Craig Cooper loves the sound of a buzzing foyer before a performance.
The new artistic director for the Taranaki Arts Festival has stood among the throng time and time again.
"Nothing makes me happier than standing in a full foyer before a show to see the buzz of people who have left home to be together in the same place at the same time," he says.
The Auckland-based man has a solid background in live theatre and programming acts.
In the 1980s, he began with the Court Theatre in his home town of Christchurch as an actor, writer and director. “I very quickly moved into the producing and management side of the business.”
He has also lived in different places around the world, from Brazil to Taiwan, and, from the late 1990s, had a seven-year stint programming for the Studio venue of the Sydney Opera House. “That’s where I was thrown into the world of programming in an intense way.”
At the Studio, there were about 60 different shows programmed each year, which involved an opening night of a show each week and sometimes more.
“It was like an endless arts festival,” Cooper says. “It really introduced me to the full range of performing arts – theatre, dance, circus, spoken word, cabaret and everything in between.”
In the late 2000s, he and his family returned to Aotearoa, where Cooper worked for Creative New Zealand for a couple of years as the national theatre advisor. “It was great to be in a funding environment have a change of pace and focus.”
Next, he was approached by The Edge to be associate director of arts programmes for the Aotea Centre. The job involved programming for a cluster of venues, including the Aotea Centre, Civic, Auckland Town Hall and Herald Theatre. These are now run by Auckland Live.
After six years, he took up the role of programming for the Christchurch Arts Festival and has now added artistic director of the Taranaki International Arts Festival to his mantle. He will be doing both roles.
“I will be based in Auckland but down here regularly,” he says sitting in the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust office.
He believes Auckland, where he lives with his wife and two children, is a good place to be based because some of the best new work is being generated there.
In keeping with this, the Taranaki festival has a strong reputation for presenting high quality work, particularly New Zealand performances.
“The fact that the festival is so strong and has been going for such a long time, it’s developed a strong audience and got good buy in in terms of sponsorships. That indicates it’s a city that really embraces the arts,” Cooper says.
“People know what they like but are willing to see something different.”
His job is to find great work in New Zealand, Australia and overseas, especially the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The work has to be excellent, but also fit the Taranaki audience. “Sometimes I see a show that I love, but can’t see that connection for my audience.”
Because of the long history of the Taranaki festival and the in-depth data about shows, Cooper is able to get a deep understanding of his established audience.
“My challenge is to go forward into the future; to deliver to the audience expectations but to push them a little bit further to places they don’t know they want to go.”
Cooper says the immediate feedback from live theatre is highly rewarding. “It’s so special to know you have made someone’s night special and unique. That’s why I think live performance will never be replaced by all the electronic distractions we have. At the end of the day, people crave that sense of community and real human interaction.”
A media junkie himself, Cooper enjoys reading, TV and film. “I love the world of information and entertainment.”
That’s because all these, along with live performances, have one thing in common: “The focus of what I love is telling stories and allowing other people to tell stories.”
Cooper takes the place of former artistic director Drew James, to programme the next Taranaki International Arts Festival to be held in winter next year.
TAFT CEO Suzanne Porter says Cooper beat a strong calibre of short-listed applicants for the role.
“Craig brings a strong background of programming to Taranaki and we are fortunate to have someone of his calibre work for us,” she says.
“We look forward to presenting Craig’s choices for us in his first arts festival in August 2017.”