published Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Accomplished young actress offers inner-city youth alternative to gangs

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    Brett Cooper is a local singer, actress and dancer, who has performed lead roles in several musicals.
    Photo by Patrick Smith.
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ABOUT HER

• Name: Brett Cooper.

• Age: 10.

• School: Home-schooled fourth-grader.

• Siblings: Twins Reid and David, 22, and Jason, 24.

• Pets: Ollie, dog, and Scout, cat.


LEARN MORE

The St. Andrews Center, 1918 Union Ave., is hosting a celebration and program kickoff for Brett Cooper's Follow UR Star after-school improv theater program to coincide with Global Youth Service Day on Friday. The celebration will start at 4 p.m. Call 629-9872 for more information.

Most preteens long for the growth spurt that will make them look as grown up as they're starting to feel. Brett Cooper wishes hers had stopped a little sooner.

An accomplished stage actor in dramas and musicals both locally and in Atlanta, Brett, 10, recently crested 5 feet, but passing that height might as well have been like shutting a door on her hopes to be cast in Broadway productions.

Despite receiving multiple callbacks for on-Broadway shows in New York City over the last two years, Brett said her height has diminished her chances of landing most children's roles.

Until she's 18, she said, most younger parts she auditions for will go to shorter candidates, and more mature roles will go to actors in their late teens and early 20s who are able to play younger.

Nevertheless, every audition, successful or not, is a chance to gain experience, Brett said.

"It might be scary, but auditions are my chance to perform and do what I love to do," she said. "It's good to keep auditioning in that it gets your name out there."

With her Broadway dreams temporarily out of reach, Brett is actively diversifying her experiences. She recently landed a part as a featured extra in the film "Parental Guidance," a comedy starring Billy Crystal, Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei set for release on Christmas Day.

And through a new program she developed, Brett said she hopes to share her love of theater with her peers while simultaneously getting experience directing other actors.

In March, she received $960 through Disney's Friends for Change grant program. She is using the money to found a peer-to-peer, after-school improv theater program called Follow UR Star at the St. Andrews Center, a faith-based multicultural center on Union Avenue.

During the summer, she will instruct the center's third- to fifth-grade students, most of whom are of Guatemalan and Mexican descent. She said she hopes learning to act will help them build self-confidence, improve their literacy and provide an alternative to joining gangs.

Q: What drives you, at such a young age, to be involved in so many things?

A: At first, I was scared [of being onstage] and said I wouldn't do it, but I loved it. I felt like acting was what made me happy. It made me feel that I could drop everything that was going on in life, whether it was good or bad, and just be with the character.

Q: How did you find out about the Disney Friends for Change grant?

A: I was up in New York for an "Evita" audition, and we got snowed in. I was watching Disney Channel, and I saw an ad [for the grant]. It said, "You can change the world, one kid at a time." I had already partnered with St. Andrews Center for the theater.

Q: What was your motivation for the Follow UR Star program?

A: I had already been thinking about it for six months when I saw the ad. My motivation for it was that I have so much support from my friends and family, but what if other kids have dreams but don't have the support that I have? That's what motivated me to do it, but then I saw this gang thing, and I thought it would be an awesome fit also for the St. Andrews Center.

Q: What was the application process like?

A: My dad, who has written a few grants, helped me fill it out. I wrote the rough draft. An adult had to write the proposal. I put it in my own words and changed some of the wording so it would sound more like me. It was eight weeks ago now that I put it in. I heard back from them six weeks later that I won. I was really excited.

Q: What are the St. Andrews kids like to work with?

A: They learn really fast, and they're eager to learn. I want it to be more of a peer-to-peer situation. I want them to realize I want to teach them something, not that I think I'm better than them. I think they figured that out. I want to be more their friend than their teacher.

Q: What is it like teaching people your own age?

A: It was kind of scary the first day, but they knew it was my first time ever, and they were patient with me.

Q: How do you hope they improve as a result of participating in Follow UR Star?

A: The fifth-grade boys go home to an empty home, and people come up to them who are in gangs. It's not, "Do you want to join a gang?" it's "Which gang are you going to join?" I want them to stand up for themselves and feel confident that they don't have to. I also want them to have the courage to follow their dreams, whatever they are, even if they don't have the support or people don't think they can do it.

Q: How do you think you will change as a result of teaching them?

A: I didn't really know all the gang activity was going on, and when I found out, I wanted to do something. I think I'll have a better view on life now that I see how the kids are living. I'll have another view on what's happening, a different perspective on life.

Q: What's next for you?

A: Auditions and more auditions. [Laughs.] Then I have all my training I have to do. I auditioned for "Gypsy" at the Atlanta Lyric Theatre, and I'll find out if I got it on Sunday. If I don't, I'll keep auditioning.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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