Interview with Director Shana Cooper

Director Shana Cooper
Director Shana Cooper. Photo by Jenny Baker.

Director Shana Cooper’s journey with Julius Caesar has paralleled some of the most consequential political events of the last five years: the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and ongoing national reckonings around racial justice in the U.S.

Now, as a new Presidential administration begins in the midst of a pandemic, and in the wake of a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Cooper’s bold and physical production of Julius Caesar finds itself once more aligned with our national conversation about power, tyranny, and the role of the people in transforming political systems.

In this interview with OSF Literary Manager Paul Adolphsen, Cooper reflects on her relationship to the play, while exploring what Shakespeare’s timeless story might say to us in this moment.

Paul Adolphsen: What interested you about Julius Caesar as you were in pre-production in 2016?

Shana Cooper: It’s wild to think about the span of time that this production has gone through. Our first workshop was the week after Trump was elected in the fall of 2016, and now it’s March 2021, months after the January 6 attack on our Capitol. We’ve transitioned into a new administration, but I think the conflict that was at the core of our country then remains, in terms of how divisive our ideas of what it means to be an American are, how we move forward as a country, how we can agree to disagree about things and yet still find a common vision. So much of [Julius Caesar] is about governance and the danger of relying on violence—whether that be through violent language or literal violence—as a way to govern, and the consequences of that, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually. When we started that workshop a week after Trump was elected, it was so raw. Everyone in the room felt the stakes of this play in such a personal way; we felt the soul of our country at stake. What is heartbreaking is that it has continued to escalate. We thought, “okay, it can’t get any worse.” And that has so deeply proven not to be true. We are not done living out this story in America.

What’s interesting about [Julius Caesar] is that the assassination of Caesar happens about half to two-thirds of the way through the play. Then there’s a whole other third of the play that is actually one of the reasons I was excited to work on it. I was fascinated with this play that is dramaturgically one of the tightest, most brilliant, accessible, and human of Shakespeare’s plays in the first two-thirds, and then, after [Mark Antony’s] “Friends, Romans, countrymen” [speech], the dramaturgy of it just falls apart. It’s a mess.

PA: I worked with a director who said it was as if Shakespeare broke the play at that moment.

SC: I love that phrasing, because it’s intentional. It’s that the writer broke the play. The writer is doing something intentionally. Sometimes people can underestimate Shakespeare as a writer with this play, and what the purpose of the messiness of that last third of [Julius Caesar] is. To me, it seemed that, once violence is introduced as a tool to solve the world’s problems, violence begetting violence becomes inevitable.

Once violence is introduced as a tool to solve the world’s problems, violence begetting violence becomes inevitable.

The messiness and deconstruction of the play is Shakespeare expressing the fog and blindness of brutal civil war, which is the most extreme outcome of that choice [to use violence]. I found it so innovative and forward thinking, as a playwright, [for Shakespeare] to have form relate to content in that way. The thing I had never seen…was a production that mirrored that dramaturgy…. What is the theatrical and poetic language that you can develop in order to capture this truth of how a civilized society unravels into violent chaos once violence is chosen as a form of governance?

Exploring that cycle of violence was really at the heart of that [2016] workshop. I think one of the reasons why this production has spoken to so many people is that we had that workshop time to investigate, as an ensemble, a physical vocabulary for the violence that could rigorously follow the trajectory of the play, and ultimately capture the physical, emotional, spiritual cost of violence. We have film and television to show us literal, visual representations of this violence. But there’s a cost that is so much deeper, and theatre, as a place where you can express yourself poetically and nonlinearly, is built to tell us something about our addiction to violence as a human race that I think we have to contend with if we want to find a path forward, certainly within a democracy.

A scene from the OSF production of Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar (2017) Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham

PA: Your pre-production workshop happened during the presidential election of 2016, but rehearsals started during the first weeks of Trump’s presidency in 2017. How much did those events factor into the work that you did with the actors in rehearsal?

SC: It was very intimate and raw, not just for me, but for the actors as well. The gift of that [2016] workshop [was that] it gave us the opportunity to explore the physical storytelling, which is required by the kind of sprawl and scale that Shakespeare is attempting to capture in terms of civil war. There was a lot of individual physical language that was developed during that workshop that carried over into rehearsal. I think that absolutely tied in to the timing, and how personal the actors felt these political stakes were. I vividly remember starting in January [2017], and as we were beginning rehearsals, the inauguration [of Donald Trump] was happening. So, this feeling that the soul of your country is at stake, and having to question what you might do in order to make a difference, and feeling the gulf of division within what you believe to be your country and who is leading it—those realities were living in the actors in a way that was so personal, high-stakes, and raw. You can’t separate anything that we did from that. There was a real physical cost to what [the actors] were asked to do in act five [of the play]. They believed in that strongly, and they were so committed to it. That also was not accidental, and deeply tied to the belief that telling this story felt life-or-death, in a way. What does leadership mean? What does governance mean? What is our role as individuals in unpacking those vital questions and forming a stronger and more whole union? How does disagreement live within that without becoming a violent conflict? All of those things felt on the table in a way that I think is why Shakespeare’s plays are still performed all over the world.

We’re at that moment in America: Cinna the Poet has been killed, the Capitol has been attacked, and the question is on us, as citizens, about where we’re going to go from here.

Then the next several years played out. We started rehearsals for the Theatre For A New Audience production months after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue happened, which was directly tied to the violent rhetoric that Trump was using about immigrants. And then, of course, flash-forward to January 6 and the correlation between the inflammatory, violent rhetoric that Trump was using, and the attack on the Capitol that came out of that. You look at [Mark Antony’s] “Friends, Romans, countrymen” [speech], through the killing of Cinna the Poet [in Julius Caesar], and we lived through that scene on January 6, 2021. A big question now is: What is the story we’re going to write for our last third of the journey? We’re at that moment in America: Cinna the Poet has been killed, the Capitol has been attacked, and the question is on us, as citizens, about where we’re going to go from here.

PA: You’re articulating so clearly my experience of watching the production. I think this connects to the ways that your production implicates the audience. We’re all gathered in the space of the theatre to witness the story, but also, the onus of what’s to come is on us.

SC: This play becomes more and more mythic in style as it progresses. What myths are, at their core, are stories central to our civilization that we play out again and again. And here we are again. So my hope is that the end of our journey in this production is an invitation to the audience to reflect on what we need to do in order to create a new myth of what it means to be American. “Myth” is sometimes used in terms of “untruth.” But I mean “myth” as a powerful story that we tell ourselves and our children about who we are.

PA: It’s interesting to hear that word used specifically about Julius Caesar, since that’s what the Romans and the Greeks were to the Elizabethans—myths. Julius Caesar was also a myth, or a story, that Shakespeare himself turned to in writing this play.

Production photo of Julius Caesar OSF 2017
Julius Caesar (2017): Danforth Comins, with Rodney Gardiner and Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

SC: And then he, by making it stronger, has created [a myth] that drives our actions hundreds of years later…. We still use that language and those characters as a touchstone. I think that might be part of the problem. How do we break that open for ourselves? I don’t mean that we shouldn’t be telling these stories. I think these stories are still necessary because we’re still living out those traumas. Part of what is exciting about Julius Caesar, because of the ways that Shakespeare is breaking open the form in the latter part of the play, [is that] there’s all this room for authorship from the contemporary artists working on it. That’s actually the challenge of working on Shakespeare today: It’s not enough to simply draw the parallels of relevancy. We have to go the added step of bringing our personal stakes, artistry, and imaginations to the completing of those stories. I find [Shakespeare’s] plays to be thrilling launch pads for that process, and almost like infrastructures to create and build within, because there is a brilliance to the writing of those pieces. If you’re not bringing the personal stakes and questions and messiness of our current moment to how you manifest those plays, then it feels like, “why are we doing them?”

PA: You’ve spoken so beautifully about the physicality of your production. One of the things that’s also remarkable to me about Julius Caesar is the way rhetoric, or political language, is used. As you’ve lived with this play now for several years, have you found any points of intersection between the play and the ways that we engage with rhetoric today?

SC: There are so many parallels, which made me wonder: Is it that Shakespeare was so forward thinking, or is it that we have actually based our rhetoric on this play? I have no idea what the answer is. But the interesting thing to me are the personal scenes that exist between husbands and wives in this play. The way the women are fighting for their husbands to reveal a vulnerability about what’s going on, or they’re warning them of danger and ego; the conversations are so domestically apt. I have been in those conversations myself. In those incredibly intimate moments, there’s a kind of truth that [Shakespeare] captures about how human beings communicate with one another in the simplest, most private moments.

Then there are these public political moments. He’s capturing something so specific about how people negotiate with each other in public around political issues that also feels current. You have “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” and some of the most brilliant political rhetoric within historical speech-making that we have to refer back to.

Production photo of Julius Caesar OSF 2019
Julius Caesar (2017): Jordan Barbour, with Amy Kim Waschke, Armando Duran, and Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

I have no doubt that our current political rhetoric is highly influenced by that monologue. And then, you have the very clear correlation between incendiary and inflammatory language and the act of violence itself, and how thin the membrane is between the two. The play confounds me with the ways it transcends time: in language, in emotional and personal relationships, also thematically. Of all of the Shakespeare plays I’ve worked on, it might be the one that feels the most immediate.

PA: We are now sharing this production from 2017 with a global audience. What do you hope people will get out of this experience of watching Julius Caesar today?

SC: I hope this journey can ultimately offer an opportunity for radical healing that could grow out of the divisive, broken world that the play ends with. I love the fact that [this production] is being shared with a global audience, because in order to write a new beginning, a new story, a new myth—we need everybody’s ideas. To think that we have all the answers within our sole country is probably part of the mistake. My hope is that whatever the new story is, it could be a global story. And I love that this production gets to be a part of that conversation in some way.