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Many optometry students major in biology, chemistry or other science-related degrees during undergraduate school. Jason Harper, ’14, majored in musical theatre at Missouri State University. He had a passion for performing from his appearances in high school, community and college theatre.
In 2003, his dreams paid off when he was cast in the national touring company of Grease. He played Roger, one of the “T-Birds” who sings a song about, well, “Mooning.” By his account, Jason “mooned” around 1,000,000 million people during his three years in the show.
Ironically, Memphis was one of the stops during his first year in Grease back in 2003. “The Orpheum is one of the better theatres where we played,” Jason remembers. “Folks on the tour had talked about how great the Orpheum is for performers. Everyone was really excited about it.”
One of his cast members in the show was actor and singer Frankie Avalon, who also starred in the 1978 movie version with John Travolta. Grease took Jason to all 50 states and Canada for 651 performances over three years.
“I loved it,” he recalled. “I had a blast. I loved traveling, and I loved the fact that my job was from 6-9 pm each night. The rest of the time was spent on the road, to Memphis, San Francisco, Boston, to big venues once a week.”
Jason loved arriving in a big city, doing a sound check, and spending the rest of his time sightseeing in places like Memphis. By his third year in the show, he even got to play boyfriend opposite his real life girlfriend, Cortney, who had a role in the show (pictured above with Jason and Frankie Avalon). Right after they married, they spent a year-long honeymoon appearing together in Grease. They especially enjoyed themselves when the show went to Hawaii.
After Grease ended its run, Jason and Cortney moved to New York City. They auditioned for shows there as well as using New York as a base while they traveled to appear in regional theatre productions.
A tenor, Jason won another national touring role in the production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He played Reuben, the oldest of the children of Israel, who sings a song, “One More Angel in Heaven.” He toured in nearly 200 productions of Joseph, including another stop in Memphis.
Although he loved performing, he missed being away from his wife for long periods of time for Joseph. During his show’s stop in Memphis, his wife visited family in Jonesboro, Arkansas. His wife’s nephew had been born with a visual condition that started Jason thinking more about the difference healthcare providers can make in the lives of their patients.
“I wanted to stop being selfish and pursue a life of helping others,” he said. “I had thought briefly about optometry before focusing on theatre, so I knew in the back of my mind it was something that I might want to go into.”
The son of a geologist and the brother of a pharmacist, Jason had been good at science in high school but decided instead for show business. After proving his success in two national high profile shows, it was time to pursue optometry school.
“Optometry was what I wanted to do. There are people who want to do theatre the rest of their lives, but I knew I didn’t. My wife and I just wanted to pursue to acting professionally to say we did it. We were successful, but we wanted something more permanent than life on the road so we could settle down in a stable career to support a family.”
He put in his notice while he was in Memphis for Joseph. He left New York City in January 2008 to take a few undergraduate semesters to prepare for the pre-requisites required by optometry school. When he began searching schools, he liked how SCO was located near his wife’s family.
“When I started researching it more,” he said, “I learned that SCO was my best option even if it wasn’t near family.”
Because most optometry students earn science-related majors in undergraduate school, Jason’s musical theatre degree was noticed when he interviewed at SCO and other optometry schools. He had to demonstrate that he was serious about a life as an optometrist.
His career switch worked. He’s now enjoying life as a first-year student. His wife has put her show business career on hold to work in the office of SCO alumnus David Parker, OD ’95. Jason says she’s still artistic and thinking of teaching theatre after he graduates.
The Harpers have an eight-month-old son, Keeton Levi, and their second child is due next March. Just a few years ago, Jason was singing on stage to audiences who had paid top dollar to see his shows. Now he sings to his son in the car for free.
“I definitely want to stay supportive of the arts, so I wouldn’t say I was retired,” Jason said. “I still have the bug, and I love to perform. Right now, it’s just something I don’t have time for.”
Jason appreciates the irony of attending optometry school just a few miles from the stage where he appeared in two national shows at the Orpheum. Posters from touring shows are usually posted on the walls backstage for performers to sign. Jason signed two posters with his fellow actors when he played the Orpheum. During his time in Memphis, he hopes to go backstage to see if those posters are still there with his autograph.
“I’d like to go back and see if they’re still there,” he said. “I’ll be glad to look at them with my retinoscope.”