Shannon Stott Cracks Jokes and Breaks Barriers
Austin’s funniest short-form improviser wants more diverse improv
By Katarina Brown,
1:23PM, Tue. Aug. 29, 2017
If the world has been trying to keep Shannon Stott from the stage, it’s doing a spectacularly poor job. In fact, in early August, Stott was dubbed the funniest short-form improviser in Austin.
It’s a new title – awarded by the Gauntlet, an improv competition that gathered improvisers from all the major theatres in Austin to compete against one another at ColdTowne Theater – but it’s an old passion. Stott has been enamored with improv since before she was allowed to be.
“My parents told me I couldn’t be a high school theatre kid,” Stott says. There’s no resentment in her voice, perhaps because she knows the ending to this story. “They always just said, ‘You can’t do that.’”
Instead, Stott was continually told to focus on her academics as she and her family moved around the world. Beginning high school in Virginia, she followed this advice. However, once she and her family moved to Nairobi, Kenya, the improviser inside couldn’t be contained anymore.
“I picked up an improv book, and I read it on the plane to Nairobi,” says Stott. “I was like, ‘This is my in. Wherever this plane is taking me, I’ll start an improv troupe when I get there.'”
This was before Stott had ever seen an improv show, but something just clicked. She gathered a group of 20 people, invited them all over, and had them play all the improv games she had only ever read about.
“It was amazing. Not only was there a language barrier, but there was a physical communications barrier,” Stott says. “I went to an international school, so you had black Africans from Kenya, white Africans from South Africa, white Danes, black Americans, Indians – all of these people coming together. It was amazing, because they didn’t all think the same thing was funny.”
Still, for a glorious three-rehearsal run (which is when her grades slipped and her mom banned her from theatre once more), Stott helped her young troupe find the humor in each other. Now, more than 10 years later and miles away from those humble beginnings, Stott finds herself queen of improv and attempting to unite a community once more. Except now she’s pushing back against something much stronger than the academic focus of her parents. The diversity that was so effortlessly rich in her first ever troupe now seems almost impossibly varied when compared to the Austin improv scene she’s been a part of for the past five years.
“I’ve found that I don’t see a wide demographic across the board here,” says Stott. “I don’t see anyone from the queer section. I don’t see a lot of black or brown people in our audiences. And because they’re not in our audiences, they’re not reflected on our stages, and because they’re not reflected on our stages, they’re not reflected in our classes, and the cycle continues.”
Critiques against Austin’s lack of diversity are not new and have a wide range, but in the area of comedy, Stott saw a place where she could help. Like improv itself, this desire lay dormant for a long time within her. Deeply entrenched in the improv community for years, Stott both experienced the lack of diversity and counseled friends through it, but that didn’t mean that she originally wanted to fight against it.
“It’s stupid to carry the torch. Nobody wants to carry the torch, or maybe people do, but I don’t want to,” says Stott. She’s already been speaking quickly but now the words tumble out even more rapidly. “But it’s a gift, because it’s the first year of the Gauntlet, and the funniest short-form improviser in Austin is won by a black female. So great, let’s take that momentum and snowball it.”
The Gauntlet had 24 improvisers competing against one another for the title that Stott now holds. To even be among the 24, an improviser had to audition and make the cut. After, Gauntlet shows were held every other week over the course of almost two months. For all but the last performance, the audience chose the advancing improvisers. Then, for the last showdown, a judge from each of the major improv theatres in Austin was elected to decide the funniest short-form improviser. It’s a new title for Austin, but an important one with Out of Bounds Comedy Festival (OOB) now upon the city. Stott was picked time and time again to advance as both an audience and judge favorite. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This win pushed her to finally give in to years of peer pressure from friends and become the torchbearer for comedic diversity.
“With OOB bringing in so many people from out of town, you want all those people to feel comfortable and to feel like they see themselves in the community in which they work,” says Stott. “As far as Austin goes, we’re bringing all these people from outside, so it’s going to look diverse. But then those outside people are going to leave. My hope is that these locals who were so interested and were so excited to see this diversity will choose to stay in the community.”
It’s a hope that Stott is willing to help along. “For the Gauntlet, there was a form that you fill out,” explains Stott. “And one of the questions was if you win, what will you do with your title? I had the foresight to answer: I will use the title to enrich the diversity in the improv community. It’s on paper, so I have to follow through.”
Stott will be doing this at OOB by making herself hyper-present, attending shows, parties, and appearing in Immigrants the Musical (Part 1) on Aug. 30 at the Hideout. More generally however, she’ll just be attending and speaking to people, trying to convince them to join troupes and audiences and enrich the stories people are telling up on the stages.
“After all, when you have different types of people in your audiences, you challenge your players to do different types of stories, and so your improv gets better, your show gets better, the scenes in general get better,” Stott says, making clear exactly what it is she’s fighting for. “Everybody progresses and moves up to this higher level of communication, this higher level of intricacy and togetherness.”
When improv reaches these heights, Stott claims, it’s magic. And, as she is the funniest improviser in Austin, you should probably believe her.
Out of Bounds runs Aug. 29 through Sept. 4 and features over 130 acts from both local and visiting talent.