Conference of the Birds

Shana Cooper ’99 Returns to WU to Direct

By Erin Dahl

As a student at Willamette, 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, 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.

Last semester — switching gears to work with students instead of professional actors — she returned to 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 was 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 worked as the stage manager, charged with facilitating communication between Cooper, the designers and the actors. And Sweeney played the hoopoe, the leader of the birds.

“Working with Shana on this piece was 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 did 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 as we’re getting 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, looking back on the experience, she hopes her directorial style has resonated with the audiences who saw “The Conference of the Birds” for themselves.

“I think our production of the play did offer an opportunity for meditation and reflection,” she says. “The bravery of that text is in how it brings questions of spirituality and faith into the public realm, providing a rare opportunity for audiences to reflect on these issues individually and as a community.

“The power of the experience had everything to do with how much the student actors invested in these spiritual questions, and how they risked all of themselves, both physically and emotionally, to tell this story.”

Shana Cooper ’99

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“There is a liberated quality to young performers that I really love.”

— Shana Cooper ’99