Audiences in Berkeley discovered that in 2005, when Cooper starred as the militaristic Moor in Impact Theatre's production of Othello in Berkeley, Calif. The production was initially staged in the basement of a pizza joint a few blocks away from the U.C. Berkeley campus, and its run was extended several times. It then made a move across the bay to San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros.
"Who tours Shakespeare?" Cooper asked in wonder. "Who tours Othello? I'd never been in a show that was extended so many times and then traveled. And it was Shakespeare!"
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of Cooper's performance: "Tall, intense, muscular Skyler Cooper assumes the role with such natural command that gender seems irrelevant â€¦ Cooper's descent into homicidal jealousy is painfully vivid. She and Marissa Keltie's Desdemona create a sweet, shared passion."
The production â€” which I saw during its run in the basement of La Val's Pizza â€” was wonderful, and showed that Othello was a role Cooper was born to play. Director Melissa Hillman did not change the text to indicate that Shakespeare's Moor was a woman, except for pronouns. The result was powerful, making the relationship between Othello and Desdemona matter-of-factly lesbian.
Cooper loved the production, loves the role, and wants to play it again. "I want to be the first woman to perform Othello on a major stage," she said.
She came to her love of Shakespeare via her mentor, acting coach Phil Bennett, with whom Cooper studied for three years. Initially she went to his Theatre Labs to learn contemporary theater. When Bennett offered a course in the Classics, she resisted at first ("Do I have to?"), thinking she would not enjoy it, but instead found that she loved it and that the language came easily to her. And then Bennett paired Cooper with another woman in the class and had them do a scene from Othello.
Cooper recalled: "After the scene, [Bennett] said, 'You have to start studying Othello's speeches now â€” all his monologues. You are meant to do Othello. You have that presence.' He said it in front of the class, and the class was nodding with approval, which touched me. And so I did what he suggested, and a year after I left the school, I landed the part as Othello."
In addition to revisiting Othello, Cooper would like to play Aaron in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. "He's not such a good guy," she said. "I'd like to play someone sinister." In the meantime she awaits the reception to Don't Go and First Take, auditions for other roles, and keeps her day job as a personal trainer.
"I've been working out for 17 years, have a bodybuilding background, and was a fitness coordinator in the military," Cooper said. "I've been training people for two years now." The job provides her the flexibility she needs to attend auditions and callbacks on short notice, but she also has a passion for the work.
"I've never been able to say I love my work before now," she admitted. "I'm meant to train people, to motivate them to realize their dreams. I doubt I'll do it forever, but for now, it's great."
And yes, she's seen Work Out. She even scored a new client after the woman had seen Jackie Warner in Work Out. "I owe her thanks for that," Cooper said. "I haven't seen the show a lot, but what [Warner's] doing by showing what a personal trainer does is good."
Though Warner might also qualify as a butch lesbian, her Los Angeles-style butch persona differs from Cooper's. "We're different in terms of our styles as butch women, but I don't think we're different in terms of our training intensity â€” we're both motivators," Cooper said.
"Luckily I haven't had to choose between personal training and acting â€” at some point I will have to choose one or the other. I can't be running off to do movies and plays and expect my clients to be without me for months at a time." So like Warner, Cooper hopes to open a gym someday so her clients will have a set place to work out with her philosophy. "I came out with the name 'Sky Body' before she did," she said with a laugh, "since it's from my name, Skyler."
She takes her responsibility to her clients seriously â€” and she also takes her responsibility as an out actor of color equally seriously.
"It's important for me to be out," she said. "It's liberating because I can enjoy both my work and my personal life." Only a small number of lesbians of color are professional actors, but Cooper believes the tide is shifting: "It's changing, slowly. I don't see a need to bury our existence. If I'm doing good work as an African-American butch woman, my peer group is going to see that, and it will bring credibility to a group of people who are often invisible."