Cowan Palace: I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost… Well, Sorta… Kinda…

This week Ashley Zumba dances with her past and future selves.

Ah, it’s August. You can almost taste the seasons sinking in and deciding to change. Back to school wardrobes adorn Union Square and it’s the time of year I start thinking about beginnings, middles, and ends.

It was around this time seven years ago that I first moved to California but even before, August always seemed to symbolize a new start. It’s the month I’d head back to school for RA training, the month I packed all my things and got ready to move to New York, and it’s the month where I learned to start to say goodbye to summer nights and begin to welcome pumpkin flavored treats.

So naturally, in my reflection, I began thinking back over the last year. One year ago I was acting in Book of Liz at Custom Made, it’s the last fully staged production I’ve done since then. And while I had an absolutely wonderful time working on the show, I also have to admit that I don’t necessarily think the play showcases the finest writing in the world. But after seeing it again this year, I can understand Custom Made’s decision to remount it. For some reason, the production manages to guarantee its own unique (and full) crowd. Even though the text sometimes feels like an inside joke you’ll never quite understand, it’s a way to get paying customers into seats and actors a chance to try and join the jest.

I find the success of Book of Liz similar to Christmas Carol, the play used by countless theaters to help secure a season’s finances. It’s always a pleaser, right? And while no one loves the holiday season more than this gal, I can’t stand that play anymore. Sorry. One too many viewings. Screw you, Scrooge. Considering many feel the play is making a statement regarding capitalism, I can’t help but find it slightly amusing that it’s so often used to make money.

But in honor of the play and feeling like I’m presently dancing with both my past and future selves, I thought about what it would be like if I were visited by theater ghosts from the past, present, and future. So enlisting the help of Theater Pub, here we go:

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PAST: Booooo! I’m a ghost! Booooooo!

ASHLEY: Right. I got it. Whatcha thinking about the past, ghost?

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PAST: “…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.”

ASHLEY: Wait, me? Am I the dud?

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/

ASHLEY: Yes. Wow. I was pretty nervous I wouldn’t live up to my own expectations. But, hey, I’ve come a long way since then, huh?

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PAST: Eh. Would we say that?

ASHLEY: We would. And then we could sing about it!

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PAST epically rolls her eyes and leaves ASHLEY alone. GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT enters holding a burrito.

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT: Burrito for one?

ASHLEY: That must be for me! I just ate one alone last night!

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT: You know it!

ASHLEY: Okay, so you’re here to represent what’s going on currently.

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT: Party on. “For every proud moment in theatre, I have a very stressful experience or a time my feelings got hurt, or a time I hurt someone’s feelings, it’s not all awesome, but it’s not all terrible either. It’s just, well…dramatic.”

ASHLEY: Word! Yes, that feels appropriate right now!

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT: That’s all Anthony from his latest blog entry: https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2014/07/29/the-five-in-praise-of-civilians/

ASHLEY: After looking back on some of my own work and trying to decide how to move forward with it to keep things interesting and relevant, yet still me, I have to say I agree. Once again, it feels like a crossroads. The end of one stage but the lights haven’t quite come up on the new one so it’s hard to figure out what’s next. Sometimes things just feel dramatic.

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT: Dramatic enough to break out into song?

ASHLEY: Always.

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT: “That being said, I’d rather focus on the surprise successes. This summer we’ve seen familiar ground retread to spectacular ends. That’s my point, There is comfort in the familiar and also hope that these retellings or new genre entries will aspire to be better than their predecessors.”

ASHLEY: That sounds hopeful. You know I’m into that.

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT: That’s from your husband’s latest blog: https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/working-title-its-old-its-new-like-youve-never-seen/

ASHLEY: Will wrote that?

GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT: What a babe, huh? (GHOST OF THEATER PUB PRESENT takes back the burrito and bites into it.)

ASHLEY: Yeah, you should probably go now. (GHOST OF THEATER PUB shrugs and continues eating the glorious burrito until they are both gone.) Yikes.

GHOST OF THEATER PUB YET TO COME enters but all ASHLEY can see is fog.

ASHLEY: Karl?

GHOST OF THEATER PUB YET TO COME reveals a series of theatrical scenes: new plays being mounted, writers furiously typing on laptops, and Future Ashley crying.

ASHLEY: Oh, come on. I’m crying? Why am I crying? (GHOST OF THEATER PUB YET TO COME shoots out more fog). Yeah, I get it, I know how to use tears. But to be fair, I use them in all types of situations and for varying feelings!

GHOST OF THEATER PUB YET TO COME reveals Ashley laughing and then singing!

ASHLEY: Okay! So there’s hope! I gotta tell you, mysterious fog of the future, I once again find myself a bit fearful of my theater fate. What if I can’t get into another show? What if I don’t know how to move my blog forward? What if I lose the desire to break out into constant song?

GHOST OF THEATER PUB YET TO COME: (audible sigh)

ASHLEY: You’re right. That’s unlikely. But is there reason to be hopeful? Is the future of our theater scene going to improve?

GHOST OF THEATER PUB YET TO COME starts to leave but the fog remains.

ASHLEY: Ah, I guess it’s still up to us, huh? We’ve still got work to do to seal that destiny. Well, here’s to August and everything after.

ASHLEY stands alone on stage, deep in thought. After a moment she laughs and then hums. It turns into soft singing as lights fade to black.

Six characters in search of an Ashley from the past. Also from Book of Liz.

Six characters in search of an Ashley from the past. Also from Book of Liz.

Cowan Palace: Audience Observations, Dedications, and Goodbyes

Ashley Cowan observes, dedicates, and offers a quiet goodbye.

Hi friends. I’ll be honest; this hasn’t been my easiest week. Saying goodbye to a show you’ve invested a lot of heart into has never been a simple process for me but on top of closing Book of Liz, I found out on Monday that my grandmother had passed away at the strong and sassy age of 90 years and 2 days old.

Years ago, when I showed her an article I wrote for my college newspaper about an upcoming university theatrical production had made its way to the front page feature, she smiled quietly and said how much she loved seeing the name “Cowan” in print. So I like to think, wherever she is, she may be enjoying another Cowan Palace installment.

My cast kindly allowed me to dedicate our closing show to her on Sunday after hearing she wasn’t doing very well, and while I sadly couldn’t be by her side in Connecticut, I carried her with me while doing the thing I love most here in San Francisco.

Reflecting upon our last six weeks of performing in front of various crowds and dedicating our shows to different people, I couldn’t help but wonder how many audiences followed similar trends to those we met while being a part of this production. Our run included Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings and Saturday matinees. My personal observations include the following:

Thursday: As the first audience of the week, this group tended to laugh quickly and help push the show along. Their laughter patterns were often loud and fast as if to suggest, “hey, it’s Thirsty Thursday, and we either need to get home soon or get a beer.”

Friday: After a long workweek, the Friday crowd entered with high expectations. They were tired from a stressful few days of bringing home the bacon and appeasing “the man”. They could be unforgiving and critical. And hey, how can you blame them? Once you eased them into it though; convinced them to leave their week behind and embrace the weekend; they would warm up to you until the theater was on fire. With their presence.

Saturday Morning: The coffee crowd rather than the wine lovers. We didn’t even have the hope of boozing them up real good before they entered the theater! This group was certainly one of the quieter audiences. Perhaps from partying too hard the night before, perhaps because they’re secretly vampires trying to hide from the sun. It’s hard to say. In any case, they tended to be a bit more controlled and contained.

Saturday Evening: Thank goodness this group knew how to have a drink. They often came in ready and wanting to get those tipsy giggles out. Sometimes it would take them a little longer to catch a joke but when they did, they enjoyed long and hearty laughs. Often, the shows could run just a hair longer because this was the crowd who could appreciate and encourage the idea of “milking it”.

Sunday Evening: This last audience was a real mixed bag and often surprised me. They’d catch the more obscure and random bits and then be silent at a joke that had received big laughs all week. Personally, they were one of my favorite audiences though because they kept me on my toes and often offered more immediate vocal reactions.

Has anyone else noticed an audience pattern during certain nights of the week? Those were just a few of my experiences while working on a comedic piece. And do you think knowing what to expect is ultimately a good or bad thing when it comes to live theatre? I’d love to know your thoughts.

My grandma was often a matinee viewer; and while she may have been part of a quieter crowd, her presence was always known and appreciated. And it’s for her that I’ll continue trying to get the Cowan name out into the world in whatever way I can manage; for any audience who will grant me the chance. For now, this blog will do just the trick.

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.