Career Central, Interviews

A Conversation with Howard Cooper: Artiste & Educator Extraordinaire

Howard Cooper started his career as an actor and writer with independent theatre groups across the country. He then attended Brock University and York University where he completed a B.A. and master’s degree in psychology. He continued onto the University of Toronto, where he obtained an additional B.Ed.
Putting this extensive training to work, Howard taught at secondary schools in both the public and private sectors for several decades. During his later career, he developed several courses for online learning, which will continue to educate students for years to come.
In his retirement, Howard has become an acclaimed author, having published three novels in addition to his work as a freelance writer for Holocaust survivors and others. He also serves as an Executive Editor to this publication.

Welcome to this Education Press Interview Mr. Cooper.

“Thank you, I’m glad to be here.”

You began your career in acting and as most of us know, a career in the arts can be challenging, particularly at its inception. Can you describe what brought you into acting and what your early career was like?

“When I was very young, I wanted to be a doctor. I had a very good pediatrician and I liked him very much and I wanted to be just like him. So for birthdays and Christmas, Hanukkah for me, my family would give me medical books and I would peruse them; but that changed when I was around 12. I don’t know why. To be quite honest it was like a psychological shift in my autobiography. I don’t know why but I knew that I wanted to be an actor. From them on, I was known as the actor – just because I enjoyed it so much.

After I finished high school, there was a break. I worked in a factory for a while and then I went to Brock university, a small university which had a drama program and that was the start. I recognize that not everybody can go that route, I was fortunate. I was also lucky to be a part of an acting company in the region. It was a children’s educational company which was started by one of our professors and I was part of that, was paid, and I must say that the timing was very good for me; quite different to what an aspiring actor or artist can expect now – that was in the 70’s. At the time, there was a lot of money around, including the arts and there was a lot of money for Canadian interests as well. That made a big difference – plus the cultural field was very open.

When I came into professional theatre in 1973, there were balanced and educated and experienced artists and directors who came back to Canada from training abroad with the intent of creating a Canadian art scene, in my case the theatre scene. So there were a number of small theatres that specialized in Canadian work and that was new at the time.
We were still working on developing our own, Canadian identity at the time. For example, you had to cultivate a British accent, rather than use your own, if you wanted to work in most theatres. You couldn’t appear to be a native of Canada, you had to be something different and that changed. I was swept up in this spirit, so that was different than it is now.

So I was lucky. I lucked into one of those theatres and one of the directors helped me a great deal. We did our own plays, they were called collective creations. We didn’t use written play scripts, we created shows ourselves and that was quite popular at that time, so I was lucky in that regard. You know there was money there, there were theatres there, there was a cultural incentive there, and I was just lucky to be in the middle of all that.”

That leads us to our second question quite well. As an increasing number of students are doing, you then transitioned from one professional and academic career, into an entirely different professional and academic career. Can you talk about what motivated this change and how you went about actually putting that into practice?

“Yeah it’s difficult, I think, for anyone to change from a profession or calling that has been meaningful for them, for whatever reason they have to change. For me there were a variety of reasons; mainy professional reasons. But mostly I think I wanted to be a writer. I loved acting but I wanted to write. The thing is I really felt that I didn’t have anything to say. I felt glib basically, and unformed and naive. I didn’t feel I had a context. So I went back to university to study psychology. That was my chosen field, instead of theatre, which would be obvious but redundant, or English which might also have been a likely choice, I chose psychology without really knowing very much about it. I knew that I wanted to know about people and ideas and I wanted to have some kind of insight into human beings, so I chose psychology. It turned out psychology is not necessarily the harbinger of that kind of approach but even so, I wasn’t sorry. I loved psychology and it was a substitute or replacement for me in every way to theatre. Although not quite so rewarding in the immediate sense, it had overall rewards that were good, plus I did like academia and that helped a great deal.”

On that note, did it feel challenging or at all regretful for you to lay down a skill set that you’ve been developing for so long and then pick up this completely new skill set?

“Well, it would be untrue to say that there wasn’t a lag there. I didn’t miss acting particularly. That’s a very specialized kind of feeling and activity but I think just leaving it behind was hard without even dwelling on the specifics. As I said, psychology fulfilled my needs for information, for approach, for study, it was just a really good area for me. Also there are a lot of broad strokes where psychology picks up on where theatre might leave off. Looking back on it now, I feel quite clear about it. It’s like a divorce; even though it may be for the best, it can be very painful.”

Your next phase in life was as an educator and, if I may, a rather good one at that. Did you feel that there were any lessons that your prior training brought into your career as an educator and do you think that speaks at all to a student who might be looking at training in something that may not be directly applicable to their future career aspirations?

“That’s a very good question and I think that whatever it is that you do well that you love, you don’t need to give it up in order to be an educator – in fact it informs what you do. There were people in teacher’s college where I went who were very strong drama people and they went into teaching drama and became excellent teachers and dramatists. I can’t speak for them, but I guess they were quite happy with that choice. In general, the gratification of seeing your student performing and doing well is quite special, regardless of what subject you teach. The other thing about teaching is that it brings together so many different skills. To be a good teacher, you have to be a skilled communicator, organizer, leaders and so much more. Theses are skills that you develop in every aspect of life, all of which can be invaluable in becoming an educator.”

Yet another creative outlet for you has been literature, and lately you have become quite an acclaimed author. You published not one, but three different novels in addition to your work as a freelance writer. So could you describe a little bit about the process of how one goes about writing and publishing a novel?

“I might say, in the context of our discussion that being a writer is no less fraught with difficulties than being an actor. It’s really hard to actually write a novel. You know most writers that I hear about or read about, are writing something that is reflective of other books, especially successful books. For example, after the Hunger Games there were dozens of books that dealt with the same theme. They were almost spin-offs and you didn’t see much else for quite a while. So I think the major point here is to avoid that and try to be original – that’s not without struggle, but it’s far more worthwhile.
Also, try to write what you believe and what you feel and then match that with an understanding of the genres. That’s quite important to note as well, even if you can write something quite brilliant, if it’s not in a genre, your chances of getting published are strongly reduced. You know, as a writer perhaps even more than the other arts, you have to be committed to the idea you have. It may be a science fiction, or a book about gardening, or anything in between, but the fact is to know what you want to write and pursue it.”

Could you elaborate a little more on the process of publishing the book itself? How does one get a book published nowadays?

“You know it’s really quite stressful and challenging and it probably takes a couple of tries before you get to the publisher that you want. By now publishers who are listed online are numerous. There are hundreds of them and the process of going through each one can be arduous. It is a difficult process but I want to say that it shouldn’t inhibit anyone from writing a novel. The fact that publishing a novel is difficult should not stop you from writing. Also, as well as small or medium-sized publishers, there’s self-publishing which is flourishing at the moment. Self-publishing has had a rather bad rap in the past. There are some great novels; Margaret Atwood’s first novels apparently were self-published, and it’s one way of getting your work out there. Also, that may just be the start of the process and lead you to other opportunities beyond. So there are options and I say to anyone writing a book right now just to be confident that publishing will happen. You have to have that confidence.”

Finally, what advice would you give to an inspiring student who’s looking towards a career in the arts especially in writing or acting?

“In the arts as any other field, but more so perhaps in the arts, you need to keep your eye on the craft, and on your desire to do a good job; to be competent, even as you are confident. There are other commercial elements that do play a role, but nothing as much as being practiced at what you do. Of course, that’s true in every other field, in medicine and academia you have to be good – and this takes practice and dedication. In the arts, it’s no different.

There’s always rejection to deal with as well. Everybody has to deal with rejection, whether you are an artist or not. The key is to overcome it. It would be wrong to pretend it wasn’tthere, but you need to kind of roll with it a little bit. There are many famous stories of authors and actors who’ve collected dozens of rejection letters before they get that one letter of acceptance. Again, looking at Margaret Atwood as an example of a Canadian author. The only way to get past it is to get through it, plain and simple. That may be rather dire advice, but nonetheless necessary. You have to absorb it and overcome it. I’m not sure that’s the best advice I can give, in a way because it’s kind of rude, but it’s true that rejection does push some people away from pursuing their dream but rejection is just one element that you have to deal with.”

That may not be the easiest advice to digest but it’s certainly very true. Well, Mr. Cooper that brings us to the end of our questions, is there anything else you’d like to add?

“I don’t want to leave off saying that it’s not like the rejection is not important or meaningful, but that it is real and it’s one element about an inspiring artist who has to do it.”

Thank you, Mr. Cooper and on behalf of the Editorial Board, I am sure the students who will be reading these words will have a lot to gain from your wisdom.

“I hope so. I want to thank you for this time, I really appreciate it. Your questions were probing and clear and a joy to deal with.”