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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.”

ANSA AKYEA: About Transformation and Letting Go

In Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, set in a township in Northern Uganda, the talented Ansa Akyea takes on two roles: in Part I as a soldier hunting for a runaway boy soldier; and in Part II as Paul, the pastor of the community’s church, whose past collides with his present, forcing a confrontation with his future. Particularly with the character of Paul, this sobering yet transcendently beautiful and hopeful play brings to mind these words by the Chinese philosopher Laozi: “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”

When asked what playing Paul was teaching him, Ansa replied, “About transformation and letting go. By the end, Paul knows that he must start over; he can’t be the same person moving forward. There’s a new journey that he has to go on.”

Tackling such hard life lessons through the play has had Ansa “excited, scared and filled with dread.” They are, in fact, the very emotions faced by actors when they decide to take on a new role and commit to mining its depths, then perform to live audiences.

Actors Michael Jemison, Kiara Jackson, Adelin Phelps (left to right) and Ansa Akyea (far right) learning from fight choreographer Annie Enneking (center)
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

As for his excitement, Ansa cited several reasons to feel that way about being in Cardboard Piano:

  • Director Signe V. Harriday: “I’ve always wanted to work with her. She’s one of the smartest artists who cares about her community and using theatre to connect with community.”
  • Playwright Hansol Jung: “It’s inspiring to have a playwright in conversation about religion, love and conflict. We also need new works to better reflect our diversity. And Hansol’s material has a freshness to it; its perspective is specific, yet universal.”
  • Being part of an intimate four-member ensemble, which includes Kiara Jackson, Michael Jemison and Adelin Phelps: “Signe cast us knowing that we’ll bring our own personal history and intelligence as actors. She chose actors who live in their bodies and hearts. These are things required from actors so they can empathize and act.”

Becoming an actor is also a journey in itself. For Ansa, a Swiss born Ghanaian-American, his acting journey began in his junior year at the University of Iowa, where he would earn his B.A. degrees in French and Communications Studies. That year, he took an elective class taught by a visiting professor from Sierra Leone who wanted to cast Ansa in his play about the 1839 rebellion on the Amistad, a slave schooner. With his parents’ blessing, as long as acting didn’t interfere with his studies, Ansa took the part.

Left to right: Dialect coach Foster Johns working with actors Ansa Akyea and Michael Jemison
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Ansa’s tremendous talent on stage as an undergraduate led his university to offer him the opportunity to earn an MFA in Acting. Cast right out of graduate school, Ansa honed his craft in Chicago, working at numerous theaters starting with Steppenwolf, Black ensemble, ITC, stage left theater and many others.

Ansa ultimately moved to the Twin Cities when his spouse got a job here. He hit the ground running, immediately being hired by Mixed Blood Theater, with subsequent stints at the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre Company. Ever since, Ansa has appeared on many stages throughout the Twin Cities and been seen or heard on television, film and radio. He has also been the recipient of the 2007 City Pages Best Actor award, 2011 Minnesota Playwright Center’s McKnight Award for Acting, 2013 Minnesota Playwright Center’s Many Voices Fellowship and 2013 Ivey Award for Ensemble Acting in the Guthrie’s Clybourne Park.

About theatre, Ansa had this to say: “This is my life. I love my profession. I have an achievement mentality; I have aspirations to always learn more. I will always work.”

After Cardboard Piano, Ansa will be teaching at North High School located in North St. Paul. He will also play Daddy Onceler in the Children Theatre Company’s production of The Lorax this spring.

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

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