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 The Lady from the Sea and returning to the Court stage.
What drew you to Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea?
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. The thing that’s really remained with me about it is the visceral way Ibsen captures the nature of struggling with who you are and discovering a different sense of self over the course of your life. That idea of self-discovery and exploration is terrifying and exhilarating, and in this play, Ibsen carves a vivid expression of the dramatic storm of what it feels like to wrestle with your identity, and the role that free will can play in us authentically embracing our truest self, as well as the complexity and contradictions of desires and needs that exist within us.
How are those ideas informing your approach to his work?
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, Erika 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.
What was the inspiration for this new translation by Richard Nelson, and how is it different than previous versions of this play?
The Lady from the Sea is one of Ibsen’s least known works, which is part of why it’s so thrilling that Court originally programmed it, and the gift they are giving us by continuing with that journey after our pandemic shutdown. Because it is rarely produced, there are very few translations, and as far as I know there hasn’t been a contemporary American translation that expresses the hearts and souls of these characters with the clarity and humanity that Richard Nelson has uncovered. Through Richard Nelson’s luminous translation, we can not only understand but feel deeply the drama that pulses underneath these characters as they wrestle with their identities as individuals and within the most important relationships in their lives. Beyond transforming our experience of working on The Lady from the Sea, Richard’s translation is making a vital contribution to the American canon of Ibsen translations and finally making one of Ibsen’s more mysterious journeys, accessible to us all.
What do you hope that audiences take away from The Lady from the Sea?
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.
The Lady from the Sea was cancelled following the final dress rehearsal on March 11, 2020 due to the global pandemic. What does it mean to you to be (re)mounting this show now?
Ibsen, like all great writers, is a dreamer. And the man dreams big. This quote is from a letter Ibsen wrote early in his career, an ambitious vision for humanity, “People want only special revolutions, in externals, in politics, and so on. But that’s just tinkering. What really is called for is a revolution of the human mind…”
The remarkable thing about The Lady from the Sea is that you can actually see that revolution beginning. In small but profound ways in the actions and choices of many of the characters, who begin the play in a crisis of their own making, and then actually manage to change, not only how they think, but their choices and actions in life and in love. As we return to this project after almost two years of essential reckonings within ourselves and our society, I think the question of what we do with this tremendous force of “free-will” that is central to Ibsen’s work is going to have fresh and more urgent meaning to artists and audiences who have learned by living through a pandemic just how harrowing it can be to feel lost in a storm of questions about who we are and what our role in the world can or should be. And perhaps most importantly what we can do “of our own free will” to find the lighthouse that will guide us home.
I believe, as Ibsen seems to suggest in The Lady from the Sea, that by living in that place of the deep and raw discomfort of not knowing and wrestling with the mysteries of free-will and how that can help us to access our truest selves, we may discover a rare capacity for change. And thus begins the revolution of the human mind…
Photo of the cast of The Lady from the Sea by Michael Brosilow.