Festival Dramaturg Kee-Yoon Nahm spoke with Nisi Sturgis and Jordan Coughtry about their many experiences with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (ISF), as well as what it is like for a married couple of Shakespearean actors to live and work together. Nisi and Jordan have appeared in 10 productions at ISF since 2013—sharing the stage in eight of them. In addition, Jordan composed the music for ISF’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017) and As You Like It (2019). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kee-Yoon Nahm (KN): Walk me through your history with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival? What was your first experience related to ISF?
Jordan Coughtry (JC): It was right before we got engaged. I think it was in 2012. I auditioned for Kevin Rich when he came to New York. It was just him and a video camera. I had never had an audition like that before. I did a monologue from Henry V and then sang a little song on the ukulele. Later, Nisi and I were asked to send in a callback video. Nisi did two Lady Macbeth monologues, and I did—something—and we sang a song together. We sang … what was it?
Nisi Sturgis (NS): “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.”
JC: Because ISF was doing Philip Dawkins’s Failure: A Love Story.
NS: I was shooting Boardwalk Empire at the time, and I had no idea whether I could go to a regional theater schedule-wise. But when Kevin sent that play, I just fell in love with it. It was the best play that I had read in five years. I thought, “I want to go wherever they are making this kind of thing.”
JC: We were cast, and it was wonderful spending our first year at ISF. We were also planning our wedding at the time. It was a great company, a great group of artists. And your first time walking into Ewing—it is special. Failure: A Love Story was in 2013, Kevin’s first year as artistic director. A few years later, in 2017, he invited us back to do the adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I created with Robert Quinlan. I was Puck and Nisi was—
NS: —Titania and Hippolyta, whom I love even more even though she is not a character recognized for her power and humor. That was my third summer in a row doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream—first in Maine and then Arkansas. Each time, people asked if we wanted our son Owen to be a part of the show. I said no, but when we got to Illinois, we decided that it was time.
JC: That was awesome. He was the Changeling Boy and Nisi would bring him out on stage. There was a big Kabuki curtain onstage that he would point to, and the curtain would drop to reveal the forest.
NS: We would say, “What do you do in the show?” And he would say, “I changed the world.”
KN: Jordan, I first got to know you in the fall of 2018 when you were working on the music for As You Like It. And I remember meeting Nisi for the first time at the season announcement event. It took me a while to get to know the full story of your relationship and history with ISF. But once I knew who you were, it was a treat seeing you two play, for example, Touchstone and Jacques opposite one another in As You Like It, or Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. I am sure that many of our patrons who know you get a kick out of seeing you two in the same scenes.
JC: I hope so. It does for us. We have been fortunate enough to do over 20 shows together. I think back to times when we had a scene together, we would go back home or back to actor housing after rehearsal and just keep working—coming up with ideas and trying them out the next day.
NS: There is no escape from the work. But we love the work and the opportunity to do it so much that it is worth all the trouble, you know? And it is great that our son gets to see people be wonderful, passionate weirdos. He is more familiar with big emotions because he sees adults experience them. And it frees him.
JC: It has been really special. And it kind of breaks my heart that we are in these times because it has been great for Owen to have this community of actors and artists—all kinds of storytellers looking after him. You can see in his eyes his imagination firing.
KN: I was going to ask if it is challenging as parents when both of you are in the same show. But it sounds like the benefits outweigh the difficulties.
JC: Yes. The benefits absolutely do. And the benefits are sustaining. They keep you going.
NS: That is right. There is no doubt that the people that we get to meet have enriched our lives beyond all measure.
JC: It is funny because things can get rough and challenging, but you do not remember those things as readily.
NS: Yes, those are easily put aside: the hourlong drive—
JC: —the hunt for child care. I mean, child care is the big one. That was one nice thing when Owen was onstage with us.
KN: Setting aside the fact that you are a family, what is your working relationship like? You mentioned earlier that you bounce a lot of ideas back and forth.
JC: Knowing each other so well is great, and also challenging. When I am getting ready for an audition, Nisi will say, “You are doing that thing you do again!” She knows my tricks and habits—the things I do to be “interesting” without knowing what I am doing or talking about. She challenges that, and it is wonderful. Sometimes I ask, “Can I just do the thing that is easier, please?” But she says no. And I hope I do that to her as well, although I think she does it more for me. It propels me, betters me.
NS: I was fortunate to start doing Shakespeare when I was 11 years old. It was something that came into my life right after my father died, so it really filled the well. To have such a love and appreciation for this connection through time and all these different people with such range and scope, it was tremendous for a girl from a small town in Arkansas. And then to meet someone who is such a wonderful musician with such curiosity and passion, someone who can create a musical landscape that works in harmony with Shakespeare’s text rather than impose on it. There is no other production of As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is like the ones that Jordan created. Those experiences are singular. It is incredible that I get to have insight into the gears that make that happen.
KN: Do you feel that your inclinations as artists have started to merge after spending so much time together?
JC: No, I think our inclinations are still very different. And I am grateful because we balance each other creatively. We coach actors every once in a while for audition monologues, and my favorite thing is when we coach together. We have different approaches and pick up on different things. It feels more whole to work in that way. A more external, dramaturgical approach does not serve me in some situations but can be very beneficial in others. And sometimes Nisi’s internal, personalized approach, which is remarkable, can be served by a little bit of crafting and understanding from outside eyes.
I worked for a long time before going to graduate school. So, in the beginning of my career, my training was simply watching professionals in rehearsal rooms, including at ISF. That also applies to Nisi. We do not do every show together. Sometimes I only see the result. And I am always amazed. I think, “How did you get there? How did you do that?” It is a great gift and privilege to be able to watch her process: her demeanor in a room, her approach to the work. At the same time, I have maybe more of an inkling of what might be going on inside her head as she works. I have never known that as much with any other person—except for myself. So, it is fascinating and special to be able to observe that in an externalized way.
KN: Moving on to a different subject, how has the pandemic affected you?
NS: It is a time of reckoning. I feel that I am watching the world implode, and it is extremely frustrating as an artist not having my venue where I can be a conduit for that in any way. I am also an instructor at the University of Illinois, so I have wonderful students that I get to bat around these ideas with. We get to create work—in the most careful and intentional way, of course. But still, everyone is emotionally raw. It is a fraught time. I think we are both trying to tread lightly and still function in the world of risk where I think the best stuff happens.
JC: We are in a fortunate position with Nisi teaching at the university. But for a lot of people we know—actors, designers, writers, and other theatre people—there is nothing happening. The industry is collapsing around them. In an actor’s life, the future is often uncertain. But even if you do not have any planks under your feet, you still know where the planks are, where you can go to get them. But now, we do not even know where they are. Sometimes it feels a little like a desert island. The separation and the remoteness can be a subtle beast, and you may not notice the ways that it affects you right away.
NS: I have been thinking about this a lot, but there is a method of repairing pottery by filling the cracks with gold. That is what I hope happens, because I feel that all the cracks are showing right now.
JC: Something that I love about ISF is that you get to know the community that it serves—the people who come and see the shows as well as the community of artists that gather to create this art. It is all about connecting with them in person. You are out under the stars, all in the same space, communing together. Having that taken away for some time, it creates a yearning and a longing for that kind of experience.
NS: I think that we as artists are people who are unafraid of profound change. We get comfortable with it, I mean, comfortable with being uncomfortable inside of it. We have the opportunity to wield our empathy and help others look at this time of profound change. I am excited about that.
JC: I am also curious about the art that will come out of this time. I like to think about Shakespeare plays: cast them in my head or think about a way to experience a play or direct it differently. And I wonder which of Shakespeare’s plays would be interesting if it was set in some kind of pandemic or quarantine situation, where the characters have to wear masks or keep distance from one another. Take Romeo and Juliet. The whole reason why Friar Laurence’s letter does not get to Romeo was because Friar John was under quarantine. It will be interesting to see what happens to the idea of wearing masks when it becomes a choice instead of mere necessity.
KN: Out of curiosity, do you think about how it will feel when you are finally able to be onstage again? Do you look forward to it? Or does it worry you in some way?
NS: I think about it all the time. I have said this before, but Shakespeare is a friend through time. So, whatever is happening in my life, I can reach out and there will be some text where I can find comfort. “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” or whatever it may be, I feel that I am buoyed by it. So, that dream that I have of being on the boards and working again—it feels like an infusion.
JC: I wonder about the process of getting back onstage. I imagine there may be a bit of timidity about it at first: coming out blinking from under your rock, seeing what is safe, asking can we be four feet apart? Three feet? Two feet? But one thing that is great about Shakespeare is that you cannot be timid while you are doing it. The plays demand muscularity. It is an athletic act. The ideas are just so vast and the sentences are so long. It demands great size. Whatever timidity I may have going in, it would be swiftly obliterated by the text.
KN: You have to become a different version of yourself.
JC: Yes, it is an occasion to rise to.
KN: You mentioned that you like to think about different Shakespeare plays and how you would approach them. As a final question, are there any dream roles still out there for you? Or roles that you would like to play again?
NS: We have talked about doing Much Ado about Nothing together as Benedict and Beatrice because it is fun to spar and we have a lot of … history to draw from. Also, Taming of the Shrew. I am one of those strange people who think that play has a lot to offer to people in relationships about how to find a meeting place. So, I am really interested in doing that play someday.
JC: There are so many. I would love to live that dream where you have been in every play, down to The Two Noble Kinsmen or King John. I would actually love to do King John. There are so many great roles there: the Bastard, Louis. I would love to one day play Iago in Othello. One role that I have played that I would love to do again is Feste in Twelfth Night. That was special and I love him.
KN: What about for each other? I think you have already given an answer with Much Ado about Nothing, but are there other roles that would be a good fit for each other?
JC: I mean, Kate in Taming of the Shrew would be great. I would also love to see Nisi’s Margaret in Henry VI.
NS: I will do that someday. I have seen Jordan in Iago’s Plot by Shozo Sato, but you already said Iago. What else?
JC: I do not have any desire to play Macbeth. Of the big ones, Lear, one day. Or the Fool in King Lear.
NS: I want to play Lear’s Fool.
JC: Nisi would be a great Lear’s Fool.
NS: How wonderful is it that there is so much room for us to even imagine.
KN: I cannot wait to see both of you in all of those roles.