When he was 13 years old, Clayton Cooper auditioned for a community theater production of Alice in Wonderland. He played a doorknob. Since his debut, he said, he has had a love affair with the stage.
Cooper said his passion drove him to pursue a theater arts degree at California Lutheran University. As a freshman he played roles in the productions “Sir Patient Fancy,” “Songs for the New World” and an opera titled “The Tender Land.” After a year at the school, he said he realized he needed more hands-on training to sharpen his acting. He craved a conservatory-style experience, so in 2015 he moved to Seattle and enrolled at Cornish College for the Arts.
In an effort to live his life with as much authenticity as possible, Cooper also saw the move as an opportunity to come out to his family and friends as gay. He described his life as “Clayton Before” and “Clayton After” and said coming out of the closet felt like embracing the truth.
Annika Dybevik said she met Cooper when she acted alongside him in “Sir Patient Fancy” in 2014. The pair became quick friends and Dybevik said Cooper has grown as a person and a performer since he moved to Seattle.
“It’s inspiring to see anyone be their authentic self and I think he really does that now,” Dybevik said. She said she has watched Cooper perform consistently over the last four years and said his spirit seems lighter since the move and his coming out
In Seattle, Cooper has found new outlets for his talent. In addition to multiple productions at Cornish College, Cooper has also stepped onto professional stages to perform as Rooster in “Annie” in the Seattle Musical Theater Company and in the ensemble of “Mamma Mia!” at 5th Avenue Theater.
Heidi Vass, adjunct voice faculty at Cal Lutheran, said she was lucky to direct Cooper in “Songs for the New World” and “The Tender Land” while he was at Cal Lutheran. She said it comes as no surprise that Cooper has pursued professional acting and added he was the type of student to grab a concept and excel at learning it.
“Clayton always wanted to be his best self,” Vass said.
She said leading-man qualities drew people to Cooper and his work ethic made it easy to direct him throughout the productions.
Cooper said acting is always a new challenge and he enjoys pushing himself to new depths for his roles. He described his experience playing Moritz Stiefel in the Cornish College production of “Spring Awakening” last fall as transcendent. The musical tells the story of a group of German teenagers as they come of age and struggle with their sexuality at the end of the 19th century.
Mortiz is an anxious character. Throughout the production, he grapples with social and familial pressures until, in the second act, he kills himself. Cooper said portraying the character’s suicide was unexpectedly difficult.
“As a young gay man who is half black, there were struggles I faced growing up,” Cooper said. He said that as a young teenager he was bullied and that his religious upbringing was not conducive to the truth of who he is as a gay man. For a time, he said he struggled with suicidal thoughts as a result, which made him particularly aware of the sensitivity to the subject.
Cooper said that depicting the suicide of his character in “Spring Awakening” required a level of acting from him that he didn’t expect. The challenge, however, made him realize how deep his passion for theater runs. After the show ended, he said he knew he had found what he should be doing with his life.
Cooper said he believes that theater has the ability to focus on humanity and reflect stories of society through art. He said his goal is to share empathy with the audience. In his career, Cooper said he seeks to bring to light the stories of marginalized people and those whose stories go untold.
“I have a special yearning to tell the stories of mixed [race] people,” Cooper said. After seeing “Hamilton”, Cooper said he knew he’d one day be in a version of the show and was inspired by seeing so many people who looked like him on stage. His dream, he said, is to portray George Washington.