Spotlight On: Shana Cooper

Collaboration Innovation: The Future of Our Field

For the 26th National Conference in Washington DC, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships and the Leadership U[niversity] One-on-One Program, the Rising Leaders of Color, and the four finalists for the Alan Schneider Director Award. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we are excited to continue to host the Spotlight On Series throughout the spring leading up to the conference.

TCG: As an arts leader, what is your vision for the future of the theatre field, and what is your role in moving us towards the future that you envision?

Shana Cooper: Audiences and artists are hungry for new and surprising journeys. But how can we expect to make innovative works if our methods of collaboration stay the same? I believe that artistic innovation within our production processes and our organizational structures is possible, vital, and necessary for the growth of our field as a whole. We can and we must move our art-form forward by transforming our artistic methodologies, yes, but also our infrastructures, budgets, calendars, and fundraising to prioritize creative innovation. There are many challenges to making room for process innovation within the current regional theatre, but I am committed as a leader to creating real tools that can put innovative and collaborative artistic processes at the forefront. This vision fuels my current work with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, supported by the TCG Leadership U grant. My goal is to explore how collaborative methods can 1) further activate a more organic production development process, and 2) align fundraising and audience-building strategies not just as forces “behind” these innovations, but as forces within them.

As a freelance director, I am committed to fostering new methods of artistic collaboration and inquiry in the theater that break open “top-down” structures. This value infuses every project I direct and has inspired me to develop a deeply collaborative rehearsal process. Today, most theaters make plays in a way that creates a hierarchy of creativity—a linear structure that starts with the director and designers, then funnels down through the budgeting process to table-work with the actors, and a parallel but largely separate production process. My core artistic method, “Essence Work,” which I conceived at the Yale School of Drama and have been developing, challenging, and refining since, asks directors, actors, and designers to work together to create non-verbal performances that explode the physical, visual, and aural landscapes of a play—facilitating in this way new forms of theatrical expression. Directors and designers perform in rehearsals, and actors actively participate in the vision and creation of design. Creating this way liberates actors from the confines of their traditional role as interpreters of, and vehicles for, the director’s vision. For designers, this method allows the visual world of the play to evolve organically over the course of the rehearsal process while in collaboration with the actors and the director.

Essence Work has transformed my rehearsal room and the art I create. This cross-disciplinary effort cultivates new skills and perspectives for all of us, and deepens our respect for each other’s work. Essence Work seeks to empower each artist to operate from instinct and impulse, and to access and viscerally express essential moments in the text in order to unlock the play in a uniquely personal way. Most importantly, it gives each artist responsibility for and ownership of the project as a whole. Untethered by our conventional roles and the boundaries of our disciplines, this method empowers everyone to contribute to the creative process in new and unexpected ways.

I am dedicated to theater’s capacity to “speak” in new ways—both in its classic forms and in new works. I believe with all my heart and mind that theater can be made anew and the field moved forward in meaningful ways by cracking open the conventional pyramid of authority and awakening extraordinary possibilities in our collaborators.

TCG: What was a moment in your career as an arts leader where you felt connected to a larger community, locally, regionally, nationally or internationally?

SC: Inspired by my current Leadership U residency, last year I launched a Company Lab series dedicated to exploring new artistic methods and styles of collaboration at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. For the first session, we brought together a group of directors and actors from the Washington DC community to share rehearsal methodologies. The Lab was a transformative experience for all of us. It made us feel empowered to bring all of ourselves to the work in a business which often feels like it is only asking people to bring the most obvious aspects of their type and talent. I was newly reminded of just how hungry actors are to be story-makers and creators, not just executors. The actors reinforced the passion they have to bring their imaginations to bear in questions of design, style, genre, etc. I was also struck by the deep need that both actors and directors had for a safe space to create with a kind of abandon and vigor that is not always welcomed, or possible, in a rushed rehearsal process. One of the things I was most moved by was an email from a veteran company member who said that the experience of the Company Lab made him fall deeply in love with his art/craft again. This came from a man with a lifetime in this field and hundreds of productions under his belt and was a testimony to how badly artists need us as leaders to transform how we make theater.

In a concrete way, the Woolly Company Lab has made me realize how theater organizations can help support and lead the process of innovation. It solidified my desire to address the imperative that theaters (not just individual artists) search for new forms that expand our theatrical vocabulary and modes of collaboration, and will therefore more powerfully tell the stories of our time.


Shana Cooper is the Director-in-Residence at Woolly Mammoth Theatre as part of the TCG Leadership U grant program. Directing credits include production at Yale Repertory Theatre, A.C.T. in San Francisco, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Rep, Arizona Theatre Company. California Shakespeare Theater, Playmakers Rep, and Hangar Theatre. Shana was the Associate Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater (2000-2004), and also a Cofounder of New Theater House with Yale School of Drama alumni (2008-present). Awards include: 2014 TCG Leadership U Grant, 2010 Princess Grace Award, Julian Milton Kaufman Memorial Prizein Directing (Yale School of Drama), Drama League Directing Fellow, OSF Phil Killian Directing Fellow. MFA, Yale School of Drama.


Photo Credits

TOP:  The Unfortunates at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2013, photo by Jenny Graham

ABOVE:  Headshot by Eric Pearson

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