Making Theatre Happen: An appreciation of Carolyn Cook

Carolyn Cook

If you ask almost anyone working in theatre in Atlanta about Carolyn Cook, you will invariably get a smile of appreciation, admiration, and affection. The same is true with any longtime audience member in the city.

I remember the first time I heard her name: It was the summer of 1999, and Georgia Shakespeare was doing an outstanding “Hamlet,” starring a New York actor named Saxon Palmer. I met Mr. Palmer, and he promptly asked me if I had seen Carolyn Cook in Shaw’s “St. Joan,” also being performed at GA Shake that summer. I had not, and never did for some perverse reason, and I’ve always regretted it—especially when she told me the other day that “St. Joan” was one of her all-time favorite roles. Happily, I’ve seen her in quite a few roles since then.

Yes, Ms. Cook is an actor, but she’s also a director, teacher, and lately a writer. When we sat down to lunch, in the middle of the conversation she paused, smiled, and said simply, “I love making theatre happen.” That is Carolyn Cook in a nutshell, and it is the opinion of a great many people in our fair city that no one does it better.

A French major in college, she didn’t start acting professionally until she was 28. She was born in Alexandria, VA, and moved to Atlanta some 28 years ago. She’d been fascinated by the stage as a girl; she observed her sister in a high school production of “West Side Story” and in dance recitals. Perhaps her inner voice said something like “I Can Do That,” as the song from “A Chorus Line” says.

Carolyn (anyone who knows her calls her that; so will I, occasionally) got a two-year acting internship at the Alliance Theatre; she’s studied the Meisner technique; and with acting teacher Robert Mello, and others. She has taught acting and theatre studies at Emory University, Oglethorpe University, Pebblebrook High School, and the Robert Mello Studio. She is also happily married to Matt Cook and has a 21-year-old daughter named Emily.

Cook with Joe Knezevich in Georgia Shakespeare’s production of “Hamlet.”

Professionally, Ms. Cook’s first love is acting; but perhaps her proudest accomplishment is the founding of Théâtre du Rêve (theatre of the dream), Atlanta’s first and only professional French-language theatre company in 1996. Its latest production is “Il Etait Une Fois” (Once Upon a Time), written and directed by Carolyn; please see this link to read a review and discussion of this lovely work. The show is presented in French with English supertitles projected over the stage.

In 2012 TdR started an educational program. Artistic Associate Park Krausen wrote that the program was “committed to bringing programming into the schools and to using theatre as a means to bringing French language and culture directly to students. Schools have had to make drastic cuts to arts programming and have withdrawn funding to take field trips…we want to bring art to them!”

Ms. Krausen, a fine actor also fluent in French, has some further words to say about Ms. Cook: “Personally, I can say that my life would look completely different if it were not for Carolyn Cook. Often we talk about people, angels who have had a tremendous impact on our lives. Carolyn Cook has been one of those people for me…She has directed me, employed me, but most importantly—befriended me…we are friends and adopted sisters.
“My life as an international artist is due in large part to hopping on the coattails of Carolyn’s dream…I am continually in awe of her as an artist, intellectual, activist, family woman and friend—who continues to grow, stay hungry and curious. She is an inspiring artist, friend, mentor, and big sister.”

Cook in “Blackberry Winter” at Actor’s Express.

Recently, I was thrilled by Carolyn’s performance in Actor’s Express’ monumental production of “Angels in America,” in which she played the multifaceted part of Hannah. Meryl Streep played this role in the HBO version some years ago, and I can honestly say that watching Carolyn Cook perform it made me forget Ms. Streep, of whom I am a certainly a fan.

In 2015 Ms. Cook mesmerized audiences in the Express’ “Blackberry Winter” (read my review at this link). I’ve also seen her in Horizon Theatre’s “Detroit,” “City of Conversation,” and others. One of Carolyn’s favorite plays was also done at Horizon: “The Syringa Tree.” I missed it. Another of her three favorite roles (which I asked her to name) was 7 Stages’ production of Athol Fugard’s “My Children! My Africa!” You recall the third was “St. Joan” at GA Shakespeare.

This gifted artist has been devoting more of her time as a director, in such shows as Horizon’s “How to Use a Knife” (terrific) and Theatrical Outfit’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” the most delightful “comedy of manners” that I have seen in ages (Intown’s review is at this link). One of the stars of that show, Atlanta’s remarkable Jonathan Horne, has this to say about Carolyn Cook:

Carolyn Cook

“Carolyn is a consummate actor’s director. She is constantly pushing for deeper connection and specificity; if you’ve seen her acting work, she demands no less commitment and honesty as a director. That being said, she’s also always in your corner and establishes one of the most welcoming and supportive creative environments I have been fortunate to be a part of.”

I have a strong feeling that Mr. Horne’s sentiments would be echoed by a great many actors, not to mention designers, lighting technicians, sound engineers, and the many people it takes to make theatre, a truly collaborative art form, happen.

I think that Ms. Cook would want me to mention artistic directors Lisa Adler (Horizon) and Richard Garner (Georgia Shakespeare); she said that some of her most satisfying, enjoyable work has been done at these theatres. Of course she’s worked at every important theatre around.

There’s just no getting around it: Carolyn Cook is a marvel, an incalculable gift to Atlanta theatre. I might also say that she puts one immediately at ease and is a pleasure to talk to; the word “diva” is not in her vocabulary.

I am happy to report that Ms. Cook is doing exactly what she wants, with whom she wants to do it, and where she wants to do it; and her presence instantly elevates any project she is working on. “I love making theatre happen.” Long may she wave.

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