In the months leading up to our 2011 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—Titus Andronicus, The Verona Project, Candida, and The Taming of the Shrew—in our e-newsletters. For our fourth and final installment, we’re featuring director Shana Cooper, who returns to Cal Shakes—where she was once Associate Artistic Director—to help The Taming of the Shrew What follows is the full transcript of Cal Shakes’ phone interview with Shana. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.
I’m working on Love’s Labor’s Lost at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Is that the first time you’ve directed at OSF?
It is. I worked on a production of Twelfth Night a few years ago with some members of their acting company in a found space downtown, in a parking lot. So it was more of an artistic enrichment project. But this is the first time I’m directing on the Main Stage.
I read a review of your Yale Rep production of Romeo and Juliet in the New York Times. It seems like it was a fun show to do that was received really well.
We had a good time working on it. It is definitely one of those incredibly difficult plays, not only because people know it so well but also because of how much it contains in terms of singing and dancing and one emotionally epic scene after another. Plus it’s a play that we have such a deep relationship to as an audience, and there are so many expectations. I loved working on it, but I’m actually really looking forward to doing it again. I feel like, in a lot of ways, I just learned what it is.
It had a pretty modern feel. How does that apply to the Shrew you’re doing with us?
I think there’s so much about the—for lack of a better word—love story in Shrew that feels very contemporary in terms of how complicated the questions of male-female relationships still are in our society. There are still so many questions about what sorts of compromise love requires, and how much of ourselves we’re willing to give over for love. And what do you gain and lose from that, especially in a world like ours that is still, in a lot of ways, a patriarchal world at its foundation. It’s one of the things I really love about the play; it’s so complicated and messy in the same way that love and partnership in our contemporary world are. Sometimes we feel like want to distance ourselves from The Taming of the Shrew because it has the reputation of being a misogynistic play, and these are issues that we’ve supposed to have gotten over. But I think the play is more nuanced than that. It’s absolutely a patriarchal world but there are also women in it with great power, and they’re just trying to sort out the difficulties of joining these two lives together, and the sacrifices you have to make in order to do that. And I think that is incredibly relevant.
You can’t talk about Shrew without talking about feminism and misogynist behaviors.. It’s always interesting to see how directors interpret those things, as well as trying to get a read on what Shakespeare was doing—was he a feminist?
I think if you look at Shakespeare’s plays and see the kind of humanist that he was, it’s undeniable that he has a tremendous understanding of women in terms of what kind of strong female characters he drew. I would say the same thing about his understanding of human beings and their differences on a humanist level that make me feel like he seems to be striving for some sort of understanding or at least questioning that judgment. So for me it’s hard to look at any of his plays, including Shrew, as a statement that women are made to love, honor, and obey their husbands and nothing else. It just doesn’t seem like the Shakespeare we know. But he does challenge us to look at our assumptions in this society about roles of men and women, and how complicated those relationships actually are. He doesn’t tell us a fairytale in this play.
What’s it like to come back to direct at Cal Shakes after holding the position of Associate Artistic Director so many years ago?
The space at the Bruns is one of the most magical, beautiful spaces in the country to work. Especially working on Shakespeare out there, there’s a way in which the natural elements become involved that feels very Shakespearean to me. It feels epic and relentless and dangerous and powerful and miraculously beautiful in the way that his work is. One of my favorite things about working at Cal Shakes was getting to spend all of that time in that beautiful space. It feels like a space made for Shakespeare because of the openness of it—when we talk about the Elizabethan theater, we talk about it as being an open-form space so that you’re really changing the environment or landscape or location through the imaginations of the audience without having to move huge pieces of scenery. I think that the Bruns is really a contemporary, natural kind of open-space in a way that I think is just perfect for Shakespeare.
Have you been back to the Bruns since the renovations?
I haven’t! Next week is my first trip. The other thing I learned while at Cal Shakes was what it means to be a truly great producer from Jonathan [Moscone]. It’s been interesting for me since I’ve left to see just how unique Cal Shakes is in the way that he supports the vision of directors and designers and what they uniquely have to bring to the table—the way in which he’ll make changes to the way that things work in order to support the artistic process. I was so young when I was there that I didn’t realize that was uncommon; I’m really looking forward to being back in that environment.