The Confident Craftswoman

by Lisa Mulcahy
Cooper was the Makeup and Wig Designer/Builder for Death and the King's Horseman for the Mary Moody Northen Theatre.
Cooper was the Makeup and Wig Designer/Builder for Death and the King's Horseman for the Mary Moody Northen Theatre.

Makeup Artist and Wig Specialist Tara Cooper
Tara Cooper has always believed in herself as an artist, and it’s carried her far. The Texas-based makeup artist and wig specialist’s credits are highly diverse, and her collaborators impressive. She is also an adjunct faculty member at St. Edwards University. Cooper has worked at scores of respected regional theatres, including Austin Shakespeare, The Vortex, TexARTS, the Palindrome Theatre, and the Zach Scott Theatre. Her show credits include Book of Grace, Metamorphoses, The Way of the World, One Night with Janis, Antigone, Carousel, Tuesdays with Morrie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? On the Verge, The Crucible, Peer Gynt, Tartuffe, Cloud 9, City of Angels, On the Town, Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet. She’s also worked on local crews for touring productions like The Lion King, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Mamma Mia!, and Wicked.

Following Her Instincts
Tara CooperFrom the time she was a young child, Cooper felt drawn to making art in various forms, and very organically. “I was always drawing little characters, and making puppets,” Cooper explains. “My dad was a merchant marine, and so he’d bring home little oddities from all over the world. I’d use these oddball items in the things I’d create and make up my own narrative.”

Even though she loved getting her hands dirty in this way, when it came to be thinking about a career initially, Cooper went in a polar opposite direction. “I went to the University of Texas at Austin, and started out pre-med,” she recalls. “But I’d always wanted to be a makeup artist. I remember I failed something in physics or bio, and was told, ‘You’re going to have to drop that class.’ I was like, ‘Cool! I don’t want to do this anyway!’ I learned I could study theater by that point—before then, I didn’t even really know I could get a degree in what I really wanted to do. But then, knowing I could pursue my real interest, I switched my focus to costume design and tech. I’m so glad I did! It was the perfect fit for me.”

Shortly after graduating with a BA in costume design, Cooper got a fortunate and informative career break. “I started working on local makeup and wig crews for big Broadway touring shows when they came into town,” she says. “When I was twenty-three, I got to work on The Lion King,” Cooper remembers. “Brenda O’Brien, the show’s makeup artist, was highly inspirational in terms the skills she taught me—she was a great mentor.” Allison Lowery, the wig and makeup specialist at the University of Texas whom Cooper had worked closely with, also continued to inspire and inform her work. Cooper cites Lowery’s highly-respected books Wig Making and Styling: A Complete Guide for Theatre & Film and Historical Wig Styling: Volumes 1 And 2 as highly influential and must-reads for all students and professionals in the field. “Allison was my professor and taught me so much about how to make wigs and ventilate,” Cooper says. “I think it’s true that you can only learn so much in school—I’ve taught myself a lot as well, and of course and learned from Allison’s books. But she is among the people who put their trust in me and let me work with her. The people who let me work on their shows—my life would be radically different if they hadn’t given me a chance.”

Navigating Challenges
As she began to work more and rack up professional credits, plus started to move into teaching herself, Cooper snapped into a necessary philosophy that served her well: just decide to believe in yourself, and you’ll never back down from any tough situation you encounter. “I’ve been teaching makeup and wig design for so long, and I always pass along the facts I’ve learned in my career,” Cooper says. “What I’ve realized is, you’ll get criticism from a lot of people about your work—but you have to remember, that criticism is only one point of view. Now, that criticism may be constructive, but it can also be harmful because it may make you, a talented person, stop trusting yourself. So, then you don’t follow through on your dreams. You always have challenges, but the way you handle them is to tell yourself, ‘I can do it’. You read up on the makeup you need to do on a job before you go in. You put in the work to make yourself an expert!”

Some of wig work of Tara CooperTo Cooper, that means thinking of your design career as a professional entity from the get-go. “I think all arts programs across the board should have a business teaching component,” says Cooper. “You have to properly run your small business. That means you need good time management skills—if you’re going from one job to another in a day, figure out how long it’s going to take you to get there—don’t be late. A hiccup on your taxes? That could ruin your career. Keep learning how you can do better every day. You’re not going to get amazing jobs if you don’t take these details seriously. Plus, you want to make sure you know enough so you don’t get taken advantage of. If you’re not sure how to proceed with something, it’s OK to ask, ‘what do I do?’ Ask a professional who has more expertise to you—and listen to them!”

Cooper herself followed this advice when she came across some wise perspective from film director Tim Burton. “He once gave a speech about the three goals he thinks artists need achieve to succeed,” Cooper says. “The qualities are: always be on time; do good work; and make sure people like you. If you can get two out of the three, people will hire you—but you want to go for all three, of course! I really live by that. I also think that it’s really helpful if you can keep all of your jobs in the theater as you go through your career. If you need money, work the box office or front-of-the-house. Don’t go into an adult job—work in your field, and work toward what you REALLY want—you’ll make it.”

Never Resting on Her Laurels
Cooper always wants to accomplish more and she follows her endless sense of curiosity about continuing to perfect her craft. “I do consider myself more of an artist overall, not just someone who does wigs and makeup,” she explains. “So, I read a lot about art and theater. I continue to learn from people I admire. I travel a lot and learn from the things I see and do. Also, I work all the time—when I go home I work on side jobs that are just mine. These are creative projects made by me and manifested by me, not by an employer. Your art can turn into a job if you’re not careful to stay inspired.” Her mantra, “As long as you stay excited, you’ll be cool!”  

You can learn more about Cooper’s work and her creative outlook at www.taracoopermakeupartist.com