Tamarie's Time

Whole Foods, hard wit, the legacy of Lucy and offspring of hippies have helped the woman of Tamalalia take Houston by storm. But where's she really headed?

By the end of the night, of course, he was in full Brando mode. "I still have people coming up to me all the time saying that they were On the Bus," Cooper says.

Ensuing Tamalalia productions were less mobile and began to develop themes, one year a cocktail party, another a campout. All dealt with Cooper's life and had the kind of campy risqué humor (and frequent use of drag) that has left her, as she puts it, with being "this kind of gay icon" in Houston. Straights flocked to the shows, though, too, for the inventive choreography and clever writing.

Cooper has had various collaborators on the shows; Barilla now writes the music, and Nelson helps with lyrics and dialogue.

This year Cooper's Tamalalia spoofed the '30s movies she loves.
This year Cooper's Tamalalia spoofed the '30s movies she loves.
This year Cooper's Tamalalia spoofed the '30s movies she loves.
This year Cooper's Tamalalia spoofed the '30s movies she loves.

"She really knows what she wants when she goes into a new Tamalalia," Barilla says. The trio began meeting a couple of times a week six months before the premiere of this year's edition, a '30s gangster fable.

"She choreographed my writing of the show as much as she did the music and the dance," Nelson says.

Cooper throws out her ideas, Barilla starts plunking out chords, and Nelson begins developing lyrics and transitions.

Eventually a script comes out, followed by six weeks of six-nights-a-week rehearsal.

"She reminds everyone all the time while we're doing this that some shows spotlight the human condition, some shows make you think, others deal with the delicacies of certain people getting along with certain people, but this show is just meant to be plain and simple monkeys-jumping-around-on-a-hot-plate fun," Nelson says. "It's a luxury for the company to have a show each year that's a big, broad, entertaining, colorful song-and-dance thing, because all the other things the company does are intense, dark and twisted."

With Tamalalia, Cooper has created a local phenomenon that some people look forward to as eagerly as a big rock tour, one that has made a unique mark on the Houston theater scene.

Act II, Scene 3: Finale

Where does she go from here? Although Nodler says other theater companies in town have tried to get her to leave IBP, Cooper says she can't imagine being anywhere else.

"It really is a family," she says. The IBP members have big plans, to become a Houston version of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. But they also seem to have a genuine affection for one another.

"The company aspect of it is a heavy thing. It's the whole point," Nodler says. "At least half the people who are members of the company don't have any die-hard interest in acting. It's the working together that they like."

Nodler often says his goal for the group is to be on the cover of People magazine. "We're going to be bigger than them all, but we're going to do it on the right schedule," he says.

"Tamarie does have very grand ambitions, it's just that they're all with IBP," he says.

Cooper says she's often asked why she doesn't go to New York or L.A. "I don't have an agent, I don't have head shots, I'm not peddling commercials," she says. "Making Doritos commercials is not something that's artistic. I'm part of a company here, and we can stand behind all the work we do. All the great play movements have come from companies, not individual persons. We want to take it as far as we can go -- national recognition, a tour -- and I think it's best if we do it here. Houston has been very good to us."

(There are limits, of course: "I'm not saying if someone came up and said they wanted to screen-test me, I would say, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no.' Of course I would do it.")

Leaving Houston would mean leaving behind a family that has grown extraordinarily close. IBP members make a point of celebrating Thanksgiving together each year.

"She loves her life and her friends," Cooper's mother says. "In some ways it's a dream existence, doing exactly what she wants with a company that's becoming more and more established each year, with friends who've been friends for a long time. It's kind of like a garage band that makes it big."

"I just have a sense of contentment right now," Cooper says. "I feel enriched and happy to do what I'm doing."

That contentment includes re-establishing connections with her father. He called her one day during her sporadic and ultimately unsuccessful college career at the University of Houston. He was in Magnolia, where the Renaissance Faire was set up for its Houston stop, and wanted to come to town to see her. "I screamed and cried at him for two hours on the phone in this kind of mad rant," she says. "Then I called my mom, and she said I should see him, so I did. Within an hour of hanging out, we were singing songs from West Side Story. He says what he did was the greatest mistake he ever made, and that getting together again was the greatest second chance he ever had. I love him; my humor and my mania are definitely from him."

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