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Shana Cooper '99 (photo by Erik Pearson)Shana Cooper '99 (photo by Erik Pearson)

Cooper is directing "Love's Labor's Lost" on the Elizabethan Stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (photo by Jenny Graham)Cooper is directing "Love's Labor's Lost" on the Elizabethan Stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (photo by Jenny Graham)

Cooper guides the "Love's Labor's Lost" actors during a rehearsal. (photo by Jenny Graham)Cooper guides the "Love's Labor's Lost" actors during a rehearsal. (photo by Jenny Graham)

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Theatre alumna takes Willamette lessons to bigger stages

Theatre-goers attending “Love’s Labor’s Lost” at this summer’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival are treated to a stage covered in grass and flowers, transporting them to the world of the play in an organic, sensual way.

Director Shana Cooper ’99 got the idea from a production she performed in as a Willamette University undergraduate, when Theatre Professor Chris Harris laid turf on the stage to create the Ireland of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa.”

“That production had a big impact on my aesthetic as a director,” Cooper says. “Everything about the space he created was very real. Remembering the power that organic materials can have for the audience has impacted the world we’ve created for ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost.’”

That isn’t the only Willamette lesson Cooper carried on her path to becoming one of the country’s most promising young theatre directors. Studying art history for a year in Paris informed the research she now does on time periods and physical settings for her plays.

And her participation in every part of student productions — from acting on-stage to building sets — gave her unique insight for coordinating all the different areas into a successful performance.

“Willamette requires you to experience every aspect of a production,” she says. “I wish that everyone I worked with in theatre had that experience, because it gives you an immense understanding of the challenges of each department.”

Early Success

Since leaving Willamette, Cooper has helped direct plays on both coasts, co-founded a theatre company, and with “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” is leading her first full production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — among the oldest and largest non-profit theatres in the country and attended by about 400,000 annually.

As of 2010, she is also among an elite group to have won the Princess Grace Award, which goes to promising emerging artists and provides opportunities for other fellowships throughout her career. Past Princess Grace Award-winners include Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Broadway director Anna Shapiro.

Cooper first stepped into a director’s role at Willamette, where she directed two plays.

“I learned how to collaborate with the designers and the technical shop, and how to go through the casting process,” she says. “My professors didn’t lower their expectations because I was a student — they treated me like a colleague. It’s unusual to have that opportunity as an undergraduate, and it put me in a strong position to pursue professional work.”

To New York and Back

After graduation, she headed to New York for a year to work as an assistant director at several theatres before going on tour as an actor in the Aquila Theatre Company, a job she found with the help of Harris.

She followed that gig with a five-year position as associate artistic director at the California Shakespeare Festival, where she had done a summer internship as a student. Cooper returned to Willamette in 2004 for a stint guest directing Jose Rivera’s “Marisol.”

“Working on that Willamette production allowed me to explore my artistic process as a director, and many of the discoveries I made inspired me to go back to school,” says Cooper, who then went to the Yale School of Drama to earn her MFA in directing.

After graduate school, she co-founded New Theater House with some of her fellow actors and designers from Yale. Most of the members of their company live and work in New York, but they meet every year to put on a production.

Their stages have included the Brooklyn Lyceum and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where they collaborated with OSF artists to put on a parking lot production of “Twelfth Night.”

Willamette Influence

Working at OSF is a homecoming for Cooper, who grew up in Ashland, Ore., where the festival is based.

She also was attracted to the festival for the way it reflected the feel of an intimate community that she had in Willamette’s theatre department.

“To be successful in theatre, you can’t just wait for opportunities to be tossed into your lap — you have to create your own and then believe that others will want to support you,” she says. “The theatre department believed in me and supported me in any opportunity I sought. Learning that lesson at Willamette has enabled me to pursue and achieve most of what I have so far.”

Shana Cooper’s production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs through Oct. 9.