'How to be present': Shannon Stott believes improv skills can help you on the stage and in daily life
Last year, when the world entered lockdown mode and live, in-person performances pretty much just stopped being a thing for a while, improv performer Shannon Stott found herself with some time on her hands and some decisions to make. She found that some folks in the improv community adapted to streaming shows quickly, while others were less enthusiastic.
“People were trying to figure out what improv was, especially when it went into the pandemic [lockdown], right? Like, how do we do it?” Stott says. “And a lot of people were just like, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not doing this. I’m waiting until we get back on stage – this is an artform that’s meant for the stage.’ And it was such an interesting reaction, because as improvisers, isn’t [adapting to change] the nature of the beast?”
Having some time and looking for a way to keep improv as an active part of her life, Stott found herself coming back to a business idea she’d had for long time, which involved expanding on the improv classes she’s given to aspiring performers for years. “First off, I love improv,” Stott says. “I love it. It is connecting for me as a person, like to be more connected to myself. I find that it connects people to each other. When you’re an artist or you’re passionate about something or there’s something that you do and it fuels you, you’re gonna find a way to do it regardless of what the circumstances around you are. I wanted that feeling of… if I am by myself, how can I continue to connect to people? Especially through this modality, this artistic form?”
Stott believes that the techniques learned in studying improv aren’t only applicable to people who want to perform onstage; they’re useful to lots of people in their daily lives. “Improv teaches you communication skills, how to show up, how to be present, how to say no, how to say yes, how to build worlds for yourself that you feel safe in,” she says. “Improv does all of that. And if I could push that out [into the world], that was like my gift to myself and to others.”
She founded Improv On and Off the Stage as an online school a year ago. “We offer classes for improvisers and non-performers,” Stott says. “So if you’re really looking for how to ground in, make your performance better, we have some really high-level classes. We’re talking about how to deal with stereotypes onstage, how to deal with invisible disabilities onstage. How do we address these types of things, how do we move through, onstage, in the moment? And then for people who are not interested in becoming an improviser [or] being onstage, things like ‘Bend Don’t Break.’ It’s all about how to stay in yourself while working with other people, how to build something with others while not breaking to the will of others, right? How do I say yes to myself? That concept works onstage, but it also works in families, conversations, work, whatever it is.”
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of Improv On and Off the Stage, Stott is planning a gala that’ll take place in the real world in front of an actual audience (while also being available online for folks who prefer the comfort and/or safety of their own homes). The gala performance will consist of three parts. “The first section is the cast of Improv On and Off the show – we do a show that is all about how improv shows up in our lives. So we have a behavioral analyst who shows up and we also have a drama therapist. There’s me and my improv partner and we do scenes and then the drama therapist and the behavioral analyst talk about what they see in those scenes. Usually we have a theme, something like bravery or love, things like that. How do we find those themes in our lives, how do we get them and how does improv help us navigate bravery, love, confidence, things like this,” Stott says. “And then part two of the gala is my own personal one-person show, and that is titled All Together Now. The concept is, how do we get an entire group of people to get on the same page and create a story based on their own experiences in life and then use me as a conduit for telling that story? What I’m looking for is: how do I show up in the world feeling like I can move through it, that I’m accepted, that people see me, that people very much have the capacity to open up and think to themselves, ‘Oh, these are the things that you might be going through. Therefore I will react to you in this way.’ And I can do the same for them. And in this show, we get some of that. We get to feel some of that.”
Laughing, Stott adds, “And then the last part of the show is dancing. I mean, I could really go into ‘You know, music and how music forms improvised music and dance and improvving in your body… I could get into that, but also I like to dance. Other people should enjoy dancing as well. Everyone is invited to dance!”