays.
“I have been writing for a long time, poems and short stories,” he said in an interview with the Jewish Independent. “I never tried to publish anything. If you do, everyone could see who you are.
“Then, after university, I worked as an actor for the Nelson Historical Theatre Society. In 2007, we produced a play about Charlie Chaplin, and there was a gap in the play. The director asked me if I could write a scene for it, and I agreed. It was produced and well received.”
His latest play, Sid: The Handsome Bum, a one-woman show about homelessness in Vancouver, was written and first performed in 2014. The play will be part of this year’s Victoria Fringe Festival.
“I wanted to show that homelessness is not general, it’s personal,” Cooper said. “We listen to Sid because she is in a show. Would we listen to her otherwise?… I was privileged growing up, but not everyone is. I talked to homeless people in downtown, wanted to figure out who they are. My mom taught me that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It’s all ‘us.’ One of the problems homeless people face is that nobody is listening to them. They want to talk, and I listened. There is a community there, like everywhere else. There is beauty there, not just ugliness.”
The play germinated in his head for several years. In 2014, Cooper and two friends, both UBC graduates, Joanna Rannelli and Hilary Fillier, organized a new theatre company – Spec Theatre – to produce the play.
“We wanted this theatre to be for a non-theatre audience. Everybody should be able to enjoy a theatre, but not everybody can afford expensive venues. A theatre could perform anywhere: in a bedroom, in a garden, in non-theatre spaces. Our theatre is accessible to everybody.”
However, theatre is a tough way to generate an income, he acknowledged. “Our theatre is a labor of love. It’s fulfilling. It’s somewhere between a hobby and a profession. I’d say, I have a relationship with theatre, not a career.”
Like Spec Theatre, the play was a collaborative effort.
“We traded ideas,” Cooper explained. “I would receive feedback from Joanna and Hilary and rewrite. In the beginning, I planned it for a male actor, but later that changed. Joanna is playing the title role, which includes five different characters. We hired the director, Kayla Doerksen, and first performed the show in 2014, in the Little Mountain Studio. It’s a small space, 45 seats, but it was sold out most nights.”
This year, Spec is remounting the play for a bigger audience at the Victoria Fringe. “I don’t know anyone there,” Cooper confided. “It’s terrifying. Here, in Vancouver, many friends came to the show, but there, we have to promote.”
They also have to do all the other jobs a play requires besides acting and directing: lighting, stage management, producing and so on. As in any relationship, in Cooper’s relationship with theatre, no job is too small, and collaboration is extremely important.
“I always wanted to collaborate with passionate people on our own projects, not jump into the industry at the entry level and work my way to the top.”
Cooper’s interests are broad, and he doesn’t confine himself to one area of the arts. In the last few years, he also has created several short films, taught English in China, and traveled by bicycle to Mexico and through Europe.
His enthusiasm for cycling is comparatively recent. “It happened around 2010,” he said. “My mom and I talked, and she said that I was smart but not very physical. I wanted to be physical, too, and I thought biking would be right for me. I did some research and joined a group bicycle trip from Amsterdam to Istanbul. But I had to prepare for such a long trip, so I biked from Vancouver to Mexico. It took about two months. I stopped where I wanted, talked to people. It was all about exploration, not the destination.”
His next long bicycle trip will happen in a couple of years – he will be going to Beijing.
“I’m planning parts of the trip now,” he said. “I will bike from Vancouver to Newfoundland, and from there to Argentina. Then, I’ll take a ship to South Africa and, from there, travel north on my bike, through Africa and the Middle East, tentatively Russia, to China. I started a special website and blog for the trip, and I want my readers to suggest where I should go next. It will be an interactive trip.” (His bicycle trip website is pedaleachmile.com.)
Cooper is also planning to stop and work along the way. One of his more definitive plans is to teach English in Saudi Arabia.
“There is a stigma attached to traveling through Africa or Muslim countries,” he said, “and, in part, that’s what my trip is about: removing the stigmas from people, cultures and places. The same about homelessness – I wanted to remove the stigma. They are just people, like everyone else.”
Sid: The Handsome Bum will be performed Aug. 29 to Sept. 5 in Victoria. For more information, visit spectheatre.wordpress.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].