As a student at Willamette University, Shana Cooper ’99 knew her destiny. She was going to work as a director.
“I fearlessly went with that dream,” Cooper says. “I believed it was possible.”
And it was. Since graduating from Willamette, the Ashland, Ore. native has directed plays on both coasts. She founded her own theatre company and she earned her MFA in directing from Yale School of Drama.
Now — switching gears to work with students instead of professional actors — she’s back at Willamette to guest direct “The Conference of the Birds”.
“There is a recalibration that has to happen,” says Cooper, who most recently directed “The Unfortunates” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Students are more game and kind of fearless in a way. It may be because they haven’t failed as much or they don’t know all there is to fear. There is a liberated quality to young performers that I really love.”
“The Conference of the Birds” is a mythic play, based on a 1,000-year-old poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. In it, the birds of the world have gathered to discuss the warfare and quarreling that surrounds them. They’re in search of their mythic king, so they turn to the wisest among them, the hoopoe, for advice.
“The play is about a spiritual journey,” Cooper says. “The world is in chaos and is broken in some way. Discovering a spiritual path means everything to them. The stakes are huge.”
For Cooper, the material is challenging because “The Conference of the Birds” is more poetry than theatre. Her task is to work with the text and find a way to activate it — a process that requires input from her cast and crew.
“It’s important for everyone to be generating ideas in the world of the play,” she says. “My process is very physically and collaboratively based.”
Students Alex Kimmel ’14 and Joellen Sweeney ’14 say Cooper is inspirational. Kimmel works as the stage manager, charged with facilitating communication between Cooper, the designers and the actors. And Sweeney plays the hoopoe, the leader of the birds.
“Working with Shana on this piece has been phenomenal,” says Sweeney, who is majoring in theatre and Spanish. “As an actor in this piece, I’ve felt encouraged to play and explore, and to share my thoughts and ideas at every step. Shana does an incredible job of making space for that.”
Kimmel agrees, saying Cooper welcomes everyone’s creative input and readily shares career advice.
“It is so inspiring to know that she had the same training and became so successful,” says Kimmel, a theatre major who aspires to work in stage management. “She has encouraged me to just get out there and start creating the type of theatre I want to make.”
Theatre professor Chris Harris says he’s not surprised by Cooper’s success. In fact, he recognized her talent within the first two weeks of knowing her.
“I joke that she started as a senior when she came here as a freshman,” says Harris, who specializes in scene design. “She was extremely focused and had a hunger to learn more. She knew what she wanted to do and she did it.”
Cooper directed two plays as a student and another as an alumna in 2004. Harris says he’s greatly enjoyed watching her evolve as a director, so much so that he’d now work for her for free.
Cooper, too, values Harris’ work and counts him among her early mentors. To this day, she credits much of her design aesthetic as a director to his influence.
Now she hopes her directorial style will resonate with audiences when they see “The Conference of the Birds” for themselves.
“I hope it is a meditation for people,” she says. “It will give them an opportunity to reflect on their own lives, their own obstacles, their own faith or lack thereof.”
“The Conference of the Birds” is showing Sept. 27 through Oct. 12, with a preview performance Sept. 26. Thursday through Saturday performances begin at 7:30 p.m., and 2 p.m. matinees are scheduled for Sept. 29 and Oct. 6 and 12.
General-admission tickets for the preview performance costs $8, the same as all tickets for students and seniors 65 and older. Matinees are $10 and evening performances are $12.
Tickets may be purchased at the door, by calling the WU Theatre Box Office at 503-370-6221 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. They are also available at www.boxofficetickets.com and at Travel Salem, 181 High St., 503-581-4325.