Play of the Imagination

An Interview with Shana Cooper, Director of The Unfortunates

By Cecilia Padilla 

The Unfortunates is a metaphor for facing hardship,” says director Shana Cooper. “When we fall on hard times, I am always struck by how difficult it can be to open ourselves up and be vulnerable. This show reminds us of the power in community and music. Joe’s journey exemplifies the strength it takes to let someone catch you when you fall.”

After taking on the challenge of bringing Big Joe’s world to life at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), Cooper now reimagines this hero’s journey for A.C.T.’s Strand stage. We caught up with Cooper to talk about the play’s inspiration, message, and fresh take on American music.

(L-R): CJ (Christopher Livingston), Big Joe (Ian Merrigan), and Coughlin (Jon Beavers) 
face the horrors of war in The UnfortunatesPhoto by Kevin Berne.  

The Unfortunates has a unique sound and script structure. How does it compare to other musicals?

I think that The Unfortunates is breaking new ground in the world of musical theater. It’s transforming how people receive and celebrate the American musical. To me, The Unfortunates is reminiscent of a revival meeting. Because of the way it weaves together so many kinds of American music—blues, gospel, pop, Americana—it creates a communal experience. As a result, you get the imagination of several very diverse creative lines all coming together to create the musical language that is The Unfortunates.

How is this story distinctly American?

The music is derivative of the history and tradition found in American blues. The blues interprets the human condition through music. It illustrates how a group comes together to celebrate the sad, tragic, disturbing events of life. Over the course of his journey, Joe discovers how to gracefully accept pain.

What dramaturgy did you do in preparation for directing The Unfortunates?

I did a lot of research about graphic novels, which are a part of the Americana landscape manifested in the set and costume design. I also researched propaganda posters from World Wars I and II, which have a graphic sensibility about them. I explored the history of blues and how it has shaped the world of music; it’s a common link between musical genres. The universality of the blues is not only a vehicle for grief and suffering, but also a powerful bond between generations. Young people and those well into their later years will walk out of the theater loving a genre of music they didn’t know they even liked before.

Why this play, now?

In this age of technology, where we’re all spending more and more time online, it’s essential more than ever to have moments to bond as a community through art and music. The Unfortunates really makes the case that music and theater can not only inspire, but can also heal and redeem. Through the power of music, these soldiers redefine their lives by joy, not fear. Joining together in song creates something mysterious and divine that can never be accessed through technology. That’s what makes art essential. 

*To read more of Cooper's interview , click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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