Willamette Theatre plays enduring role in alumna's life

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Shana Cooper ’99 at rehearsal for "Terra Firma" by Barbara Hammond. Photo credit: Ashley Garrett.
    Shana Cooper ’99 at rehearsal for "Terra Firma" by Barbara Hammond. Photo credit: Ashley Garrett.
  • Cooper performing in Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" at Willamette in 1995. Photo credit: Dale Peterson.
    Cooper performing in Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" at Willamette in 1995. Photo credit: Dale Peterson.
  • Cooper, holding son Jonah, attends last year's world premiere of "Terra Firma," a play she directed by Barbara Hammond. Photo courtesy of Cooper.
    Cooper, holding son Jonah, attends last year's world premiere of "Terra Firma," a play she directed by Barbara Hammond. Photo courtesy of Cooper.

She’s directed more than two dozen plays nationwide, earned a graduate degree from Yale School of Drama and The New York Times regularly reviews her work.

Yet a Willamette University play connected Shana Cooper ’99 to her most recent job. 

A 1999 production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” placed Cooper under the tutelage of Cindy Gold, a guest artist and then-assistant professor of theatre at Northwestern University.

In 2017 they met again, this time at Northwestern — Cooper interviewed for an assistant professor of directing job and Gold was present during her talk. Now they’re colleagues.  

Access to professional actors, choreographers and directors, some of whom belonged to Tony-award winning companies or appeared in films, is one way Willamette’s Theatre Department stands out.

“Willamette offers a rigorous, professional-level theater program, more like a conservatory, and an equally rigorous arts and science education,” she said. “It’s a unique combination.” 

Dreaming of directing

When Cooper watched “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a child, she discovered a home in the theater. Directing plays became her goal. 

She chose Willamette because Professor of Theatre Chris Harris agreed to support a theater major with a focus in directing and open up the possibility of directing a main stage show for her senior year project, as long as she could prove she was ready. 

So, over the next four years Cooper dug deep into every role available to her — acting, stage managing, assistant directing with Gold her senior year — and absorbed whatever she could from the rotating list of professionals in the guest artist program. 

The department’s bold, inclusive play selections served as a lesson, too: It expanded the possibilities of undergraduate theater. The 1996-97 season included “Fefu and Her Friends” by María Irene Fornés, a play celebrated for its revolutionary staging that few theaters anywhere had produced, she said. (The New York Times just last year told readers to “Get ready for the masterwork no one has seen.”) 

But it was Cooper’s first play at Willamette, Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” that shaped her sensibility as a director. Set in rural Ireland, the play mostly takes place inside and around a cottage. Harris, who specializes in scene design, recreated the location by laying down several tons of pea-gravel, real grass turf and poured-concrete flagstones. Audiences could hear shoes crunching on gravel as actors walked on and off the stage. 

“I was a performer in the play, but the world he created was so organic and tangible because of the materials he chose,” she said. “That production really shaped how I think about design.” 

Finding her voice

After Willamette, Cooper spent a year interning in New York and five seasons as the associate artistic director at the California Shakespeare Theater in San Francisco before enrolling at Yale School of Drama in 2005. 

She’d been working professionally, but “graduate school felt like a space where I could break out of mimicking what I’d seen other professionals do and develop my own voice,” she said. 

At Yale, she formed an experimental theater company called New Theater House and devised a new rehearsal methodology that now fuels her professional directing projects as well as master classes she teaches at other colleges. Freelance directing across the country followed, including a stop at Willamette in 2005 and a chance to direct the world premiere of “Terra Firma” by Barbara Hammond with off-Broadway company The COOP.  

Cooper was just about to open her first show in Chicago — Henrik Ibsen’s “The Lady From The Sea” — and direct “Taming of the Shrew” at The Old Globe in San Diego when the pandemic struck, putting a chill on performances. In the meantime, she’s enjoyed teaching at Northwestern.   

“There’s this beautiful marriage of getting to mentor the next generation of theater directors while continuing to explore and test out questions in my own work,” she said. 

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