Director Shana Cooper is known for her visceral takes on classic plays. Her work with frequent collaborator and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch on Shakespeare’s plays utilizes movement to inject each production with a physical muscularity that matches their use of language. We chatted with Cooper to discuss what excites her about Ibsen’s THE LADY FROM THE SEA.
Court Theatre: The Lady from the Sea marks your first full-length production in Chicago. Can you talk to us a bit about what it means to be working here?
Shana Cooper: This is my first full-length production in Chicago, yes. I workshopped a staged reading of Paula Vogel’s play Cressida on Top at Goodman Theatre, but other than that I’ve yet to do a full play. Charlie [Court’s Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director] and I have been talking for years and this theatre has felt like a beacon to me. My background is primarily in Shakespeare and I’ve long known Court for its national reputation for innovative reimaginings of classic work.
CT: The Lady from the Sea is a classic play, but is written by Ibsen; not Shakespeare. What drew you to this particular play?
SC: This is a play that’s been with me for about ten years. I first directed a staged reading of it in 2009 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and I haven’t been able to shake it since. It’s haunted me.
CT: What aspects have haunted you the most?
SC: The thing that’s really remained with me about it is the visceral way Ibsen captures the nature of struggling with who you are spiritually and discovering a different sense of self over the course of your life. That idea of self-discovery and exploration is much more terrifying and exhilarating than people are able to express it being, but Ibsen was clearly obsessed with our nature with free will.
CT: How are those ideas informing your approach to his work?
SC: One of my goals with Shakespeare is an interest in how to make these plays as muscular physically and emotionally as they are linguistically, and that’s one of my goals with this production, too. I have an extraordinary choreographer Erica Chung Shuch who’s a longtime collaborator with me. My hope is that as a company we can come up with a physicality to express these ineffable urges that the play deals with. My dream is that it’s a marriage of Ibsen’s brilliant dramaturgy, character, and language as well as a physical life that gets at the deeper yearnings buckling under the text that are hard to express. I hope it feels like we are expressing something new.
CT: What would you share with fans of Ibsen who’re unfamiliar with this piece but may have seen or read some of his other works, like A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler?
SC: A major difference between The Lady from the Sea and A Doll’s House is that this is Ibsen’s first return to a more expressionistic landscape, and it’s one of his plays that’s actually set outdoors. There’s a fluid nature to reality and a mystery to the play that reflects our unconscious. It seems like it requires a theatrical production because of the fluid and sometimes nightmarish way that he’s expressing that volatility through the characters and the jagged relationship with the fjords.
You also get to see a writer wrestling with a new way of expressing himself, which makes it messier than some of his other works. It’s exciting to work on these kinds of plays because you get to see a great artist wrestling with how their artistic goals are changing, and so you get to see that revolutionary spirit in everyone working on the play, too.
CT: What do you hope that audiences take away from seeing The Lady from the Sea?
SC: My hope is that this play is an invitation to look at our own lives and life choices and identity and maybe view this idea of cracking open questions about our spirituality and our identity as a real possibility. The thing that’s brilliant about this play is that it’s quite true-to-life to me. The play is an invitation for us to reflect back on our lives in terms of how the small and large choices we make are at play with and against our free will.
I want to tell a story that young, modern women in particular can connect to and be thrilled by and learn from and have exciting conversations inspired by it. They’re on my mind.
Photo of Chaon Cross by Joe Mazza.