Shannon O’Neill InterviewPosted: 20 May 2013
She can be seen every Friday night with The Stepfathers, every Sunday night in UCB NY’s longest running show, ASSSSCAT 30000 and hosting her monthly talk show “Strangers Wanted”, during which she hauls audience members onto the stage to be her announcer, her guests and even her house band. Outside of UCB she can be seen on The Chris Gethard Show (www.thechrisgethardshow.com), in her web series “Shannon O’Neill is…” and on twitter @spotastic. Shannon is one of the international guests of the Slapdash Festival: performing, teaching and hanging out.
How did you get into improv?
In college I was a communications broadcasting major, so I was mainly into TV-type stuff. I was in an organisation called the National Broadcasting Society and we took a trip to Chicago for a conference. I knew Second City was there, and I was always a huge Saturday Night Live fan so I wanted to see where all the people on SNL had come from. I organised my own little side-trip to see Second City and I was blown away.
They did sketch but they had an improv set afterwards. That blew me away, seeing it live in person, and I decided I wanted to try it. So when I moved to New York in 2000 I took my first class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
My first exposure as a kid was Whose Line is it Anyway? on TV. It must be very different to be introduced to improv live.
I hadn’t seen Whose Line…? until I was in college, it was interesting to me but when I saw improvisation live, it was like: “That’s insane!”
And how did that first class go?
It was awesome, I was hooked after the very first class. It just felt like it was tapping into a part of my brain I hadn’t tapped into before. It was like an awakening, this was something that was really fun and it felt like my brain could handle it. So I didn’t stop, actually kind of became addicted [laughs].
You’ve been doing improv constantly since then?
Since 2000 yeah, my first class at UCB theatre was June 2000, so it’s almost been thirteen years.
Has that been a journey of ups and downs in terms of learning and doing shows?
Oh yeah, always ups and downs. Still, if you do shows that don’t feel so good you try to take lessons from them and kind of realise where you were. Maybe I was not focussed enough or something like that.
At the beginning mainly ups because I was just constantly learning, and I knew I was in the stage of learning and trying things. So in classes when I messed things up I would be OK with it because I was trying things out all the time, learning new forms and whatnot. But once I got on a team at the UCB theatre, then it was more pressure. Which is great; I’ve worked hard and am now performing on stage there regularly, but a bad show is a little more down, because its not just a class show, it’s a “show” show.
Do you think it is important as a performer to strike that balance between honing your own voice and also thinking about the audience and giving them a certain level of show?
Yes, you want to be able to explore and try new things, and UCB is really good about that.
For example, now I’m at a place where I watch teams and help figure out who gets placed. So I’m on the other side, and we are aware if a team is experimenting with stuff, we know they are doing that, so they’re given a little leeway to have some clunky shows whilst they are challenging themselves. So the theatre very much embraces that experimentation.
Sounds like you have found a spiritual home at UCB because of that?
Yeah. I found likeminded people. I get to see other people try out, not just improv, but written shows, sketch stuff. People are trying to find their voice, and UCB allows for that.
We have shows that sell out all the time. Our weekend shows pretty much all sell out, and those shows are the ones that subsidise the more experimental stuff where you might not get as big a crowd. That’s a really cool awesome thing about the theatre, because we are basically all supporting each other.
I do my Friday night and Sunday night shows, which sell out, and that’s awesome to have that really big crowd, which is going to allow somebody to come in and do a weirder show.
You really get to give back to the place you learned from.
What are the memorable shows you’ve seen along the way?
The ones that hit are the ones where you see something new that you’ve never seen someone do before.
My very first improv show of course, I had never seen it live before.
One of the first Harolds I saw at the UCB theatre: I remember being blown away by it, just seeing how these characters were coming back and these connections being made at the end.
Then as you see a lot of improv, they are all still really good but the inspiring ones space themselves out.
There was a Harold team called Neutrino that I saw. They were playing football, and watching them throw a football that wasn’t there: that blew my mind!
The first show I saw where the performers were really interacting with the audience, and I think most of the UCB 4 were in it: Amy [Poehler], Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts, Adam McKay and Ali Farahnakian. It was just this amazing interactive show, they were being funny and yelling at the audience, not going over the limit, but being very hilarious.
I thought, “Oh wow, you can interact with the audience and they will enjoy it!” That really blew my mind. I really like to do that, not necessarily in improv, but in my non-improv work I like audience interaction.
Most recently the first musical improv show I saw, Baby Wants Candy, based in Chicago.
Improvised Shakespeare, when I saw them, in fact every time I see them! They are mind-blowing. Seeing something I know I would never be capable of is awesome. That’s a whole other level, the Improvised Shakespeare. Always see stuff that’s beyond your reach. Improvised Shakespeare is way above me, but there’s something in-between that I can keep striving for.
I really think it’s important to try new stuff, challenge yourself. In any art form, go do something you would not normally do.
What do you do outside of improv that feeds back into your art?
A good thing for me is that I’m married, and my husband is not a performer. So I have somebody who has a normal life. I have that great connection with someone who is not in the comedy world.
I like to read. I’m trying to read all the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, because it’s almost a guarantee of all the books being good but also a wide variety of books that win.
I’m into animal rescue because I’m an animal lover, that’s something I read about. That’s a sad thing I read a lot about, like puppy mills [laughs].
Most of my friends are from the theatre, but I also love basketball so I joined a league in the city. I got put on a team of complete strangers, and that’s been great, because I’m having non-comedy conversations. Although one of the girls is a comedy nerd I have slowly found out! [laughs]
I like real crime documentaries: those are fucked up and dark. My brain does like to read about dark terrible things. I did a one-person show a few years ago, called Prison Freaks: four real fucked up dark super insane characters, almost like monsters.
One was a cyclops, one was covered in eyeballs, all freak experiments. They all had dark terrible pasts, but I made them in a way that the audience still enjoyed watching them and could laugh at their good qualities, hard as that was.
There is an indie movie theatre near my apartment that has a lot of good stuff I see. Pretty normal stuff I guess.
Apart from the puppy mills and dark crime.
Yeah, yeah [laughs]!
I think a lot of that stuff is the normal way of charging yourself up for life, never mind art.
Yes, also I really try to follow that improv thing of just say yes to things.
Today I don’t have to go into the city, but if somebody called up with a cool thing to go try that I normally never do I try to say yes to it.
That’s something from improv you decided to take into the rest of life?
Definitely. In improv by just saying yes to stuff, you can find and discover really neat scenes. At the end you try to describe the scene and it sounds so insane but it made sense because you got there in a deserved way. You were just saying yes to the fun ideas on the way.
That really is how life works in the long run!
Yeah! Even this trip to London, obviously it’s an easy yes to say, but I’ve never been to London before. So I’ll be saying yes to lots of stuff when I’m there, stuff I’ve never done before!
What are the other things you use from improv in day to day life?
It’s always helpful with conversations. You really do learn to be a better listener in conversations. Not always, I still sometimes zone out!
I think it allows me not to get as frustrated with stuff. So, for example, if you order food in a diner and it comes and it’s wrong, some people blow up at that stuff, but there are no mistakes in improv so I try and let that be true in life.
In improv we always say “remember, don’t invent”. You can always use stuff from your life. So with family stuff I might listen to an opposing point of view more than I would before. Instead of just saying I disagree with you, now I say “Tell me more”, not in an aggressive way, just to hear more about what they’re saying. Just to observe their behaviour. I can let them know I don’t agree with their point of view but I will still listen to what they have to say. But then I might also edit that conversation and call “Scene!” [laughs]
That is a great like skill I had not considered, being able to eject from conversations with editing.
Yeah: “We have reached the peak of this conversation, time to go!” [laughs]
So on that note of ending a conversation, what are your final thoughts about coming over to the UK?
I’m really excited about coming over. Our student body at UCB is getting more and more diverse. I’ve had quite a few British students, even just visiting for short amounts of time or move here to study, and some of the lingo is different. I’m excited to see what I’m going to say which will be misinterpreted, and be exposed to British slang.
I’m excited about the ensemble stuff that Alan [Starzinski] and I are going to do. That’s always the fun part of festivals, getting to play with people you’ve never played with before and might not play with again. It’s great, it’s exciting.
Also the teaching, to come over and share what I know with groups and students.
We are always happy to get experienced teachers come over! Thanks Shannon, and we look forward to seeing you in the UK.