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Conversation with the Director

Director Shana Cooper talked about her vision for All’s Well That Ends Well with the staff of Chicago Shakespeare.


Where did you find the emotional core of this play?

Shana Cooper: Every day I fall more in love with this strange and quirky play that, for me, is about the pivotal transitional moments in our lives: of growing up, growing older, and how we find our most authentic selves in those transformational moments on this journey we call life.

The story begins in a time of mourning. The Countess’s husband, Bertram’s father, has just died, and Helen’s father died just six months before. France, too, is on the cusp of mourning, anticipating the King’s impending death. We begin there: in this world full of loss, and with characters trying to find their way back into life. And as we too emerge, hopefully, from a global pandemic, it feels like the world along with so many of us are in the kind of profound, transitional life moments that All’s Well is peopled with.


How do you imagine an audience empathizing with characters that can seem so flawed?

Everyone in this story is so human in the mistakes they make as they figure out who they are and want to be. It is through their own failings that these characters change. I think about it as a misfit hero’s journey, the kind of epic journey of self that Joseph Campbell writes about—but with a crew of flawed heroes, endearing despite themselves.

When the play begins, Bertram is finding his way, no longer in the shadow of his father. And at this pivotal moment in a young man’s life, the King forces a situation that neither Helen nor Bertram are ready for, insisting that this marriage go forward. I think it’s important for an audience to feel how trapped Bertram is and the ways in which any agency in his young life is robbed from him. Does he say and do some unfortunate things in reaction? Absolutely. But don’t we all when we’re out of control and backed into a corner, especially when we’re young and figuring out who we are?

And, of course, Helen—this gloriously impulsive young woman who is taking agency any way she can in a world bent to keep her from it. Again, we may question her tactics, but I still can’t help but celebrate and be moved by her tenacity, courage, and resiliency.

The Countess is at a very different point in her journey but, like Bertram and Helen, we see this capacity for reinvention in her, as well. In the wake of losing her husband, she discovers through an unusual friendship with Lavatch the thrill and freedom in mocking convention and traditional ideas of marriage, sex, and polite society in a way that her role as wife, mother, and Countess never allowed her to.


How are you and your creative collaborators envisioning the world of this play?

These characters feel so real in some ways, but then the story is almost fable-like in other ways. The creative team and I have been referring to the design of the play as “Bohemian-Edwardian,” a descriptor of our own invention. What felt most important to us about the Edwardian period was its formality. In the world of this play, France is a place of formality, and of traditions. It’s a place that belongs to an older, aging generation. And in a play about generations and the tensions that naturally arise between them, you have young people who are starting to break out of those rules and confines as they attempt to figure out who they can be, free of those restrictions posed by the traditions of a previous generation. France as we have imagined it is beautiful, but a little oppressive. Yet it is also a place that reveals exquisite moments of ritual, and of healing. That the healing of the sick world comes in the body of a young woman, our heroine Helen, is an extraordinary aspect of this play.

Halfway through the story we are transported to the Bohemian world of Italy, which in this world we’ve imagined is a natural space, wild and untamed. It’s a space of adventure, where the characters go to risk and experiment, to figure out who they are in all the messy ways we do when we are young. The characters run away while they are searching for their identity, trying to find the balance between their morals and their desires. But because we can’t ultimately run away from who we are, they do return to France. As in Campbell’s hero’s journey, they must return home. And yet… they can’t quite go home again because they’ve grown into different people.

I see this play and its characters wrestling with the fairytale idea of what “home” might look like—and how fraught that traditional sense of a fairytale might actually turn out to be in reality. All’s Well reminds us, if we’re open to it, that there are many unexpected and life-giving versions of our notion of home.


How does movement function in your productions—and in this one specifically?

I use a lot of dance and movement in my work, particularly with Shakespeare. I think that the physical body can express poetic and emotional ideas— as Shakespeare’s language does. Watching this production, you’ll experience one layer of that poetry and emotionality through the play’s language, while also experiencing another layer through visual storytelling. I search for movement that expresses the visceral truths of a character’s journey. Stephanie [Martinez, our Movement Designer/Choreographer] and I are working to craft an emotional, visceral world of masculinity and femininity and of war. But in this play, war is less about the battlefield than it is a place where young men go to figure out who they are in this world that prescribes specific expectations about gender.

This is a story about the obstacles those expectations can present to us— but also about the gifts that life offers as you come into your own. For me, this physical work is always about developing a new vocabulary with the actors and soon, too, with our audience.


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