Shannon Cochran | Performer of the week
After years of muddle, aging actress Desiree Armfeldt is looking for a coherent existence in Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. An actress who divides her time between on-camera work in Los Angeles and theater in Chicago, Shannon Cochran is a perfect fit for the character, and she delivers a beautiful performance in Writers’ Theatre’s stunning, intimate production. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Cochran began pursuing a career in theater since graduating from the Cincinatti Conservatory of Music, traveling around the country before settling down in Chicago for 12 years. She moved out to Los Angeles to pursue more TV and film work; there she found her future husband, but also a drought of substantial stage productions. Cochran speaks to us about her long relationship with co-star Deanna Dunagan, how the changes to Sondheim’s score influenced her character, and why she always finds herself returning to Chicago.
We spoke with Deanna Dunagan a couple weeks ago, and she mentioned that you and she had known each other for a while. Can you tell us a little about your history, and how the pieces fell into place for you two to do A Little Night Music?
Yes, she’s right, she’s my very best friend. We met in 1988, in a Steppenwolf production of Stepping Out, and we just became fast friends at that moment. We’re both mad about baseball and the Cubs, so we had that in common. We’re both Southerners at heart, so we’ve become very good friends. I’ve directed her a couple of times, but we’ve never been able to be in a play together again. So we always kept our eyes and ears open for an opportunity to work together, and when we heard rumblings that Writers’ Theatre was planning to do [A Little Night Music], we bullied [director] Bill Brown into considering us for the roles, and he very kindly went along with our master plan. It finally gave us the opportunity to be together again.
A lot of the music has been rearranged for this production and you sing bits that Desiree normally doesn’t. Did that add anything to the character for you?
Yeah, I think so. I love what [Bill] ended up doing. When he told me that he was going to cut the Liebeslieder Singers, I was a little bit skeptical, but I was thrilled to sing some of that music. The Desirees that I’ve seen in the past never gets to sing anything but “Send in the Clowns” and “You Must Meet My Wife,” basically. “The Glamorous Life” isn’t so much a song as it is just a number. So it gave us the chance to bond with the players in the piece. For example, one of the women plays Malla, who is typically just a servant, but she became Desiree’s best friend and personal assistant. And we get to sing together, Cory Goodrich and I. It also pulled a thread through for the little girl playing Fredrika, so that Fredrika and Desiree and Madame Armfeldt all get to sing the top of Act 2 together, and it helps strengthen the bonds between mother, daughter and granddaughter. I think the Liebeslieder music is some of the prettiest in the show, so it was a real thrill for me to get to use that part of my voice, and for Bill to use it that way I felt was just really genius.
How has your experience as an actress mirrored Desiree’s?
It’s funny because I got to do Desiree when I was in college, and I realize that I didn’t understand anything about it now. Desiree is very much a working gal, and it seems that, from what I can glean, she’s been in the trenches of what we think of as regional theater for most of her life. She doesn’t seem to be particularly famous, but she’s been all over the country and does a lot of different tours and kinds of plays, lots of the great playwrights. But some of it was glamorous and a lot of it was not very glamorous, and I would say I’ve certainly had the full range of experience as a theater actress. I’ve been on tour several times, both here and in Europe, so that’s how we’re similar. I love her because she’s so often played as this glamorous star, and I don’t really think she is. She’s one of the many working actresses that goes through the generations.
Last week we spoke with Adrian Aguilar, who’s actually the husband of your co-star Brianna Borger, about Chicago vs. New York theater, and viewing Chicago as a theater juggernaut rather than as New York's less talented sibling. Why did you decide to leave Chicago after living here for 12 years?
It was driven by a couple of things. I wanted to see what the medium of television and film had in store. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to make a little more money, even though I was making a very nice living here. And I had a couple of friends, Rondi Reed and Amy Morton, who were interested in trying Los Angeles out, so we all went out there at the same time. It was as much curiosity as anything else, and what I’ve discovered is that the theater in Los Angeles is mostly pretty poor. Every once in a while there will be a really interesting production of something, but usually it’s a group of people that have come from university programs together and started their own company. Or some people that have moved as a group from another city, Seattle or Portland or Dallas, and they do a production. But most of the commercial theater in Los Angeles is really lacking in originality, lacking in risk-taking. There’s just nothing to compare the theater world in Chicago with Los Angeles, and I think what Rondi and Amy and I all discovered was that if we want to do good theater, we have to come back. So that’s been the reason why I’ve gone back and forth for all these years.
What is the main thing that separates stage and camera work for you?
The fact that you don’t really have any control when you’re doing television or film. You’re just a small cog in a very large machine, and it’s very rare that someone actually asks you for your opinion on anything. You basically are hired for a specific task, which you’ve shown them already in your audition or they already know you can do, and they very rarely want you to vary that. That gets old. You get to feeling as though you’re only using three percent of your creative energy when you do work like that. The monetary rewards cannot be argued, it is very lucrative and I’ve been very lucky to get a good amount of work the entire time I’ve been there, but the creative input is practically nil.