The Curtain Rises

Nancie Cooper MFA '04, co-chair of The Campaign for Sarah Lawrence, fell in love with theatre as a young girl. When she enrolled in the College’s graduate theatre program in her 50s, she also fell in love with Sarah Lawrence.

By Katharine Reece MFA '12, Photos by Charles Gauthier

Nancie Cooper

It was 1962. Thirteen-year-old Nancie Cooper MFA '04 sat in the back row of a packed high school auditorium in North Reading, Massachusetts, watching her brother perform in the musical Li’l Abner. “I had never seen anything so wonderful in my life,” Cooper recalls. “The whole world opened up. I didn’t know such things existed.”

Years later, when she was 50, she was struck by the realization that she might be 
halfway through her life. Is there anything I haven’t done that I really want to do? she wondered. Though she had built a successful career in financial services, the answer was 
yes. She wanted to study theatre.

“When I got to Sarah Lawrence,” Cooper says, “I realized I’d truly picked something I loved. What could be better than being creative every day?”

Whatever happened that night in the high school theatre in 1962 came full circle during Cooper’s time at Sarah Lawrence. She joined the Board of Trustees in 2005, and since 2011 she’s served as co-chair of 
The Campaign for Sarah Lawrence. Cooper insists her life is pretty quiet these days—caring for her family and friends, nurturing her love of theatre, and working on the board. But one might also argue that her life is the stuff of the finest narratives, and along the way, she fell in love with Sarah Lawrence. “Because I came here later in life, I was so appreciative of the chance to be young again and to study theatre,” Cooper says. “I now understand the importance of giving back.”

Cooper was born in 1949 in North Reading, a small town 19 miles north of Boston. Her family visited the city once a year to buy school clothes. Her father was a commercial artist; her mother a homemaker. 
As children, Cooper, her two brothers, and her younger sister would wander through the five miles of thick woods that stretched behind their home, exploring and building forts. She was an avid reader, played the French horn (badly, she insists), and took riding lessons, which she paid for by selling Christmas cards to her neighbors each summer.

She loved English, history, and chemistry in high school, and she pursued her love of music by joining choruses, taking voice lessons, and auditioning for parts in musicals. When she graduated, only about a third of her class pursued higher education. In fact, Cooper was the first in her family to attend college. On the drive to Tufts University in September 1967, her mother leaned over and told her that if she wanted to drop out her junior year to get married, that was more than okay.

“The message was clear—I was going to college to find a husband,” 
Cooper says. “It was a big disappointment that I not only graduated, but also went to graduate school.”

Cooper continued to sing at Tufts. During her senior year, the Opera Company of Boston performed The Daughter of the Regiment using Tufts’ facilities and allowed students to audition for the choruses. Cooper was awarded a part and blissfully recalls singing with renowned American soprano Beverly Sills.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology, Cooper had a hard time finding a job that offered more than minimum wage. She applied to the New School in Manhattan to get her master’s in sociology. But she already had substantial loans from Tufts and couldn’t afford the New School’s tuition. Without telling her parents, she started hopping on buses to New York to negotiate with the financial aid office. On her first visit, she told them she needed a scholarship. The school gave her a scholarship.

On her second visit, she told them she needed loans to cover the difference. The school gave her loans. On her third and final visit, she told them she needed a job so she could pay for her expenses. The school found her a job. Cooper would display the same resourcefulness and grit over and over again in her career. It took her 10 years to pay off her student loans.

After earning her master’s, a friend helped her get a job as a closing agent for a mortgage company, and the following year she moved to the newly opened New York City Department of Consumer Affairs to work in research. Her area of specialty was food and agriculture policy—about which she says she knew nothing. In 1972–73 when food prices skyrocketed, Cooper started receiving calls from The New York Times. “Why did the price of milk go up last week?” a reporter would ask her. She swiftly began doing research, educating herself and anticipating reporters’ questions. Later she pursued management consulting at Touche Ross & Company; she was only the third woman the consulting practice hired in New York. She then moved into financial services marketing at First Manhattan Consulting Group.

By the 1990s, Cooper had stopped working to raise two daughters. The transition would unexpectedly propel her return to her first love—the theatre—and to Sarah Lawrence. Cooper got involved with a local theatre company near her home in Connecticut, directing a handful of productions. She loved the behind-the-scenes collaborative process of working on a play. “Incredible things happen when you work through a piece together and explore it, and figure it out,” she says.

Cooper’s close friend, the late Ellen Kingsley Hirschfeld ’73, an Emmy Award-winning TV reporter, often told Cooper how Sarah Lawrence had changed her life. In 2001, Cooper applied and was accepted into the College’s graduate program in theatre. She immersed herself in her courses, learning about everything from directing to set design to playwriting to the Alexander Technique. Shirley Kaplan, director of theatre outreach, was her don. “Nancie’s passion for knowing about all expressive forms of theatre was evident right away,” Kaplan wrote in an e-mail. “Each class led her toward building a personal theatrical vocabulary.”

One of Cooper’s favorite memories is participating in Springboard, a weeklong theatre festival during which Sarah Lawrence students, faculty, and alumni presented play readings and projects in New York City. Cooper chose to direct a scene from Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids. In an introduction written for the play, Jean-Paul Sartre quoted from one of Genet’s novels, in which Genet says that if he had a play written for women, he’d cast adolescent boys in the parts. Few mainstream productions of The Maids, which features three female characters—two maids and their madame—actually heeded Genet’s suggestion. But Cooper did. She cast classmate Troy Diana MFA ’03 as the madame, which she says gave the performance a new dimension. “He brought a lot of tenderness and compassion to the role.”

Everyone in Cooper’s scene at Springboard wore costumes from a collection she had been acquiring since the 1990s, when her mother-in-law introduced her to resale shops in Palm Springs, California, where Hollywood types would dump their wardrobes. She eventually collected enough costumes to fill the top floor of her barn in Connecticut. She owned tuxedos, ball gowns, hats from the 1940s and ’50s, a hoop skirt, and everything she’d ever found in gold lamé.

After completing her MFA, Cooper offered the collection to Sarah Lawrence. She invited Christine Farrell, director of the program in theatre, to have a look around the barn. Farrell visited with the late Carol Ann 
Pelletier (costume design), figuring they’d leave with a few choice items. When she saw the costumes, Farrell recalls, “Carol and I looked at each other and instantly said that if she wanted, we would take them all.”

Within a few weeks, a truck arrived at the barn and shipped the collection to Sarah Lawrence. Last year, some of Cooper’s costumes were worn in campus productions of The Colored Museum and Peer Gynt—elaborately rendered reminders of one alumna’s transformative 
experience in the Sarah Lawrence theatre program.

Nancie Cooper serves on the Board of Trustees and is co-chair of The Campaign for Sarah Lawrence. Nancie and her husband, Steve, have demonstrated their commitment to Sarah Lawrence through their long history of generous leadership and support of important initiatives including student scholarships, faculty support, academic research and development, and career services. A passionate member of the Sarah Lawrence community, Nancie believes deeply in the positive impact that SLC faculty, students, and alumni have on the world.