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Wandering Billy

As Seen on TV

Greensboro native Shannon Cochran returns from screen to stage

By Billy Ingram

“Many roads lead to Rome, it doesn’t matter which one you take, as long as you mean to get there and you keep walking.”      — Author Unknown

Recently, I caught up with a former Page High School classmate, Shannon Cochran, who has appeared on an impressive number of the comedy and drama series you’ve likely watched over the last 30 years: NCIS, Fringe, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Law & Order, Modern Family . . . the list goes on and on. She emasculated George Costanza (“What’s wrong with you?!?”) in the seminal Seinfeld episode, “The Parking Space.” On the big screen, she was Senator Tal’aura in Star Trek: Nemesis; and best known, perhaps, for invoking nightmares as Anna Morgan’s sinister spirit in the horror classic, The Ring.

However, theater is Shannon’s true calling, primarily but not exclusively in Los Angeles and Chicago. In fact, she has been nominated no less than a dozen times for the Windy City’s prestigious Joseph Jefferson Equity Award for acting excellence, winning twice. This talented Greensboro gal has also brought home Obie and Theatre World Awards for a role she originated in the psycho-thriller, Bug, at London’s esteemed Gate Theatre.

Shannon made her original TV debut on my weekly, summer of ’75 Public Access comedy half-hour comedy show that boasted a budget of 23.5 cents. Can I spot talent or what?

Shannon contracted the acting virus — no vaccine anticipated — at Page in Louis Hrabovsky and Frank Holder’s whimsical (I can say it  ’cause I saw it) 1975 production of West Side Story. “I was Anita,” Shannon recalls of her transcendent performance. “Funnily enough, for a skinny, 5-foot-10 Irish girl, I played Anita four times in my career before it became completely inappropriate for me to play a Puerto Rican.” Page’s music teacher, Sam Doyle, was the show’s choral director. “He was a huge influence on me,” Shannon recalls. “Fortunately I’ve been able to tell him that.”

As a teenager, this statuesque ingenue blitzed the stage in productions mounted by Youth Theater, and Barbara Britton and Carol Lindsay’s Livestock Players Musical Theatre, which was situated during the summer in a sprawling cattle barn on Burlington Road where, perhaps hours earlier, the spotlight shone more on cud than scenery chewers. “I did that for several years in high school,” Shannon says. “Those people introduced me to theater and were my first teachers.”

After a stint at Wake Forest University, then graduating Summa Cum Laude from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Shannon barnstormed the boards up and down the East Coast. “When the rights for A Chorus Line were released nationally, I came to Chicago to audition,” she says. At age 24, she landed that role, and then another immediately after. “I just fell in love with Chicago. Sometimes you land in a city and you know it’s the right place to be. I started working and never stopped.”

In the late-1980s, she began making three-month-long excursions into Los Angeles for pilot season before returning to the Windy City. She did that for about five years, then, as demand for TV spots increased, moved to Los Angeles around 1995.

Distinct differences exist performing for the stage as opposed to television and movies, where you arrive on set, character established. “I love the rehearsal period where you’re stumbling around, trying to figure things out,” says Shannon. Also missing for her is that visceral audience reaction theater affords. “In TV and film there’s lots of sitting around and waiting. At times it just seems more technical than anything else, but the money is obscene compared to what you make onstage.”

In Los Angeles, an actor can endlessly guest-star on TV shows, never get typecast, make piles of money, and still be available for theater gigs. “That’s kind of what happened,” Shannon says. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the greatest thing.’ I did probably 50 or 60 commercials in my 20s and 30s.”

In The Ring, no one stroked a mane more menacingly than Shannon, depicting a malevolent matriarch who comforts a vulnerable child by bagging her head before chucking her into the well. “I had a great, great time because I got to wear waist-length hair extensions for a month,” she says. “It was thicker than a horse’s tail. People stopped and stared at me wherever I went.”

On television, you might recognize her as Pam’s raven-haired mom on The Office. “I got so much feedback from that,” Shannon tells me. “They decided to do another storyline with Pam’s mom, but I was on the road so Linda Purl replaced me.”

Shannon was particularly impressed working alongside Patrick Stewart, who directed the Star Trek: Next Generation episode for which she was cast. On day one, “He gathered all the actors together to talk about the scenes, like they were [individual] acting scenes. And I thought, ‘Somebody pinch me!’” That’s highly unusual on a television production, but, “People that come from the theater have a kind of humility because they did the same thing we all did, going into a barn and putting on shows.”

She made a guest appearance at her first Star Trek convention last summer: “I got to be a Klingon on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I’ve never felt so powerful in my life. And I met my husband on the set.” She was seen on two episodes of that series, but “had never been to a convention. The people were so great and they also wanted a picture from The Office or from Seinfeld, my first Hollywood job.”

Portraying Barbara Fordham in the touring company of Tracy Letts’ Tony Award-winning melodrama, August: Osage County, led to brawling under the lights with Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons. “She’s known for being irascible,” Shannon confesses of her choleric costar. “A great actress who did a very, very believable job, but she was not pleasant to tour with and not nice to most of the cast. So we all kind of rallied around each other. A wonderful show to be a part of but I cannot bring myself to compliment Estelle Parsons’ personality.”

Shannon’s dream role? “The one I’m playing now, which I also got to play seven years ago, Regina in The Little Foxes, one of the great roles of the theater. It’s a mature actress’s dream. A Little Night Music is probably my favorite musical, but Regina is my favorite role.” This may surprise you but the theater isn’t all curtain calls and stage door Johnnies. The night before we spoke, Shannon broke a finger onstage, requiring emergency surgery.

Her undoubtedly proud mother resides in Greensboro. While she visits every two or three months, Shannon Cochran is not likely to return to the Gate City to live. “I’m sure I could fall back in love with Greensboro. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to bigger city environments. San Francisco [where for almost 2 years she demolished audiences in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child], Los Angeles, Chicago, I’ll probably always live adjacent to one of those cities.”

So, no more shows between cattle auctions?  OH

Billy Ingram’s new book about Greensboro, EYE on GSO, is available wherever books are sold or pulped. Shannon Cochran’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Send in the Clowns” from a Writer’s Theatre performance of A Little Night Music can be found on YouTube.