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…


Previews to The Lady from the Sea directed by Shana Cooper begin February 25. Learn more →

Photo of the cast of The Lady from the Sea by Michael Brosilow.

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["_article_description"]=> string(19) "field_5927045f742d7" ["article_byline"]=> string(58) "By Carissa Villagomez, Marketing and Communications Intern" ["_article_byline"]=> string(19) "field_592de516b020a" ["add_feed"]=> string(1) "0" ["_add_feed"]=> string(19) "field_5939a562bed44" ["_yoast_wpseo_estimated-reading-time-minutes"]=> string(1) "3" ["_wp_old_date"]=> string(10) "2020-03-03" } ["___content":protected]=> NULL ["_permalink":protected]=> NULL ["_next":protected]=> array(0) { } ["_prev":protected]=> array(0) { } ["_css_class":protected]=> NULL ["id"]=> int(13832) ["ID"]=> int(13832) ["post_author"]=> string(1) "9" ["post_content"]=> string(5173) " Director Shana Cooper is taking a unique approach to staging THE LADY FROM THE SEA at Court Theatre. Read on to discover how different directors and actors have brought Ibsen to life on stage and film. With such prestige attached to his name, Ibsen’s famous works capture the creative interests of many directors and actors from all over the world as they yearn to tackle his plays in new productions. Performing Ibsen entails a variety of approaches to his texts as living documents capable of being re-contextualized in ways that accentuate their undeniable modernity. The themes explored often connect to struggles audiences everywhere can still identify with. In a recent UK film production of The Lady from the Sea, screenwriter Birgit Myaard and director Leon Mitchell aim to develop their own re-imagination of the play by infusing it with a 21st century touch that exemplifies how Ibsen’s works continue to remain relevant in the modern day. Myaard has said that exploring Ibsen has been a method for her to reconnect with her ancestral roots in Norway due to his depictions of the country and his cultural significance there. The film features K-Syran, a Norwegian singer, and was released with an original soundtrack that conveys a similar mysticism to that found in the play. On the stage, directors and actors continue to grapple with the mythos of Ibsen and his famous texts. In 2019, the cast of a staging of Lady produced by the Norwegian Ibsen Company wanted to immerse themselves in the same surroundings Ibsen was exposed to when writing his play. Actors Kåre Conradi and Pia Tjelta rehearsed with their cast for their bilingual production of Lady in the very abode Ibsen lived in at the time of creating it. They appealed to the Norwegian government for this opportunity and were able to bring along their team to rehearse in his former flat at Victoria Terrasse in Oslo. To reinforce the divide within the Wangel clan, director Marit Moum Aune chose to re-imagine the doctor and his two daughters as expats from England who were drawn to Norway due to Wangel’s relationship with Ellida, a move that would breed resentment on the girls’ part as they had to upend their lives for their father’s new bride. The Wangels speak strictly in English with one another while Ellida navigates two linguistic worlds, talking in Norwegian with her close friend Arnholm and the locals of her hometown (subtitles were projected onto a wall in the production). The cast immersed themselves in the landscape, visiting places Ibsen reportedly went to and working into the dusk hours to get into a similar headspace as the playwright may have been when creating his work. In other Ibsen productions, teams have decided to accentuate the subtle humor laced throughout Ibsen’s work. From Jeremy Raison’s production of Ghosts that exaggerates and satirizes a character's views on fidelity to Lee Breuer’s Mabou Mines DollHouse (an adaption of A Doll’s House) that dabbles with physical comedy as visual representations of gender battles, some directors choose to apply a more jocular touch to Ibsen’s work, lending it a sense of renewed energy as they explore the nuance of the playwright’s social commentary. These different tactics in approaching Ibsen reflect the wide variety of reactions and interpretations his works elicit. The ability to reinterpret and re-imagine these plays is a contributing factor to the endurance of Ibsen’s plays in modern productions.
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When they shed the coat, they appear to be human and can go on land. Several legends feature selkie maidens trapped on land. In legends, a man lures the selkie to land, steals her coat, and then marries her so she can never return to the sea in her natural form. She spends her life in deep sorrow, her liveliness eclipsed as the joy of the water’s song is muted to her. In several tales, she often dies shortly thereafter as her constricting life on land is something her soul cannot bear. Yet, in a few other stories, she chooses to stay on land, forever locking away her selkie coat and staying for the family she has built. The striking parallels between Ellida and these mythological figures are apparent not only in their shared love of the water but also how marriage inevitably traps them on land and forces them to confront their situation. Ellida was, in a sense, lured in by Wangel and became trapped in a marriage. Though he did not force marriage upon her, the arrangement was practical at the time so she did not have another socially acceptable reason to deny him. In their marriage, she feels trapped, her daily forays into the sea providing a much-needed outlet, just as the selkie looks longingly at a possible return to their underwater home. When Wangel gives Ellida the freedom to decide for herself, she begins to understand that she is actually valued by both him and her stepdaughters. In essence, she has her selkie coat back but, as it is returned to her and not threatened by force, she gains a measure of clarity in what she now values more. Choosing to stay is akin to when the selkie gives up the coat of her own volition and willingly mutes the tantalizing call of her past underwater home. These connections to folklore lend Lady a degree of enchanting mysticism as it explores more serious topics about social expectations and resulting identity struggles. They also reveal how deeply such tales are ingrained in cultural consciousness and their pertinence to literature and reapplying texts to our own cultural contexts. 
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How is Ellida similar to other Ibsenian heroines? Read on to learn about the choice she's faced with in THE LADY FROM THE SEA and how she navigates society's gendered confines.

In several of Ibsen’s works, women often play a central role as eventual escapees from stifling domestic lives, a choice that shocked audiences at the time as a scandalous course of action. Famously, the ending of Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House features a woman walking out on her narcissistic husband. This ending was rewritten for the production’s German premiere in the 19th century because it was deemed too controversial. In the modern age amidst a rise of empowering discourse and social movements, the decision to leave a toxic relationship is celebrated, as audiences praise individuals who refuse to let a suffocating relationship determine their destiny. Although the protagonist of The Lady from the Sea takes a slightly different route, she does share select traits with Nora Helmer, her counterpart in A Doll’s House: the desire to regain a measure of autonomy over her own life. For Ellida, doing so still entails marriage, but only when her spouse gives her the freedom to leave or stay, promising to respect her decision either way. The very act of deciding for herself is an empowering opportunity Ellida yearns for and the chance to finally exercise her own volition dominates her consciousness. However, she recognizes the monumental significance of this single decision as the full weight of exercising her free will settles down upon her. She knows she can never return or reverse her final verdict. This innate fear and wonder at the power of a single decision is a deeply human reaction, a dizzying dilemma that is readily identifiable among audiences who must grapple with the similar reality of choice. 

Despite the fear acquainted with choosing one reality and being forced to live with the constant “what if?” of the untread path, Ellida finally and emphatically declares her firm decision. The decision to stay with Wangel frees her from the allure of the alternate as the aspects that made the alternate (the Stranger) so alluring in the first place were adopted by the other choice (Wangel). Although her decision to stay may seem strange as she truly did seem discontent in her domestic situation on the island, it was ultimately still an empowering action for Ellida because it was her decision. She freed herself from the temptation of the Stranger. The Stranger was simply alluring because they presented a level of freedom she did not have in her current marriage. They made her claim responsibility and choose rather than continue floating along in an existence without individual choice and consequences. Once Wangel gives her the freedom to choose and promises to respect her no matter what path she takes, she realizes she would rather stay with Wangel because the primary thing that was so attractive about the Stranger is now an element in her marriage to the doctor.

Another aspect that makes her decision surprising is the initial characterization of Ellida. To the islanders, she appears idiosyncratic and eccentric, her deep fascination with the sea and daily swimming rituals marking her from the rest. She appears faintly detached and untamed, only somewhat grounded by emotional bursts of distress once the Stranger reappears in her life. Her connection to the sea acts as both a symbolic escape from a stifling life on land and a paradoxical reflection of her relationship with temptation. Being immersed in the world of the sea allows temporary escape from her reality. The sea can take her anywhere and she connects to the Stranger as she knows they understand that it can never be dominated yet still they follow its call. The sea is everything Ellida wants to have and be: it is freedom in temporary oblivion, the temptation of a new reality, and the ultimate symbol of never being tamed or trapped. Its danger and possibility “attract and terrify” as it serves as a complete alternative to her life on land, an outlet for escape. However, it also acts as a reminder of her situation as well. It symbolizes the limbo state of existence she floats in every day as someone who is never made to confront the consequences of her actions (until the Stranger returns) and who is stuck in place in a domestic situation because her husband constructs her reality with his choices, managing separate lives with her, his daughters, and his work so that she feels unimportant. With her new awareness of her value to others and the power to make her own decisions, Ellida does, in a way, escape from her unsatisfying domestic life by carving out a new reality for herself within an old framework. She stays, but the dynamics within her relationships are markedly changed. 

Ellida’s domestic situation and her ultimate choice to stay encapsulates an overarching struggle to define one’s own path and the necessity of balance and free will in any relationship. Whether it is Nora’s choice to leave or Ellida’s choice to stay, both women embark on a path of their own volition, determining what is best for them in each scenario. When Ellida is given the choice between two different lives and when she finally realizes her value, particularly when she realizes she is needed and wanted not only by her husband, but by her stepdaughters as well, she is able to make the decision she feels is right for her. She breaks a promise in the process, but finally seizes the opportunity to shape the course of her own life. The actions of both Ellida and Nora present two entirely different paths, yet both encapsulate the power an individual derives from being able to decide for themselves and seize control over their own life.


We recognize this is only one interpretation of Ibsen’s complex work. There are many to be formed from the text. This is just one we choose to share in anticipation of our production of THE LADY FROM THE SEA. How will you react to Ellida's choice? See the play for yourself → 

Photos of Chaon Cross by Joe Mazza.

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Ruth Schor, an Ibsen scholar, focuses on modern drama, theatre and cultural history with particular emphasis on Ibsen and the German-speaking avant-garde. She provides her own perspective on THE LADY FROM THE SEA, providing context about the role of choice in this play and other works by the Norwegian playwright. 

“My consolation in moments of spiritual anguish is The Lady from the Sea,” the famous Italian actress Eleonora Duse writes to a friend at the beginning of the twentieth century, “she is beautiful and comforting - ever-changing, like the sea itself.” With this assessment, Duse gets to the heart of the play's problem: is the protagonist, Ellida, free, and if so, what kind of freedom does she have? After a celebrated success playing in and producing Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, Duse embarks on another journey to seek an understanding of Ellida’s freedom. But the translation she has does not suffice and she crosses out the word “choice” and replaces it with the word “decision.” With this small edit, Duse was coming to grips with a central question that dominates discussions about The Lady from the Sea to the present day. Is the freedom to decide true emancipation, or does it lead the woman, as wife, right back into the confinement of marriage? After all, the play has little of the dramatic resistance to domestic life that can be found in other Ibsen plays. This play's “happy ending” is a rarity. Preceded by Rosmersholm and succeeded by none other than Hedda Gabler, The Lady from the Sea has caused puzzlement over its appeasing tone since it was first performed. What makes this woman capable of converting the weight of her past into a source of transformation without escaping? 

Lou Andreas-Salomé, one of Ibsen’s contemporaries, published a book about Ibsen’s heroines from Nora to Hedda in 1892. She finds an explanation in Ellida and Dr. Wangel’s mutual ability to “consider the other’s needs” and attributes an equally healing quality to the re-connection between Ellida and Hilde, Wangel’s child from the previous marriage. If we take this explanation seriously, does Ellida’s story then suggest that reconciliation is the true goal, and in fact there was hope for some of Ibsen‘s previous heroines? In short, the play calls into question the actions of other heroines. Why did Hedda Gabler have to crush that same hope? Are we meant to reconsider Nora’s exit in A Doll’s House? These are only some of the unresolved questions Andreas-Salomé leaves us with. 

Anna Bloch as Hilde in THE LADY FROM THE SEA.

Despite its more conventional plot, The Lady from the Sea does join Ibsen’s other plays in its openness to ambiguity. Similar to A Doll’s House, The Lady from the Sea presents its audience with an outcome that seems conclusive, and yet, leaves just enough inconclusive openings to fuel the imagination about what might come next. In The Lady from the Sea, this question mark is brought to us by the next generationthrough Bolette’s subplot, a marriage of convenience in exchange for an education. And most decisively, in The Master Builder, a play Ibsen published four years after The Lady from the Sea, the same Hilde Wangel appears as a young temptress in her twenties who has escaped her father’s “cage” with no mention of a stepmother.

At this point, even Lou Andreas-Salomé needed to reconsider. A few months after her book came out in 1892, The Master Builder was published. She hastily writes a review admitting that the re-appearance of Hilde Wangel sheds new light on the ending of The Lady from the Sea. A century later, Susan Sontag takes the significance of Hilde Wangel’s return even further. Her adaptation for Robert Wilson’s famous production concludes with a sense of unease about the domestication of this sea creature. Ibsen, she claims, made Hilde Wangel reappear in the later play, when he developed second thoughts about The Lady from the Sea. Originally titled The Mermaid, Sontag says, the play draws on a folkloric theme about untamable sea creatures that do not belong on dry land. 

Whichever interpretation one might be drawn to, it is evident that The Lady from the Sea, and moreover Ibsen’s plays in general, continue to generate a sense of mystery and curiosity by remaining in constant conversation with each other. It is arguably one of Ibsen’s most distinct talents to ensure an audience never gets too comfortable. As he expressed it himself, his works can only be understood when read in their entirety when read as part of an ongoing series. Ibsen perfectly timed this series by publishing a new play every two years just in time for the Christmas season. By the time he wrote The Lady from the Sea, the arrival of the plays had become a national sensation in his native Norway.

Living in Munich at the time, amidst a milieu of theatre-makers, cultural innovators and thinkersmany women amongst themIbsen’s plays fueled discussions at coffee houses and literary salons like few others. It is therefore the continuation of this Ibsenian journey to ask ourselves where this play could be taking us today, and how it makes us reconsider our own sense of freedom. Just as we become comfortable with this interpretative direction, Ibsen’s notes on The Lady from the Sea take us in yet another direction. Perhaps the play is a prelude to a different humanity entirely. He writes: “Has the path of human development taken the wrong direction? How did we come to belong on dry earth? Why not the air? Why not the ocean?”     


Court's production of The Lady from the Sea begins February 25, 2022. Learn more and buy tickets →

Ruth Schor completed her PhD at the University of Oxford and subsequently worked as Associate Professor at the Centre for Ibsen Studies, University of Oslo. Her research focuses on modern drama, theatre and cultural history with particular emphasis on Ibsen and the German-speaking avant-garde. She is currently completing a monograph on the significance of Ibsen's work in creating an avant-garde culture in Munich and Berlin for which she received a Martin Buber Fellowship. Her chapter on the German Ibsen reception will shortly be published in the volume Ibsen in Context by Cambridge University Press. She is also a theatre practitioner and has worked with a number of international theatre companies.

 

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Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright in the 19th century who became well-known throughout the world for his significant influence on decades of authors and playwrights after him. Considered the father of realism, he holds a place in history as a founder of modernism in theatrical works. His plays, often considered quite controversial when published in the morally stringent 19th century, were and continue to be widely discussed beyond just an academic setting. 

The Lady from the Sea was written in 1888, inspired by the Danish ballad Agnete og Havmanden. In the ballad, a young woman named Agnete meets a merman who rises from the sea and promptly offers a marriage between them. She goes with him, embarking on a domestic journey underneath the waves as she and her husband make a new family of seven children. However, one day she hears the church bells from above the water and decides to revisit her homeland. Upon returning, she decides to leave her underwater family forever and once again live on land. The tale is so famous that underwater artwork depicting Agnete’s abandoned family was installed in Denmark. Although Ibsen drew inspiration from it, the tale of Ellida Wangel is significantly different, yet just as enduring for its powerful motifs and a marked departure from Ibsen’s typical characterization. Motifs of free will, marriage, and the necessity of reconciling dreams with reality permeate the play and their presence ensures it remains startlingly relevant no matter the time period. 

[caption id="attachment_13751" align="alignnone" width="800"] Scene from a 1901 production of THE LADY FROM THE SEA in Berlin.[/caption]

Ibsen is a figure who led a remarkable life himself. The man who would go on to produce works that are often only outperformed by Shakespeare was born in the Norwegian town of Skien to an opulent household, though this material prosperity disappeared so that the rest of his childhood and part of his adult life was spent in poverty. His natural talent burgeoned in the face of his responses to the social and political occurrences of the time. Events of his own life, such as his political activism, his eventual self-imposed exile, his affairs with younger women, and his eventual marriage to another woman all influenced his plays. The beauty of the Norwegian landscape and local tales also captivated him. His mystique even captured the imagination of artist Edvard Munch, whose paintings hosted subject matter that was markedly influenced by Ibsen’s characters.

Upon its release, The Lady from the Sea was considered less shocking in comparison to Ibsen’s other plays. However, as Ibsen was notable for doing, the play still challenged the state of Norwegian society at the time, focussing on themes other playwrights overlooked, such as marital unfulfillment, the life of an artist, and grappling with stifling social expectations when trying to formulate one’s individual identity. In the modern-day, Ibsen fanatics and the newly-initiated can all recognize Lady as a moving and powerful testament to theatre’s ability to critique and change social norms.


The Lady from the Sea hits Court's stage February 25, 2022. Learn more and save your seats →

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Ibsen in Performance

Discover how different directors and actors have brought Ibsen to life on stage and film.

Ibsen, Folklore, and Myth

Learn more about how folklore inspired THE LADY FROM THE SEA, one of Ibsen's most mercurial plays.

Ellida’s Choice

How is Ellida similar to other Ibsenian heroines? Learn about the choice she's faced with in THE LADY FROM THE SEA and how she navigates society's gendered confines.

Her Choice

Ibsen scholar Dr. Ruth Schor reflects on the role of choice in the playwright's canon.

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