Mask crusader

Maskmaker/performer Michael Cooper creates magic with changing forms

EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON Michael Cooper at work with a couple of papier-mâché assistants.

EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON Michael Cooper at work with a couple of papier-mâché assistants.

Photo By Tom Angel

Michael Cooper is perched on the edge of the Laxson Auditorium stage, feet dangling into a pool of excited youngsters whose arms politely yet firmly stick straight up in the air. Each has a question for this master mask-maker, and each is centered on one idea: “How did you do that?”

We had all just witnessed Masked Marvels and Wondertales, wherein this unassuming, balding man changed into a giant. And a baby. And a giant sneezing nose, as well as a pipe-smoking, bubble-blowing fish. And this illusion was created visually through the use of masks made of that grade-school classic, papier-mâché.

Papier-mâché? You mean, using strips of paper and Elmer’s glue? Yup, the same stuff you used to make that sad little cat in fourth grade, only much bigger and unbelievably creative. But Michael Cooper’s amazing masks are meant not only to astonish and mesmerize, they’re also meant to inspire creativity.

“The goal is entertainment,” he revealed to me after a whirlwind teacher workshop, hours before the performance. “But through the entertainment, [it is] a good way to ask questions, and I think it’s a good way to inspire an audience, especially a young audience.”

At one point during his one-man performance, Cooper brings out the mask of a horse on an S-shaped metal tube. Its toothy mouth is slightly open, as if agitated, and its eyes are bright and aware. Blood vessels on its cheek seem to pulse and give this wild horse life. He takes this exquisite hobbyhorse and becomes a bucking bronco, galloping and rearing throughout the auditorium.

This particular piece acts as homage to his father, a veterinarian (or, more poetically, a “traveling horse doctor"). It also underscores Cooper’s acknowledgement of the power of animals. “For children, there’s something about the once-removed quality. If there’s something to learn, it’s easier to digest [with them].”

His ability to emulate the natural rhythms of such a beast also highlights his training in the art of gesture, known to you and me as mime, which he studied for six years under mime master Etienne Decroux. The triumph of hard work over supposed talent is a recurring theme with Cooper—he strives to show us that we, too, can participate in this creative process.

And participate we do, as throughout the show volunteers are gathered from the audience to wear masks and demonstrate illusory techniques, including that mime staple, descending the stairs. “In that way,” Cooper divulges, “the entire audience gets to experience that on-stage feel. Which again, teaches you that the stage is a friendly place and a magical place.”

In the end, the children are still skeptical. Did he really make those giant’s stilts himself?

“I make a lot of things—I make my own stilts, I make my own costumes, I make my own masks, I write my own stories, and I make one more thing—I make a quite of bit of money doing these shows. I’m not bragging, and I’m not rich, but I wanted you to know because young people are going to be told that art is not a ‘safe’ occupation, that you’ll starve to death unless you’re famous. So if you’re into art, don’t let anyone say ‘no,' if you have the passion and the tenacity."