On the Electra Theatre stage in New York City, Rockdale native Ashley Ward, at left, performs a scene from the popular Off-Broadway spoof “50 Shades! The Musical,” based on the bestselling novel “50 Shades of Grey.” Ward also co-wrote the musical, which, in addition to NYC, is also being staged in Los Angeles and on tour. Shown with Ward are Kaitlyn Frotton, middle, and Chloe Williamson. (Special Photo: Carol Rosegg)
A decade ago, when Rockdale County native Ashley Ward found she wasn’t getting offers for the types of roles she wanted to play in New York City’s theatre world, she made a critical professional decision that changed the direction of her fledgling career.
She decided to wing it.
Ward almost completely divorced herself from traditional theatre and, with the encouragement of her Heritage High classmate (and noted comedic actor) Jack McBrayer, leaped headlong into improvisational and sketch comedy, and she’s been making it up as she goes along ever since.
“I really got disenchanted with musical theatre,” Ward said. “I wanted comedic parts, but was always up for other things. I felt like I was banging my head against the wall. Fortunately, I was able to get involved in the (improv) scene just as it was exploding and it led me down an entirely different road.”
Ward, a 1991 graduate of Heritage, has been involved with a host of improv ensembles in New York, including Big Black Car, Taco Supreme, Baby Wants Candy, The Scene, Diamond Lion, the Striking Viking Story Pirates and the Upright Citizens Brigade. She also found time in 2001 to be a Jeopardy! champion.
“I’d been doing improv for about three years and was with a group called Gun Show and something changed,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m finally getting this.’ And I’ve had that feeling only about a million times since — ‘No, now I get it!’ People started asking me to work with them in different shows and I sort of got a sense people were seeing me as a good player. That made me feel like I was on the right track.
“(Improv) is very challenging, but in a way that appeals to me because it’s all about words and connecting with people and relationships and acting and being funny — all the things I value and like. And the issues I ran into with traditional musical theatre — being typecast and that type of thing — were not an issue in improv because you can play anything you want. You don’t really have any restrictions.”
These days, Ward has shifted gears somewhat as one of the writers and performers in the popular Off-Broadway spoof “50 Shades! The Musical,” based on the bestselling (though much-maligned) erotic novel “50 Shades of Grey” by British author E.L. James.
Ward said the idea for the musical came quite organically through her work with Baby Wants Candy at the annual Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, when a producer’s idea to stage a parody of the hot-selling book became a reality within a month. The play was a hit with Fringe Festival patrons and now has a touring company (which visited the Classic Center in nearby Athens last year) and is currently being staged in New York (at the Electra Theatre) and in Los Angeles (at the Kirk Douglas Theatre).
“It’s been great,” Ward, who was the show’s original director, said. “It was such a great example of what improv has brought to my life. I had no interest in the book and I’d never read it, and I’d never written a musical before. But when I was asked to work on it, I said yes. So the power of saying ‘yes’ and not worrying if you can do it has paid off for me really well.”
Ward, who said she eventually read the book (“It’s not for me,” she laughed. “It’s a little out there”), appears eight times each week in the musical, which opened in New York in early March.
Bitten by the acting bug at a young age (she was “8 or 9” when she appeared with the original Depot Players in “Archie and Mehitable”), Ward was deeply involved in theatre at Heritage — “The Robber Bridegroom,” a one-act version of “Chicago” and “Godspell” were her most memorable high school productions — and earned a degree in musical theatre from Webster University.
Her first taste of improv came while performing with a troupe at Disney World (which is where she met her husband, actor Nate Starkey) and she said she feels she’ll be a player in the improv game for years to come.
“Doing eight shows a week of a scripted show after years of doing a different show every night with different people is a different animal,” she said. “I’m still sorting that out. I’m enjoying myself and would be thrilled to be part of another play or musical, but I have no plans on abandoning improv at all. I think I’m a lifer.
“I’m not casting aspersions on anyone, but a lot of people use (improv) as a way to improve their acting or get noticed by producers or agents or casting people, and once they’ve got what they need from it, they’re done with it. I am definitely not one of those people. I just genuinely love it so much. It’s hard to do as a living, but I’ve sort of cobbled it together somehow.”
Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens. To contact him, email email@example.com.