Not even a can of the most intense Raid can stop Bug, at Greenwich Village's Barrow Street Theater, just off Seventh Avenue in Greenwich House, from becoming the most talked- about play of this season. For good measure, you can throw in its motley crew of trailer park trash characters.
Bug has pedigree: penned by the very unassuming actor Tracy Letts of Killer Joe fame; the recipient of the type of reviews producers of Broadway plays dream of; honors, such as three Drama Desk nominations: Shannon Cochran for Outstanding Actress, Dexter Bullard for Outstanding Director, Brian Ronan for Outstanding Sound Design - and four Lucille Lortel Awards [Best Play, Director, Lighting, Sound Design] and a nomination for co-star Michael Shannon [last seen here in Killer Joe].

In late February, Bug came out of the starting gate, without a lot of prospects. Capitalizing on Letts' name and his success Off-Off Broadway with Killer Joe, and the 1998 revival starring Scott Glenn [nominated for a Drama Desk Award as Outstanding Actor for his portrayal of a cop turned hitman], it soon developed a cult following.

Then came the reviews, which called Bug "noir" and "lurid," "obscenely exciting" and "criminally good." Ben Brantley, in his Times money review, wrote "Buckle up and brace yourself for the theater season's wildest ride." He went on to give high praise to the writer, director and cast. Steve Martin came early on, as did Diane Sawyer, who, thinks Cochran, "exhorted her husband [Mike Nichols] to come. He did, and he's been sending people by the dozen."

Suddenly, Bug began steamrolling into a must-see. That's not to say the madness it eschews is everyone's cup of tea. Some say it's the best thing they've seen in years; others, the worst. Some claim it to be quite creepy; others call it provocative.

It impressed Richard Avedon enough for him to set up a photo shoot with Shannon Cochran, who plays the lonely and much-put-upon heroine Agnes White amidst all the infestation in a motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, and co-star Shannon for this week's New Yorker. And they appear as they do for quite a while in Bug: stark-raving naked.
"It's thrilling!" bellows Cochran with excitement. "It's going in with our review. It's amazing that two months down the line [of their opening] that Richard Avedon made that happen. He saw the show and was knocked out by it."

As if all this is not enough, on Wednesday, Cochran was awarded Theater World's coveted Most Promising Off-Broadway Debut Award. "I'm always pinching myself to make sure I'm not dreaming!" she says. "So many wonderful things have happened." What's the best? Cochran doesn't hesitate in answering: "Getting married. Finally. That sounds funny, but what I mean is that it's wonderful, after all this time, to find the person you can let your breath out with and think 'Okay, great. Thank God I found you.'"

Acclaimed for her work in Chicago, especially her work with Steppenwolf, Los Angeles and London, it's a wonder it's taken so long for Cochran to make her New York debut. Ironically, it's with a job she almost didn't get.

Bug co-star Shannon met Letts at Chicago's Red Orchid, one of the groups specializing in "guerilla theater." After the success of his Grand Guignol Killer Joe in Chicago, in which Shannon played brother Chris, they took it to London. Fast forward to 1996 and the same scenario with Bug.

"They needed a forty-something woman to play Agnes," recalls Cochran. "They were young and didn't know any forty-somethings. They asked around, and someone suggested they audition me. I came in and read. They asked if I wanted to go to London and make no money. They were expecting me to say no, but I told them, 'Are you kidding? I've never been to London. I'd love to!' And I jumped aboard, originating the role at London's Gate Theatre, and Tracy and I have been friends ever since."

When she read the script, Cochran easily connected with Agnes: "I've also known women in her situation. I see them everywhere. It makes me cry. You can spot them on the street and on the subway, even on Rodeo Drive. They're just better dressed."

Cochran doesn't see her Agnes as stupid or a victim: "She's someone who was trying to get away from one thing and got herself into something else. She took two left turns and they were the wrong turns."
The actress doesn't think of Bug as being some "out there, surreal adventure. If you need someone in your life, you'll believe almost anything to convince yourself that's the person for you. And if you find the person that's really the person for you, you'll do anything."
She credits Letts for having "this amazing and particular talent for writing women who have made a couple of bad choices and end up in circumstances where they're trapped and isolated. "

When time came to cast Bug for New York, Cochran was appearing at Steppenwolf in Letts' Man from Nebraska [a 2004 nominated finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, which was selected by Time as one of the Top Ten Plays of 2003.] She was a bit let down when she wasn't hired, "but Michael sort of prepared me, saying everyone felt they needed a name for Off Broadway in order to sell the play. And no one here knew me."

Amanda Plummer, who co-starred in the 1998 Killer Joe revival, was cast. Then, 36 hours before the first scheduled performance, she just up and exited the roach motel. Disaster loomed. It appeared the opening would have to be delayed. Letts had Cochran's phone number. "I got the call on a Friday," she reports, "flew in on Sunday and went before the critics on Thursday. Talk about a roller-coaster ride! Thank God, I'd done it before."

Since Bug is so intense, Cochran says she was happy to have done Man from Nebraska just before. "It's not about trailer trash, but a much more sophisticated piece," she explains. "It's about a man in his mid-50s who experiences a crisis when he loses his way. It lacks the violence and visceral quality of Killer Joe and Bug; however, it's every bit as terrifying.

"It's a real departure for Tracy, a sign of his growing up. He's in his late 30s, but he's got a kid's perverse nature. When you meet him, you rather expect he's going to be an oddball, but he's intellectual, well-spoken, almost formal in his speech. He's very precise. That applies to his work onstage as well as his writing. You could be meeting a philosopher. You'd never guess there's a dark, raging fire within. I never wanted to probe too much, because I don't know what's in there."

Cochran grew up in Greensboro, NC, "not exactly a haven of theater. Mom is an English professor. Dad is a man of many talents, who has some unfulfilled theatrical leanings. My brother is a musician in Austin. My parents' attitude was follow your bliss, and we did."

At university, Cochran was a French and English major before feeling disenfranchised. She followed friends to Cincinnati's Conservatory of Music but soon found she didn't want to be a singer or dancer. She didn't follow friends to New York, "but interned at various Equity companies. I got my card in Indianapolis, then followed some of those friends to Chicago. I was literally married to theater. There were some romances, but nothing to ever make me want to settle down. That finally happened last June [to actor Michael Canavan]!"

Cochran was 28 when she "finally, definitely" caught the bug, so to speak, "and knew theater was my path." She wasn't in the audience but onstage -- in Bob Fall's Goodman production of Pal Joey [with choreography by Ann Reinking], playing scheming dancer Gladys Bump [the role played by June Havoc in the original 1940 Broadway production]. On winning a featured Joseph Jefferson Award, she thought more seriously about theater, saying, "I could keep on doing this. I don't think it was winning the Jeff. It was some sort of universal feeling actors get at a certain point. I knew what I wanted and that was to be onstage."

Now 45, but looking much younger, she works at staying in shape -- especially to look good for those nude scenes. "It helps that I started as a dancer," says Cochran. "I've kept my legs!" Offstage, she "likes to wear dresses, so people won't think I always look like I do in Bug!" For those scenes where she doesn't wear anything, Cochran explains she doesn't think about it, "but I just go out and do it. Because of the lighting and intensity, you're really in the moment and don't of the audience. You're so into the story, it all seems quite natural."

Since Bug is two hours and 15 minutes of pretty intense theater and she's onstage 99 percent of the time, how hard is it to sustain the thriller aspects eight performances a week? "It's not hard at all from Tuesday to Friday," Cochran sighs, "however, it gets incredibly hard on Saturday and Sunday. It's something about taking that trip twice in the same day. It's hard in the amount of energy it takes, and in the emotional journey. I don't want you to get all weepy, now, because we are just pretending. But you need the sun to come up and go down before you go through it again."

But she's in New York and starring Off Broadway in a hit -- even if it seems it took forever to happen. Cochran has also done every type of theater imaginable, from Shakespeare and the classics to the contemporary and musicals. Then there was the lure of Hollywood. For several years, she'd work in Chicago, spend three months in Los Angeles for pilot season and return to the "safety" of her hometown.
"Out West, I had a nice run," reports Cochran. "I did six pilots that never got picked up, but most of them don't." There were also guest stints on TV [Frasier, Gilmore Girls, Deep Space Nine and NYPD Blue, where she was one of the first actors on network TV to expose herself - playing a hooker Dennis Franz befriends]. Thanks to being featured in the film "Star Trek: Nemesis" and guest appearances on TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation," she has a sizeable Trekie following.

It's not always easy for actors outside New York, even from a theater town like Chicago, to make that transition. "It was difficult," says Cochran. "Forget forty-five seconds to Broadway. It's taken me forty-five years to get to Off Broadway!"

Chicago was her security blanket. She was quite fulfilled working her way up the various tiers of theater companies. "I met amazing people doing incredible, daring work that may or may not get an audience. They don't get paid much, but they're doing what they love."
After she had a degree of success, she was afraid to come to New York and start from zero. "If I had found the right vehicle," she states, "it would've been different, but that wasn't the case."

Cochran constantly questions acting: "It's a strange and mystifying profession. Why do some actors, whose work is lauded in the beginning, never become stars? They manage to have decent careers, but those big roles elude them. The thing that angers me the most about the business is that it's not a meritocracy. The good and talented people aren't necessarily rewarded; and the bad and untalented aren't necessarily punished. What is the particular magic or the convergence of events that propels an actor to stardom? It's so capricious, but when it happens, it's the greatest feeling of accomplishment in the world. You've excelled, and just by doing something you love to do."

[END]

Tracy LettsShannon Cochran

Key Subjects: 
Shannon Cochran, Bug, Tracy Letts, Killer Joe
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Date: 
May 2004
Subtitle: 
Shannon Cochran and the Acting Bug