With more than 30 years as a theater professional to her credit, Linda Alper finds she often becomes a mentor to younger artists she works with.
“It usually begins with a relationship of working together on a project,” says Linda, a resident artist at Artists Repertory Theatre. “I see younger artists I admire and watch them evolve. … I help them move forward in their career. It’s kind of maternal.”
Helping young artists often includes recommending them for programs, roles and auditions and helping them prepare for specific auditions or create an audition tape. She says the directors and recruiters she refers her young charges to are often appreciative. “Their job is to look for talented, hard-working actors.”
A year ago she took mentorship to an international level. She spent a month in Islamabad, Pakistan, working with a “hard-working theater group.” She hopes to return there next year on a grant to provide more intensive mentoring on running a theater. “I hope to bring them to Portland so people can meet people they think are really different, but who really aren’t,” says Linda. “It breaks down stereotypes.”
Her time in Pakistan was one of several Fulbright grants she has received over the years, which include short-term travel or specialist grants to Taiwan, Beijing and Hong Kong. She also received a Fulbright Senior Scholar Grant to serve as a professor at Soochow University in Taiwan for the 2011-12 school year. During that year, her husband, Kevin Cooney, worked as a guest professor, and their daughter, Rose Cooney, now 27, studied in mainland China for a year abroad. The next year Rose started a job in Shanghai, where she lived for nearly three years.
Linda and Kevin had visited Shanghai during their stays in Hong Kong and Beijing, both of which are about an hour’s flight from that city. Linda was interested in Shanghai because her mother’s second husband, who had escaped from Germany as a teen, volunteered at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and gave Rose a memoir called The Shanghai Diary when she turned 14.
“Not many people know about the 20,000 European Jews who survived World War II in Shanghai,” says Linda. She recently received a Table|Room|Stage commission from Artists Rep to complete her play, tentatively titled “The Only Place Left,” which explores that experience.
Linda’s play follows an adolescent girl originally from Berlin who grows up in Shanghai, an international city prone to corruption. The saving grace for Jews fleeing Germany, however, was that Shanghai accepted displaced persons without visas. While refugees initially lived throughout the city, after Japan invaded and took control of the city, the Jews were forced into a one-square-mile ghetto shared with 100,000 poor Chinese residents.
“This is a real story of two incredibly different cultural communities living and working together in tolerance,” says Linda.
The play’s main character is a composite drawn from published memoirs and oral histories from the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
In addition to sharing a little known history of rescue, Linda says the play is also relevant to the plight of refugees today. “The only time there were as many or more refugees was during the second world war,” says Linda, noting there are other parallels beyond sheer numbers. “People would not take Jews in when they needed to get out of Europe. So many doors were closed, similar to today.”
Linda plans to finish writing this year, and Artists Rep plans to develop and workshop the play during its 2016/17 season.
As an actress, Linda has played leading roles at Portland Center Stage, Portland Shakespeare project, Off Broadway, Mark Taper Forum, The Intiman, Seattle Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse and Baltimore Center Stage. She spent 23 seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where she acted in more than 50 productions. She has co-written adaptations and translations produced by numerous theaters and festivals including the Stamford Shakespeare Company in the United Kingdom.
“An important part of my writing is that I’ve had relationships with the actors I’m writing for,” says Linda. “That influences the writing.”