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Richard Cook: Boy with An Artistic Bent

“It’s just a run-of-the-mill story,” theatre professionals will often claim whenever I ask how they’d found their calling. But make them keep talking until dusty memories get re-aired, bringing back to light those personal details that, of course, reveal an extraordinarily unique journey. The response to my question from Richard Cook, who retires from a 43-year career with Park Square Theatre (38 as Artistic Director) after this season, was no exception. Luckily, he did keep talking.

“I was a boy with an artistic bent,” Richard began, “who grew up in a literate household in northwest Iowa. My mom was an English and Business teacher; my dad, a tenant farmer. Our house was always filled with magazines–professional journals, farming magazines . . . .

We raised livestock–mainly hogs–and lots of corn and beans. At first, we lived in a little house with no indoor plumbing until I was four. Then the landlord added an indoor bathroom. It was a truly rural existence, but what I remember is that our living room always had a piano which my dad–a great musician and singer, my older brother and I played.”

Richard Cook with Stage Manager Lindsey Harter during a rehearsal for The Diary of Anne Frank
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Growing up as a farm boy, Richard experienced hours of sitting behind a tractor, riding up and down the crop rows. These potential periods of grinding boredom were, for Richard, “my time to think about my reading or what I wanted to read.” During breaks, he’d pull out the Steinbeck novel or Reader’s Digest tucked under his seat.

“I’d also sing while driving the tractor,” Richard said. “Barbara Streisand tunes. I saw her first television performance on Johnny Carson. I loved her theatre tunes–storytelling tunes! I had a crush on her and knew her body of work from top to bottom.”

Richard attended what he described as an “extraordinarily sophisticated” school. Living near a Strategic Air Command headquarter during the Cold War, many of his classmates were world-traveled Air Force “brats” whom Richard recalled as being “very ambitious, competitive and talented so kept us local kids on our toes.” Unsurprisingly, science and technology were also well-funded at his school.

Discussion between Richard Cook and actors Sulia Altenberg and Ryan London Levin
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

“Theatre was almost nonexistent,” said Richard, “but we did have a terrific music room and band instructor. The choir master was also good. We held exceptional concerts and had a very competitive marching band.”

During his formative years as a teenager, three people deeply impacted Richard’s life: the local Methodist minister and his wife as well as his high school English and Speech teacher. The couple took Richard under their wings, the intellectually curious minister serving as a mentor and his wife sharing her interest in art and music. His teacher was that “cool person” who comes along just at the right moment in one’s life.

“She was a character,” Richard fondly recalled. “She had a hot little sports car and bouffant hairdo. She was the smartest, most articulate and sophisticated person I’d ever met, and she passed on to me all the speech and theatre techniques that she could.”

While attending the small liberal arts college of Morningside in Iowa, Richard planned to study theology to go into the ministry but was, instead, seduced away by theatre. He remembers the college as a “hothouse” for him and how he’d seek every opportunity to perform. Then as luck would have it, the University of Iowa was developing its first MFA in Theatre while Richard was a senior at Morningside and recruited him into their new program.

“I took the path of least resistance,” Richard admitted.

Little did he know then that may have been his last chance to do so for a very long time.

Richard’s official retirement date is September 1st, on his 70th birthday. “I am confident that there is an afterlife,” Richard joked, “and I’m excited to find out what it is.”

What If?

Sulia Altenberg (Anne Frank) and Ryan London Levin (Peter Van Daan) in a rehearsal
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What if an English teacher had her class read The Diary of Anne Frank?

What if she’d asked permission from the principal to do an experiential lesson with her students?

What if that lesson involved deeming half the class to be superior to the other half?

What if the superior half got to reinforce their superiority through constant criticism and punishment?

What if the students skulked into class the following day wondering what would happen to them next?

Laurie Flanigan Hegge (Mrs. Frank), Robert-Bruce Brake (Mr. Van Daan) and Charles Fraser (Mr. Dussel) in a rehearsal
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What if the teacher explained that they’d been part of a social experiment?

What if the “inferior” students got angry and upset?

What if they were mad that they wouldn’t get their turns to switch roles to become the tormentors?

What if there had only been one student of color in the room, and she was Japanese American?

What if this story is true?

***

Different approaches to teaching The Diary of Anne Frank can yield surprising, but no less valuable, insights for both teachers and students alike. Park Square Theatre itself supports teachers with comprehensive study guides for its student matinees that are loaded with contextual information, suggested classroom activities and numerous resources. Our study guides are lauded for their grade-appropriateness and usability, as they are created by educators for educators. They are also living documents, continually being re-evaluated and updated for relevancy, as well as inspiring tools for deep engagement and inquiry. 

Access the study guide for The Diary of Anne Frank here.

Just as Anne Frank’s diary has been a staple in American school curriculum for decades, the play has been one of Park Square Theatre’s longest running productions viewed by thousands of young audience members for decades. This season, don’t miss its limited performances for general audiences on April 19, 22, 26 and 28 (tickets and information here). 

 

 

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