BWW Interviews: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow: Cooper Prepares for Next Phase of Theater Career
Kentucky Shakespeare's summer season closes on August 17 with Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company's critically acclaimed "King Lear," starring J. Barrett Cooper, the company's founder, as the titular king.
It will be a swan song of sorts, for it will be Cooper's final performance with the company, and in Louisville - at least for the time being. But where Lear succumbed to betrayal, madness and despair, Cooper will move on to the next phase of his artistic and educational career. In August, he will head to California and his new role as Chair of Theatre/Director at Idyllwild Arts Academy.
It is the next phase of a career that has traveled many roads to and from his hometown and seen him play many roles both onstage and off with enough companies to make his resumé read like a history of local theatre.
Savage Rose will appear as one of Kentucky Shakespeare's Community Partners, a new initiative put in place this summer by the organization's producing artistic director, Matt Wallace.
"It's kind of synchronicity that it's kind of the swan song and we just happen to be doing ('Lear'), especially because I wanted so badly to work with KSF for years, "Cooper said. "And I have a lot of times as their fight director, but never onstage in the park. I've never had that opportunity. So now the opportunity has arisen through Savage Rose, of all things. Thanks to Matt Wallace for doing what he's doing."
Cooper's love for theater goes back to childhood. His older sister would take him to the movies, and he would enjoy watching his brother in plays at the University of Louisville.
But it was appearing in another classic that caused the drama bug to bite. Cooper played Ebenezer Scrooge in a sixth grade production of "A Christmas Carol" and was hooked.
Cooper found an outlet in eighth grade at Walden Theatre under the direction of founder Nancy Sexton. He was cast in his first production as a guard in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," when another actor's removal got him promoted to flute player. However, a skateboarding injury forced him to miss the show.
"I gave up basketball, gave up soccer and started studying in earnest my sophomore year," he said. "We did Shakespeare all the time. Nancy Sexton is really responsible for me getting into Shakespeare."
Cooper graduated to Southern Methodist University in Dallas for his professional training. He ventured to New York, then the Alabama Shakespeare Festival at the University of Alabama, which he described as "some of the best years of my life." He returned to New York, doing off-off-Broadway and regional theater work. However, the life of a traveling performer soon lost its luster, and he returned to Louisville in 1993.
Back home, Cooper bounced around, working on a horse farm. Theater's appeal had slackened, but the reality of needing a job was unavoidable. That need led him back to where his interest blossomed: Walden Theatre. He quickly discovered new interests: teaching, and directing students in shows.
"I called up Nancy and said "I'm looking for a job.' She hired me," he said. "I needed a job, then realized I kind of liked it. I wasn't really interested in acting. I had kind of given that up. I was much more into directing. And I loved the teaching aspect of it. I think if you talk to anybody in Savage Rose, that's what happens in a lot of our rehearsals, because I don't feel an actor should go through a rehearsal process without learning - learning about themselves, the play they're doing and other people."
While teaching during the day, Cooper put other skills he had acquired to work at night as fight choreographer for such companies as Kentucky Opera, Kentucky Shakespeare and the historic interpretation program at the Frazier History Museum.
Yet with the diversity of companies in town, there was no one on the community or semi-professional level doing what he wanted to do: the classics, in a straightforward manner, showing their relevance to modern audiences. From that, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company was born in 2009.
At the time, the only groups in Louisville consistently producing Shakespeare's canon were Kentucky Shakespeare, casting heavily with actors from outside the area, and the Walden youth conservatory program for which Cooper taught. Local community and semi-professional groups would occasionally produce an individual work, but with a period change, non-traditional casting or other gimmick approach layered onto the text. This approach did not suit Cooper.
"It's not old English. It's early modern English," Cooper said. "To be able to do that in a way to where the plays are accessible and are relevant to today is kind of a big thing, and you don't need to update, which is my big thing."
Savage Rose also sought to reach beyond The Bard to the broadest examples of what classical theater is, done by a repertory company who could make the different authors, periods and styles crystal clear in the 21st century.
"There's so much more to classical theater than just Shakespeare," Cooper said. "And that's what I wanted to do because that's what I love. I love not only Shakespeare, but the rest of the writers of his time because it was such an amazing period. You're talking about a company that, in 30 days, would produce 22 plays. You're talking two performances on a play in a month, or maybe do one performance of it in October and another in February. So what is it for these actors? And my idea was to eventually have a rep company, a lot like what Matt (Wallace) is trying to do down there this year, which I totally applaud him for."
Savage Rose has mounted a select few productions in repertory, pairing Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's "The Changeling" with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 2011 and "The Taming of the Shrew" with We've tried a couple of reps, and I think to varying degrees,they were Aphra Behn's "The Rover" in 2014. successful. The former used a rep company for both productions; the latter used separate casts.
"It's strenuous with a 9-to-5 job, busting your butt during the day," Cooper said. "But in the old days, the 1970s and '80s, that's how you learned. You were doing five shows at a time. I did it in grad school and it was the best experience of my life. That's what I wanted to build - but not just Shakespeare. I wanted to do the Greeks, Moliere, modern classics."
And that's what Savage Rose has done, mining theatre history for the likes of "Lysistrata," a double-billing of "Krapp's Last Tape" and "Happy Days" and Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano." It was playing the role of Beckett's birthday celebrant that led to Cooper's first time on the biggest stage in town: Actors Theatre of Louisville. Though the role Cooper landed wasn't exactly the one he'd set out for.
"I took a selfie in full makeup for 'Krapp.' I posted it to Facebook and a friend asked if I was doing Scrooge. Another friend asked. My daughter saw the final run, and at 10 years old, she said, 'Well, he's kind of like Scrooge, but he doesn't get happy at the end.'"
A nugget of an idea planted, Cooper sent an email, selfie attached, to Actors Theatre associate director Zan Sawyer-Dailey, wishing her well, inviting her to see him in "Krapp," asking to be considered for the lead role in Actors' long-running seasonal production when Ebenezer Scrooge veteran William McNulty retires.
"It's like my Hamlet, I want to do that role," Cooper said.
A stroke of luck - of sorts - quickly followed. Three hours after sending his email, in the midst of choreographing combat for the Kentucky Opera, Cooper received a reply from Sawyer-Dailey. It was an offer to understudy McNulty, but for a different seasonal mainstay: the part of Van Helsing in ATL's Halloween scare-fest, "Dracula."
"I went down and talked to Bill (McNulty, also adapter and director of the production). They said 'You want to start tomorrow?' I literally said 'You don't want me to read?' What an idiot!" Cooper recalled. "They said, 'No no no, we know you can do it.' That was pretty quick, because that was tech week. I had about three weeks to prepare."
Cooper was a quick study. He performed in two school matinees in 2011, was for did nine matinees and an evening performance in 2012 and did 10 matinees and two evenings in 2013. Adding to sweetness of his premiere on the Actors Theatre stage was the chance to work with and a former student from Walden, Gisella Chipe, in the role of Lucy.
"It was great to be onstage with her, even for just a little bit," he said.
Cooper also lists Savage Rose's "Macbeth" and reading series of rarely staged plays as highlights of his time in Louisville - though he said he is proud of every show of which he has been a part. Savage Rose will continue forward with its 2014-2015 season, featuring a revival of "The Bald Soprano," Jean Genet's "The Maids" at the Slant Culture Theatre Festival and George Chapman's "The Blind Beggar of Alexandria" in December. The company is currently in discussions about its future once Cooper departs.
Cooper is looking forward to new opportunities, though he will miss the Savage Rose company members with whom he has built many personal and professional relationships over the company's six years - and many of them longer than that, as students at Walden.
Most of all, he would like to thank his family - especially his wife, Kaylyn Taylor, with whom he started Savage Rose using $2,000 of home equity to produce the company's first show.
"I would not have been able to do any of this had it not been for my wife and kids," Cooper said. "There have been a lot of ballgames and functions that I've missed over the years. They've been very supportive throughout the whole thing."