Cowan Palace: A Page from the Book of Theatre Fears

This week Ashley Cowan talks about taking on a role with some history.

It’s a question every actor faces when accepting a role that has been performed before: why me, why here, why now? Or at least I do. Because unless it’s a world premiere, the part has been played already and sometimes stepping into footsteps that are not your own can be a tricky business.

Maybe it’s been done just once before, maybe a million trillion gazillion times before (remember that summer in 2011 when everyone and their mom put on a production of Twelfth Night?) so it’s no secret that you run the inevitable risk of being compared to those who came before you.

And this summer, I’ve found myself having to embrace this idea. I’m beyond delighted to be performing in Custom Made’s Book of Liz with three talented and hilarious other actors (with a preview tomorrow night and our opening scheduled for Friday). But I have to admit; I’ve been a bit terrified of the role.

Not because the part is challenging; consisting of six different characters in a fast-pace, high energy, comedy. But because two years ago, a close friend of mine played it on the exact same stage. Let’s call her Gallison Gage! Crap, no. She’s much better at making up fun aliases than I am… Anyway, Allison’s performance was memorably dynamic and strong so my fear kicked in immediately, imagining audiences with rotting tomatoes waiting to be thrown at the dud who tried to live up to the past.

The interesting thing is, Allison and I have traveled this territory before. Kind of. We met over five years ago when she joined the cast of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. She was first hired to cover bridesmaid extraordinaire, Marina Galino; the role that I had been covering for the past few months. I was going on to play Terry, the nun-in-training, as she began making Marina memories. And I’ll admit, I had a hard time letting the part go! I had originated the current San Francisco role of Ms. Marina so I was very protective of it. But it was the nature of the show, and maybe the nature of show business in general, that you can’t be clingy for long and we were forced to learn quickly that each performance would be different. Everyone brought a new energy, a varying perspective, and their own “thing” to it. After a few months, we were both playing a series of different roles, and by the end of the run (years later) we had played virtually every female part and kissed many of the same people along the way (but that’s another blog all together). In the process of makeshift changing areas in stairwells, sharing costumes, and perfecting the use of hairspray and blue eye shadow, we became friends.

Here we are playing Tina and Terry. And Terry and Tina. When we switched parts a week later we wanted to capture the same picture as different characters for our selfish enjoyment alone. Friends forever!

Here we are playing Tina and Terry. And Terry and Tina. When we switched parts a week later we wanted to capture the same picture as different characters for our selfish enjoyment alone. Friends forever!

So when I was asked to audition for the 2013 production of Book of Liz, I went to Allison first. (Well, after I texted her about something Bachelorette related. We still can’t believe Mikey T. is no longer in the running! It’s so wrong!) And before accepting the part, I had to make sure that it wasn’t going to be weird for us considering she had just done it two years earlier (while I was in one of the many productions of Twelfth Night). Although sharing roles was something we had become acquainted to, I remember how much work Allison had put into her Book of Liz and the many conversations we had about it. When she offered her support in me taking the role, I was excited but the fear followed close behind. Fear that I couldn’t compete with the past.

And I’ll be truthful. We’re all friends here, right? That fear has weaseled its way into our rehearsals from time to time. It’s become a slightly sore subject for our current cast to be constantly compared to the last cast. Our production process has been fast and furious so often we’ll hear, “well, when this was done two years ago…” as means of figuring out how to solve a problem. Which unfortunately doesn’t always provide an appropriate answer for a group trying to create their own identity.

On top of that, since Allison and I can sometimes roughly fit into some similar costumes, I’ve been awarded many of her old pieces and I can’t help but worry that everyone will be expecting me to make all of the same choices she did and will end up disappointed when I don’t.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love having this opportunity and I am so grateful to be working with a cast and crew who make me laugh each day and push me to be better. But I can’t help but wonder if this is an obstacle many other actors are facing. How do you make your role special and unique when you’re following in someone’s footsteps? And how do you move beyond those thoughts to just get out there and try your best?

I think what I need to remember from my Tony n’ Tina days is that different doesn’t have to mean better or worse. It can simply just be different. The energy we’re bringing to the theater will undoubtedly be changed from the past production and that’s okay. We’re not aiming to be better than any other cast, we’re striving to run a solid show and make people laugh.

And I’m sure that’s the conclusion many other groups come to when they’re involved in a show that an audience may have seen numerous times before. We’re not inventing the wheel here but actors across stages everywhere still have the opportunity to pour their passion into a role as only they can and for that I couldn’t be more thankful. It’s so easy to get into the frame of mind that everything is a competition. In a competitive industry, I think it’s an easy leap. But if you get caught up in who is winning, you ultimately lose the chance to leave a footprint or two of your own.

And while I’m still battling my own private fears (well, I guess you now know about them reader, but you can keep a secret, right?) and trying to find my own way, I hope that Allison (and others!) will come see the show and allow this current cast to take them on a new journey of an old story. (And then we can go out to froyo as that’s something that Gallison Gage and I are great at!)

In any case, I’d love to know your thoughts. How do you go about acting/directing/producing/etc. a show with a history? Does it impact your choices during the process? Does it forever change you as an audience member when you see someone else doing a show you once worked on? And what’s your favorite flavor of froyo?! This gal needs to know! It would be swell to see you and discuss this further at Custom Made Theatre during the Book of Liz run or at Theater Pub’s newest installment of Pint Sized Plays. And I look forward to spending the rest of the summer in the company of San Francisco Theater.

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5 comments on “Cowan Palace: A Page from the Book of Theatre Fears

  1. Have I said how much I love these ladies?

  2. Allison says:

    1) My ex used to call me Dallison Rage.
    2) You’re going to be great.
    3) I hope you wear the red pantsuit.
    4) Comparisons are hard. This has happened to me so many times in sketches that previously had different casting. “Well BEFORE we…” can be so frustrating. I understand wanting to figure things out as quickly as possible, problem solve, and move on…but thought should be given to new ways of doing things as well, and I have a tendency to want to throw the old out the window and start over which, as far as acting is concerned, is pretty much always better. I once originated in a sketch that was performed again over a year later and the person playing my part did an impression of what I had done right down to wanting to use my improvised lines from before. Care to guess if it worked? IT DID NOT. It felt off and weird and it didn’t play well. I think the person would have done better with their own strong choices and not imitations of something that’s now gone. (Not that I think you would do that, I know you better than that.) It’s a tough cookie. In many ways it’s probably tougher than creating a role right from the start. Though I will say I felt no pressure to try to be Mary Louise Parker who was Rita in Prelude to a Kiss on Broadway (or Meg Ryan from the film version who most people agree was miscast anyway.) I realize that’s super distant compared to the two of us, but I just focused on my own way of doing things and the director embraced it.

    See you at the theater! 🙂

  3. Oh Ash, I bet your kicking all sorts of ass in the production. I ran into the same problem with shrew because I saw my friend play Grumio a few years before and he was incredible. I was intimidated. I didn’t think I could pull if off because he played the part so well, but I had to remind myself that we are completely different actors and there’s no way we would duplicate each other’s choices.

    I think the best thing to do is to ask yourself what can I do that will best serve the text. as opposed to “how can I separate myself from this person” because at the end of the day, we all come from different walks of life and we will walk into the show with different perspectives. Just get down to brass tacks, where does your character fit within in the context of the story, what’s your objective, etc and you will discover new things organically throughout the process.

    Hope you have a great run Ashley. 🙂

  4. Aurora says:

    I wonder how the other college’s Lysistrata cast felt….or if they even knew how similar it was.

  5. […] GHOST OF THEATER PUB PAST: Duh. You wrote that, dummy, remember? Last year. Right before you opened Book of Liz. In this Theater Pub Blog: https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/cowan-palace-a-page-from-the-book-of-theatre-fears/ […]

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