Stars of ‘Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson - #2B’ talk improv and friendship

In the pantheon of legendary fictional pairings, Holmes and Watson certainly rank amongst the greats. Synchronicity Theatre seems to understand this, as they have seen fit to cast Atlanta improvisers and long-time collaborators Tara Ochs and Karen Cassady as the iconic, crime-solving duo in their production of Kate Hamill’s “Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson - #2B,” running from Sept. 30 through Oct. 23. Having worked together at Dad’s Garage since 2010, Ochs and Cassady will be making their first appearance together in a scripted show, with Ochs taking on the role of famed and idiosyncratic detective Sherlock Holmes, while Cassady suits up as Holmes’ level-headed associate, Dr. Joan Watson.

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Tara Ochs and Karen Cassady met in 2010 when Cassady began performing at Dad’s Garage. Ochs had been with the company for about a year at that point and was quick to take Cassady under her wing: “Especially back then — and I think still, sadly — there’s not a 50/50, female/male balance. We were defined as ‘female improvisers.’ And this is not to throw Dad’s under the bus; this is the world of improv and comedy. It’s tough. So watching Karen come up in that space ... I don’t want to say that it was a mission for me to make sure women were taken care of in that space, but you kind of have to band together and lift each other up and make sure that our voices don’t get forced into a mold.”

This camaraderie certainly impacted Cassady, who, at the time, considered herself the new kid on the block. She vividly recalls being moved by a compliment that Ochs gave her during her early days at Dad’s Garage and even credits the support of strong female improvisers like Ochs with helping her persevere in the male-dominated landscape. “If I didn’t have people like Tara Ochs, Amber Nash, Megan Leahy, Eve Kruger — I don’t know if I would have continued. I saw how strong and confident these women were, and it was truly inspiring,” she said.

When interviewing these two, it is hard not to feel their history come alive. They pick up on each other’s jokes, take cues off of each other and are constantly feeding on each other’s energy. At multiple points, one of them would voice a thought that sparked a completely different thought in the other, and tangents ensued. At times, I forgot that I was conducting an interview as I became captivated by the dynamic between these long-time partners.

Given this closeness, it is no mystery why they were chosen to portray Holmes and Watson, especially considering the primary focus that Kate Hamill’s script places on the friendship between its two mismatched deuteragonists. I don’t mean to worry the Holmes loyalists: The show still contains plenty of the mystery and intrigue that one would expect. However, Ochs and Cassady agree that it is the “odd couple” dynamic between Holmes and Watson, as well as the offbeat comedy that is typical of Hamill’s work, that takes center stage in this reimagining. “I feel like the heart of the show — what made me excited about it — was, one, it’s a comedic take. The tone of the comedy is just really fun and joyful. And two, it’s an honest and heartfelt friendship. It’s a really fun look at a female friendship,” said Ochs. Who better to bring such a friendship to life than two comedy improvisers with over a decade of fruitful collaboration under their belts?

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

Credit: Casey Gardner Ford

As the two recall, this history made itself felt from the first day of callbacks. Neither knew that the other had auditioned, so they were thrilled when they arrived at callbacks and were given the chance to showcase their chemistry. Ochs remarked, “It felt like we had bypassed so much work because it felt like being with my little sister.” Cassady also noted that since Ochs was already familiar with her boundaries, there was little fear of experimentation during callbacks — there may have even been some butt slapping.

This partnership clearly appealed to director Suehyla E. Young, who just as easily could have decided she would be better served with two actors who didn’t have such a defined dynamic. As Ochs put it, “There’s no world in which we don’t have all of that history active on stage; all of that love and adoration and that dynamic is already baked in.” Luckily, a madcap comedy featuring best friends seems to be exactly what Young — and possibly Kate Hamill — had in mind.

Of course, as the two actresses noted, the comedy and the friendship are not so easily separated. In fact, much of the comedy in this show emerges from the opposition between Holmes’s larger-than-life persona and Watson’s salt-of-the-earth sensibility. Again, Ochs and Cassady’s history together and their improv background comes in handy, as their reactions to each other are crucial to making this show work. This is a less familiar challenge for Cassady, who has traditionally played more quirky, upbeat characters than Watson. However, it seems she has taken the challenge as an opportunity for play and discovery. “I’m not used to playing the straight man, so I was very excited to see how this was gonna go, and it’s so fun being able to react off of Tara’s huge, amazing, hilarious, comedic choices. Having deadpan reactions to that can bring comedy in itself,” she said.

Cassady also noted that she has continued learning from Ochs throughout the rehearsal process, primarily how to maintain her improvisational spirit while working on a scripted piece: “This is a new process for me where we cannot change any words — which is totally understandable — but for me to not ad lib and have to make physical improvised choices ... I’m just watching Tara do it and I’m just like, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it.’”

As for Ochs, her journey has been about finding a balance between the popular image of Sherlock Holmes and the version that Hamill has written, particularly in relation to Holmes’ gender. Neither actress seems terribly concerned with overplaying the gender-bent nature of the script, preferring to focus on how these characters interact with each other and the world around them. Given that improv often requires performers to cross boundaries and occupy unfamiliar spaces at a moment’s notice, it’s likely the experience with improv has contributed to how Ochs and Cassady have negotiated the influence of gender in this production. Rather than women occupying the spaces of men, they are women picking apart the artifacts of masculinity and femininity to conjure up something new. And, if my hour with them is any indication, they will undoubtedly be doing so with bravado, humor and an unshakeable spirit of collaboration.


“Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson - #2B”

Through Oct. 23. $25-$45. Synchronicity Theatre at Peachtree Pointe, 1545 Peachtree St., Atlanta.

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL


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