From its humble beginnings 20 years ago as a kind of performance art dance piece with thrift shop fashion and a pasta cooking segment, Tamarie Cooper’s summer musical extravaganzas have become an August tradition for many Houston theater lovers.
With The University of Tamarie, her 18th summer musical theater event (she skipped one year to have a baby and another after her 10-year anniversary show), Cooper is taking on education in a story about her quest to earn that one final credit to graduate from college.
What other show anywhere can audiences see a dancing Ted Cruz alongside the adorable incarnations of Haiku Poetry and Cursive Writing?
With this crazy plot, Cooper, along with writing partner Patrick Reynolds and a cast of hometown favorites, manages to skewer everything from real contemporary politics and social issues like sex education, homeschooling and the Texas Board of Education to the hugely silly — like her own love of '70s television theme songs. What other show anywhere can audiences see a dancing Ted Cruz alongside the adorable incarnations of Haiku Poetry and Cursive Writing?
I caught up with Cooper by phone recently to get the scoop on the wild campus life at The University of Tamarie.
CultureMap: Since you’ve been doing this for almost two decades now, do you have devoted fans who’ve seen all the shows and maybe remember all the plots and jokes?
Tamarie Cooper: There are a few people and I love it. I think it one the coolest things about the shows are the people who make this sort of an event every summer, the ones who proudly boast how many they’ve seen.
There was one show, my second show, that I did on a school bus. It had to be a very loose experience because we could get caught in traffic for 10 minutes. It was crazy and it ran only three weeks in the daytime and only 40 people could fit on the bus. So there are a limited amount of people in Houston who had that experience and those are the ones who are always like: I was on the bus. I was with you on the bus.
CM: That’s one you should really bring back, a bus reunion mini-show.
TC: I’m older now. I require more comfort. It was a school bus with no air conditioning. No, no, no, we’d have to go full on Greyhound with a bathroom in the back.
CM: Maybe you could use a food truck?
TC: Yeah, with a food truck that follows us. That’s perfect. You never know, it could be in my future.
"When I was dilly-dallying for all those years at the University of Houston, it was about $500 a semester, but it’s like 20 grand a year now."
CM: I know getting your daughter Rose into a good kindergarten was one of the inspirations for the show but now that the show has forced you on this trip back through memories of your own education from elementary school to college, is there anything you did or experienced you want Rose to absolutely avoid in her own schooling?
TC: We have pretty child-driven household here and when Rose wants to do something, usually she’s going to get to do it. I’m happy that she’s going to get to go to a nice magnet elementary school. We won the lottery!
I do sometimes have my thoughts about kindergarten being a totally different experience than when I was a kid. But no, I said all that stuff [in the show] about college, but I hope she goes to college. I hope we find a way to pay for it. It’s harder now. When I was dilly-dallying for all those years at the University of Houston, it was about $500 a semester, but it’s like 20 grand a year now.
CM: In the show, you tell us that you’ve earned hundreds of college credit hours without graduating. Is that true?
TC: I do have something like 200 hours. However, I am not an hour away from graduating, because I never finished my core. I would take classes like "The Politics and Social Policy During the Gulf War" or math history and all these things that didn’t really add up to an actually degree plan. So yeah it’s ancient history.
CM: There’s a line in the show about the power of musical theater, which I believe is said somewhat ironically or even sarcastically, but putting on a new musical every year, you must think they do have some kind of power. True?
TC: I have a very interesting relationship with musical theater. I love it but at the same time I mock it. I grew up taking tap and ballet and watching all the big MGM movie musicals. It was magical for me. When I’m channel surfing and My Fair Lady or Fiddler on the Roof is on, I’m going to stop and watch.
"I have a very interesting relationship with musical theater. I love it but at the same time I mock it."
But myself, obviously, I don’t really fit the cookie cutter of the musical theater ingenue. What I kind of like to do with my shows is mix up that formula. So it’s not just me, but you’ll see so many types of people: ages and sizes and shapes and colors, and it’s so intimate in our setting too. You’re seeing the work. You’re seeing the sweat coming off of people’s bodies. The heart is all there. We do it completely sincerely but at the same time there’s sort of the joke of how ridiculous it is that someone is suddenly breaking into song.
CM: Does musical theater also have some type of political or cultural power?
TC: Well one of the things I do enjoy is bringing some social and political satire into the show. I’ve always felt that humor is a powerful and fascinating way to make people think about those issues. Something like The Daily Show is a perfect example, where they’re taking very real and intense various issues but presenting it with comedy because otherwise you’re going to go crazy.
CM: There’s that pretty ancient idea of the comedian, the court jester, being one of the few people who can get away with speaking truth to power, but does music also fit into that idea of comedy and truth?
TC: I think sometimes it’s an easier way for people to approach the subject matter. Probably if you were to take a poll we have a more liberal audience base, but that’s not to say that there’s not many people of maybe a more conservative mindset who do see my show, but because we make fun of everything and nothing is scared, and it’s all done with such jest and ridiculousness than I think it’s a little bit easier to let it wash over you.
The University of Tamarie runs now through August 29 at Catastrophic Theatre.