Season 4 - Episode 426
Jessica Cope co-founded The Hopeful Theatre Project in Dallas/Fort Worth, a nonprofit theatre group that donates 100 percent of ticket proceeds to charity. A 2015 Baylor graduate, Cope was named the University’s 2021 Young Alumna of the Year. In this Baylor Connections, Cope shares the story behind The Hopeful Theatre Project and the calling to use her passion for the stage to support other organizations that make the community and world a better place.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. Today we're talking theater and giving back to the community with Baylor's young alumna of the year. Our guest today is Jessica Cope, an accomplished stage actress and director and the co-founder and president of The Hopeful Theatre Project in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. For her work, she was named the 2021 Baylor young alumna of the year. The Hopeful Theatre Project is a nonprofit theater group that provides actors a stage to give back to the community as they perform and hone their craft. The Hopeful Theatre Project donates 100% of ticket proceeds to charity, focusing their efforts in the last year on the American Red Cross throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with proceeds this year going to Ronald McDonald house charities, The Actors Fund, Wildlife Conservation Network and Fortress Youth Development Center. A 2015 Baylor graduate, Cope was a member of the Baylor theater student society with credits in numerous stage productions and served as the sing chair for her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi. Got a great Baylor background of doing a lot of great work in the DFW area, and she's with us today on the program. Jessica Cope, great to have you on the program. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Jessica Cope:Hi. Yeah, thank you for having me.
Derek Smith:Well, obviously a lot went into you being named Baylor's young alumna of the year, but I'm just curious, what was your first thought when you found out that out of all the young alums throughout the Baylor family that you'd been named the 2021 young alumna of the year?
Jessica Cope:Well, I was completely shocked, as anyone would be, I think. I was actually told to hop on a Zoom call. I had five minutes to hop on and look presentable, and I had no idea what it was for. When I logged on, I saw Baylor representatives and my entire family on the Zoom call and they told me that I had been awarded this award and I was completely in shock. I think my first thought was, "Me? Little me?" But I was completely overcome with emotion and just to be recognized by a place that I love so much meant so much. It still does. I am still in shock every day, but I don't take it for granted and I'm very, very thankful.
Derek Smith:Well, I was going to ask you who the first person you called or texted when you found out, but if your family was on the call, I'm guessing a lot of people were already there.
Jessica Cope:Yep. My family was there. They all were in on it. I had no idea, but they all knew. But the first person I called and texted, I called my entire Hopeful Theatre team and I let them know because they're also my best friends and we've created this together and I couldn't do it without them. So I had to let them in on the celebration and they started crying and I was crying and it was this great celebration. We've had a great time.
Derek Smith:Yeah. That teamwork certainly fed into big part of the award that you were able to receive. Well, let's really dive into The Hopeful Theatre project because you all have done great work up there and particularly amidst the challenges of the last year. I just gave the short version in the intro to the show of what The Hopeful Theatre project is. Can you take us more inside that a bit and help us see what it is that you love most about it?
Jessica Cope:That's a really tough question. I love so many things about it, but I think I would say watching our actors that come and audition for our projects and our performances. They are not there for themselves. I think sometimes actors get a really bad rep for being selfish, and this is a place where they can come where it's not about them and it truly changes the entire atmosphere and the performance itself when they're up there performing for something bigger than them, and they're all there for the same goal. It's quite beautiful to watch. It's life-changing for all of them and for us too, and even our beneficiaries that come out and see the show. They're just blown away that people have given their time and their talent and their heart just to raise money for them and our patrons, I think, they feel that too, and we all become a really big family. You can definitely see that in our shows. I think that's my favorite thing about it.
Derek Smith:If you met, let's just say in line somewhere where you had to wait a little bit, you discover that the person in line behind you was a young actor or actress, and you wanted to tell them about The Hopeful Theatre project to get them involved, what would you tell them?
Jessica Cope:Well, I do do that. It's like a short elevator pitch of just if you love theater and you have been given these talents and you want to change the lives of others, this is a place where you can come and you will be loved for who you are and you will be welcomed into a family and put on these wonderful productions and it's full of light and hope and love, and you make an impact being a part of it. So come and join us, come and sing and dance and have fun because that's what it's all about.
Derek Smith:Yeah, visiting with Jessica Cope on Baylor Connections and Jessica, so you put productions on all over the DFW area and all the proceeds go to charity. I know I mentioned that at the beginning, but just to highlight that again, that's how it works?
Jessica Cope:Yes, yes, it does. 100% of our ticket proceeds go to charity.
Derek Smith:That' great. Well, I want to ask you about how you came up with that, how you and others that work together on this, but let's go back just a little bit first to your Baylor store. We'll hopscotch a bit because it sounds like you have a long family history at Baylor. What does that look like?
Jessica Cope:I do. My grandfather and my grandmother both attended Baylor and then my mother also attended Baylor. So I shortly followed after that and my sister just went through Baylor and my brother's graduating in the fall, so long line there.
Derek Smith:So a third generation yourself, you and your siblings are the third generation Baylor Bears. Do you have any early memories as a child of visiting Baylor or hearing your mom or grandma talk about it?
Jessica Cope:I do. I actually remember going and seeing the bear pit when it was actually a pit. I remember that. We have adorable pictures of me in Baylor cheerleading uniforms as a little tiny girl standing in front of the bear pit with my sister. I actually remember sing performances. That was always a really big tradition in our family when we got to go. My mom would point out her sorority, which was Alpha Delta PI, the same sorority I ended up joining as well. But just coming to sing and thinking about this is something that I could be a part of one day was really exciting. Growing up through that and learning to love theater, it was just a great memory to have.
Derek Smith:Was it obvious to you that Baylor was where you were going to go or did you do like some students do? You have to look around a little bit before making that decision?
Jessica Cope:Baylor always had a soft spot on my heart and to become a theater performance major, you have to go through two steps. You have to get into the school and then you have to audition for the program and get into the program. So I auditioned for Baylor and applied to Baylor and also auditioned for about seven other schools. I got into a few, but I just knew that Baylor was different. Baylor called me by name in my audition. They didn't give me a number and that was really impactful to me. I just knew I would have a well-rounded education at Baylor. So it was, it was an easy choice at the end of the day.
Derek Smith:So Jessica, was the stage something that you knew you wanted to do from a young age or at least somewhere younger before you got here then, it sounds like?
Jessica Cope:Yes. When I was 12 years old, I fell in love with theater and the stage and singing and performing and I've just done it ever since.
Derek Smith:You mentioned that it really captured your heart at the age of 12. What were some of the moments along the way? Are there any memories that particularly stand out when you really grasp not just maybe even the fun of it, but even the power of the stage and bringing people together and it's more than just being up on stage, but actually making a connection?
Jessica Cope:Yeah, that's a great question. I think my first impactful theater moment would have been when I went to Broadway for the first time and I saw Wicked, was my first Broadway show as many people's first Broadway show is, and just sitting there in that theater and that story is so moving. I think that was the moment that I realized this is incredibly powerful and just seeing all kinds of people at the theater from people who go all the time to people who maybe this is their only opportunity to see theater. Just seeing everybody fall in love with the story and get captured in these moments. I knew that this could be a tool to impact others and to tell stories and to really bring people together as a community.
Derek Smith:What are some things that stand out about your theater experience here at Baylor?
Jessica Cope:I think what I loved about my Baylor theater experience was that I wasn't only just focused on performing and honing my craft as an actor, but I was also introduced to the design elements that are so important to theater. Costuming, lights, set, et cetera. I got to learn about all of those. I took classes for all of them, and it really made me a more well-rounded actor. So when the phone is not ringing for a performance opportunity, I can offer direction. I can offer a design. I can offer just even going to paint the stage, things like that. I didn't even have those things in my back pocket until I came to Baylor theater, so I'm glad I do know.
Derek Smith:Well, I would imagine as president of a theater project and group, a lot of those things that are ancillary to performance itself are probably pretty helpful.
Jessica Cope:Oh, yeah. I wear a lot of hats as president.
Derek Smith:What are some of the performances that you were in here at Baylor? Did you have a favorite or two?
Jessica Cope:Yeah, I was in Legally Blonde, the musical, which was a blast. It sold out within record time, I believe. That was in 2014 and I got to play Elle's mom and a Harvard student and a bunch of different roles. I think that show is just so fun because the students wanted to cheer us on and they wanted to come see the show and they loved the story. I loved every moment of that show. It was a lot of fun.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Jessica Cope, co-founder and president of The Hopeful Theatre project and Baylor's young alumna of the year. So you graduated from Baylor, Jessica, in 2015. Could you tell us a little bit about your path and where it's taken you after graduation?
Jessica Cope:Yeah. After graduation, so I literally an hour after I graduated and walked the stage, I moved to Orlando, Florida, and I started a job at Walt Disney World Resort. I was a fairy godmother in training, so that meant I got to perform as a fairy godmother while performing princess transformations on little girls. It was a blast. Working for Disney was always my dream and I got to learn so much. I took classes on Disney entertainment, Disney leadership, lots of different workshops to build my professional career as well while I was working. After that, I came back, I did a couple internships here in DFW. Did a couple of shows, went back to Disney World for another year and a half, and then I just knew my calling was to come back to DFW. That's around the time where Hopeful began.
Derek Smith:So how did you ... Obviously at Disney, I mean, I've heard some stories about the fact ... You're on stage all the time when you're at Disney, so you never left the stage, but when you think about probably what most people think of when they think of a stage and theater, how did you work to get back in that community when you came back to Dallas, DFW?
Jessica Cope:Yeah. DFW is a great theater community. I tell any actor that there are tons of community theaters, there's tons of professional theaters all over the metroplex. You can find something right for you. I was very fortunate that while I was in my college career at Baylor, during my summers I came back here and did productions. So I was already connected to that environment and to those people. So when I moved back, I had a direct connection and I could find auditions and postings and all that great stuff. So I just dove right back in, hoping someone would take me. I was very fortunate that the week I moved back to Texas the second time, I was cast in a show, Oklahoma the musical, and actually my double, the girl who played the same role as me, she is actually my business partner of Hopeful today. So we met that week. It was definitely God's perfect timing.
Derek Smith:So when you were practicing for Oklahoma performing, is that where the seeds for The Hopeful Theatre project began to sprout?
Jessica Cope:Yeah. When I was driving that 19 hour long drive from Orlando to DFW, God really put it on my heart to give back and I had no idea what that looked like at the time. I was just like, "Okay, God, I hear you. I'm going to listen and I will find out what you mean." That week I moved back, I met all these wonderful people, including my business colleague, like I mentioned before. I just knew that this was something I could do with them. Why not use what you're most passionate about to give back to other people? That is where it took off. I just asked her, I said, "What do you think about this idea? Just putting on a showcase and giving all the money to people in need?" She was like, "I love it." We thought we would just do that one performance, but we got incredible feedback of people wanting to do the next one, wanting to find out when the next one was, how could they get involved? We knew that there was a void for performers to use their talents like this and it took off from there. It's been a crazy, crazy journey ever since.
Derek Smith:Well, so you have the idea, obviously, to perform and put on performances, which you love. You had the idea to help people. How did you all bring those two things together to shape what's become The Hopeful Theatre Project? Did it just come naturally or did it take a lot of work to think what that would look like?
Jessica Cope:A little bit of both? I think it came naturally in the sense of we wanted to give to other people. I think that was natural for everybody on my team and everybody that wanted to join. At first it felt like this is what we're supposed to be doing anyway. God gave us these talents and why not use them to help His people. I think that just clicked. The other side of it was figuring out a business model. "Okay. What is this going to look like if we really do make it a non-profit organization?" I had no experience in that. My business colleague had no experience in that, but we came from very different playing fields where she's working in banking and I'm working in healthcare and childcare and all this stuff. So I have all that experience and she has all that experience. We brought that to the table and we came up with this business model of all of our ticket proceeds will go to charity and that's how we'll run our operation. We'll raise money through donors and concession sales and merchandise and things like that. So we've been very, very fortunate to have donors to get us to where we are now, but it was difficult figuring out how are we going to make this work because theater doesn't make a lot of money as it is. But I think our passion, our heart is what really carries us, what carries us through the rough patches.
Derek Smith:I mentioned at the top of the show you've supported a lot of great organizations. How do you determine how you channel those funds and how do you find areas that really are on all of your hearts?
Jessica Cope:That's an excellent question. One that we get quite often. It goes one of two ways. One is we find a charity that we love so much and we create a show for them, or there is a show or a theme that we want to do and we find a charity that matches that. So we like to pair them and so they go hand in hand. We found great organizations so far that have really, really loved getting to know us and we love getting to know them. So it goes both ways. We search for them or we have a show and it just fits like a puzzle piece.
Derek Smith:How did COVID-19 over the last year impact that?
Jessica Cope:Well, unfortunately COVID-19 really shut down the arts completely and we had a whole season of shows we had to cancel or rethink. We do an annual Valentine's day production for the Ronald McDonald House charities, and so instead of just canceling that one, because we knew they were in desperate need as well, we just did a virtual performance. We did it in masks and we filmed it and we sent it out to our patrons and we also sent it to the Ronald McDonald House so they could play it in the house for those families that were in a situation where they couldn't leave due to their health and everything. So it was great still getting to provide that opportunity. It took a lot of rethinking and a lot of safety measures, but it was worth it. COVID really did impact the arts. We lost a lot of money due to losing our venues, losing shows, things like that. So it's been hard getting back up on our feet. We're still struggling to get there, like every theater, so we're still learning, but we're going to keep going.
Derek Smith:What are you most excited about as you think about the months ahead?
Jessica Cope:Well, we have two great productions coming up. One is called The Most Magical Show On Earth, benefiting Wildlife Conservation Network. It's Disney themed, so that one is going to be a blast just because of my Disney background and that one will be outdoors to celebrate the planet that we call home. Then in the fall, we actually have our very first scripted, full musical, and it is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, which is a wonderful show and it is going to benefit a local charity, the Fortress Youth Development Center in Fort Worth. So we're hoping to have children from that program in our show so that we can teach them a life skill and also get to have them join us and have fun. So we're very, very anxious and excited for both of those.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Jessica Cope on Baylor Connections and Jessica, as we head into the final couple of minutes on the program, I'm curious what stood out to you about the response from the acting and theater community in Dallas, and are there any fun ways that you've seen that community connect even more with a lot of people doing great work in the DFW area?
Jessica Cope:Yeah. The actors have been really excited. I mean, actors jump at any chance to perform, but it's a little bit different because they know that they're going to be welcomed here and they're going to find a family and they're doing something bigger than themselves. I think that we draw on a lot of different people. It's not just the south side of Fort Worth or the north side of Dallas. It's all over the place. These actors will come and dedicate their time and they don't know each other at all when the process begins, but they leave being really great friends and that's something we love to see. So they're always so excited to talk about it. They're always so excited to get together, which I think is fantastic. Other theaters in the metroplex have also supported us. Some of them give us tickets to their shows to raffle off because they love what we're doing or they ask how can they support us or they lend us their props or their costumes. That's been a huge blessing for a theater company that's only two years old. So it's been an overwhelmingly positive response from the community and we've seen more and more things pop up that it's performances giving back. We don't know if that's due to us or just due to the fact that people want to give back, but either way, we're excited to see that other people want to join in on the same mission.
Derek Smith:Well, that's fantastic. Well, Jessica, if people listening would like to learn more or maybe see a performance in the months ahead, where can they learn more about The Hopeful Theatre Project?
Jessica Cope:They can find us on social media. We have a website www.thehopefultheatreproject.com. Theatre is spelled T-H-E-A-T-R-E, the fancy way. We also have social media. We have Facebook, we have Instagram and we have Twitter as well. So you can follow us on those to keep up with all the latest updates.
Derek Smith:Really appreciate you taking the time to share about The Hopeful Theatre project, and congratulations on your honor as Baylor's 2021 Baylor young alumna of the year.
Jessica Cope:Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Derek Smith:Thank you very much. Jessica Cope, co-founder in Princeton at The Hopeful Theatre project in the Dallas-Fort worth area and again, Baylor's 2021 young alumna of the year, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.