This story is part of Notre Dame International's series titled "Women Who Empower."
It is hard to imagine that the now-protean Clare Cooney (‘12)—an award-winning actor, writer, director, and filmmaker, representing film, television, and theatre scenes in Chicago and Los Angeles—was, as she describes, “never the leading lady” in her early years on stage.
Cooney, like many of the high performing students the University of Notre Dame attracts, was involved in a number of extracurriculars in high school, including theatre, where she mostly played in the ensemble.
Cooney entered Notre Dame in the fall of 2008, appreciative of the warm, welcoming campus environment and the University’s emphasis on a broad, liberal arts education that became a space for her to explore a variety of career options and majors, from English to psychology to mathematics.
“I came to realize that just because I might have been good at a subject in high school did not mean I had to pursue it in college or as a career,” Cooney recalls, as she would eventually drop English and math to take that first leap of faith into theatre. The diverse curriculum offered in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre (FTT), coupled with psychology as a second major, would allow her to potentially pursue a career in the arts without having to commit to a rigid program, like a conservatory style acting school.
Cooney remembers forcing herself to audition for the first FTT play of the year, an English translation of Pierre de Marivaux’s comedy, La Dispute.
“Like I said, I had never been the leading lady. I really did not think I would be cast. I was mostly trying to be brave,” she says.
Cooney was one of only two first-years to be cast in the production.
“I finally felt like I was someone to pay attention to,” she says. “The Notre Dame faculty saw potential in me in a way that I do not think anyone saw while I was in high school. Their confidence in me was really empowering.”
After that first FTT play, she started landing lead roles in more plays, was cast in the ensemble for a Pasquerilla East Musical Company (PEMCo) production, and would eventually direct her own PEMCo musicals. Directing came to mean much more than production control for Cooney; it was an opportunity to be a leader, to discover her own voice, and to express herself creatively in ways she had previously been unable.
“If I had gone to a larger school, I might not have had the chance to get to know myself and see that there is a leader in there,” Cooney says as she reflects on the small but empowering community she found within the arts at Notre Dame.
Despite this newfound empowerment she embraced on campus, Cooney remembers how sincerely afraid she was as she prepared to embark on the next bold adventure of her undergraduate career: study abroad.
Cooney was one of three students to be accepted to study at Trinity College Dublin for the 2010 -2011 academic year. The fear of being away from a tight-knit campus community—and almost 3,500 miles from home—grew as those summer days dwindled. With fall on the horizon, Cooney knew she had to come to terms with her impending reality: her junior year spent in another country, her junior year spent away from Notre Dame.
“I’m from Detroit. My parents were only three and a half hours away,” she says. “At Notre Dame, I always knew I could drive home for the weekend if I needed to. I never did, but it was comforting knowing I could.”
On arrival to the Dublin Airport in the fall of 2010, jetlagged and sleep deprived, Cooney was immediately put at ease. The first few days were a whirlwind of orientations and introductions as she became acquainted with the city, her peers, the program, and the home of it all: Notre Dame’s O’Connell House on Merrion Square. Like the warm and welcoming campus she had come to love, the Dublin Global Gateway became a home away from home—close enough for comfort while still giving her the space to stretch and grow and continue to come into her own as an artist and a leader.
“My time in Dublin was not just a cultural awakening but a theatrical awakening,” she remembers. “Even though Dublin is a small city in some ways, it was my first big city experience, and professional productions were so accessible in ways they weren’t in my hometown or even at Notre Dame.”
The Gate, the Abbey, Smock Alley, the Gaiety, the Grand Canal (now Bord Gáis Energy), the Olympia and many, many more theatres and venues were all within a twenty minute walk from Cooney’s new city centre accommodation on Trinity College Dublin’s iconic front square.
Cooney remembers seeing four or five professional stage productions during her year at Trinity—not including the student-produced plays and almost weekly concerts at various venues, big and small, she and her classmates would hunt down when they were not spending weekends traversing the island.
She was shocked when she sat down at the Abbey Theatre for a program-sponsored outing, a part of the Gateway’s “Introduction to Ireland” course, and saw Alan Rickman starring in Frank McGuinness’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman.
“I spent the entire year in awe of all of this talent and all of this culture, both ancient and contemporary, that was but a few minutes from my doorstep,” Cooney reminisces.
She remembers writing a review of another particularly impactful Abbey production, Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, for the student-run “Dublin Domers Blog.” Cooney shares an entry from the private journal she kept at the time: “I saw a play the other night at the Abbey Theatre. It was wonderful. I've never seen such fantastic acting in my life. One of the lead females, Nora, was especially impressive. I didn't know a person could completely transform on stage like that. In the first act, she was a beautiful perfectionist. I've never seen someone play such a range of emotions, and so brilliantly. It makes me want to take acting classes at Trinity."
And so she did.
In addition to her classes in psychology and Irish writing, drama and history, Cooney enrolled in a physical acting class and a directing class at Trinity. She joined the Trinity Players and landed a small role in their student production. She even took on a short directing scene and struck out on her own to take a three-week intensive course at a local acting school.
“I was majorly intimidated. It felt like such an ‘adult’ thing to do. Sometimes I think if I could go back I would have done it in a bigger way, auditioned for bigger roles, maybe have even looked for an agent. But I guess that’s easier to say in hindsight,” Cooney muses.
In Dublin, artistic spaces were always open and accessible for Cooney. She expresses her immense gratitude to the Dublin Global Gateway staff for supporting artistic expression within the entire program.
“Kevin, the director of the Dublin Global Gateway, was always encouraging us to sing, dance, and create,” she says. “I remember playing music and singing a song with some of my classmates—my friend Stevie Biddle in particular, who unfortunately passed away a few years ago. O'Connell House inspired a lot of joy and confidence in us as artists.”
For Cooney, empowerment is a subtle, surprising, and life-long journey. To be truly empowered, one must be fully and authentically themselves, confident, and understand their self-worth.
“You can’t operate out of a place of insecurity or lack of self-worth. People who are empowered are comfortable with themselves, or at least on the way there,” she asserts.
Cooney’s personal journey to empowerment has not come without its obstacles.
“The business I am pursuing is a very competitive one,” she says. “You can’t help but think, ‘If I help you in this way, could that somehow affect my career?’ But what is truly empowering to me is to reject those insecurities and reject those jaded thoughts and realize that when we help each other, we help ourselves.”
Cooney came to this realization early in her career as she found her start in the Chicago theatre scene.
“It was when I stopped focusing on the petty competitive stuff, and started to focus on my community, that my career started to expand, because I had that community I could rely on,” she says.
Cooney’s first experience of the Chicago acting community was during the summer after graduation when she interned with Shakespeare at Notre Dame, a program that “fuses the University’s pursuit of compassionate social justice with the study of the world’s greatest works of literature.” The program encompasses a number of initiatives including the annual Shakespeare Festival, the Shakespeare in Prisons Network, Actors from the London Stage, and many more impactful projects that connect the wider Michiana community.
The Chicago-based actors at the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival mentored Cooney and encouraged her to make the move to the Windy City to pursue acting and directing. Before her break, Cooney took an internship with a casting company that propelled her career in the industry, eventually leading to the Casting Director role with the Theater Wit, a position that she believes put her in tune with “a business sensibility” she felt she had been lacking. Not long after, she found herself casting those very same actors who had mentored her only years before.
This spirit of mentorship, fostered during her undergraduate experience at Notre Dame and abroad, is something Cooney has carried with her throughout her career. She tells a story about a young actor she met on set while directing an independent pilot in Chicago about two years ago. There were a lot of women characters in the pilot, including the role of a young girl around 9 years old. “We had a ball together on set,” she remembers. “With such a young actor, I wanted to make sure I took time to communicate with her, to make her comfortable, and to ultimately have fun.”
At the end of the first day, the girl’s mother told Cooney that her daughter was invigorated by the experience. The young actor, who had been cast in enough roles to know the difference, had never been directed by a woman before. “She’s so cool,” she told her mom who relayed her daughter’s praise to Cooney.
“I didn’t realize that it was such a big deal to this young girl, but her comments made me aware of the fact that just my presence as a woman in a leadership role was empowering for this young actor,” she says. “On top of that, I hopefully did a good job.”
In making the conscious decision to shed her insecurities in a business rife with them, and to operate in joy instead of fear, Cooney continues on the path of empowerment. She encourages herself and others to keep an open heart: respond to those emails asking for advice, offer your time, take the coffee meeting or the phone call. “To be kind and authentic in an industry that often encourages the opposite is radical,” she says. “I would rather use my platform to inspire and empower the younger generation.”
Though Cooney has recently made the move to Los Angeles, she is very grateful to continue to call Chicago home and the acting community there a family of sorts. Her artistic impact in Chicago has certainly been felt there, too. In 2020 and 2019, she made Newcity magazine's Film 50 list for being “one of 50 individuals who shape Chicago's film scene.”
Most recently, she wrote, directed, edited, and stars in Runner, a short film that has played at fifteen film festivals, winning six awards and garnering Cooney a “Filmmaker to Watch” nomination from the Academy-Qualifying Atlanta Film Festival.
In addition to Runner, Cooney directed Dad Man Walking, a pilot that won Best Short Drama at Catalyst Content Festival 2019, and Go Ahead, Grab Time By The Throat, a hybrid short currently on the festival circuit. Her film and television acting credits include the feature film Widows, NBC's Chicago PD, Pop TV's Hot Date, NBC's Shrink, and the independent feature films Rendezvous in Chicago and Soul Sessions.
“I don’t think I would have been able to pursue all of these opportunities had I not been given the chance to direct that first scene in Dublin. It might have been a short scene, but I returned to campus my senior year with the confidence to start directing full-scale productions,” she states. “My artistic goals were most certainly woven into my time in Dublin.”