Women of Improv Month – INTERVIEW – Jess O ‘Neill

This month I chatted to over 30 female improvisers from all over the UK to celebrate the talent that we have – we also discuss some of the important debates surrounding this topic as well. Today I talk to an improviser that is part of Casino Improv and Christchurch Twoprov – Jess O’Neill 

 


 

 

Hello There! Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself! 

Kia Ora! I’m Jess O’Neill.

I have just rolled a new DND character who is a cumbersome druid

I have been summoned to do Jury Duty 4 times

My phone is currently broken due to an excess amount of boob sweat

 

 

 How did you get into improv?

In Christchurch, near where I grew up, there was a company called the Court Jesters who did really classic Theatresports. I loved watching them as a teenager on Drama trips and had a super supportive Drama Teacher who taught us short form over lunch breaks.

 

 

 

 

What inspired you to start improv? 

Watching grown ups genuinely finding each other impressive, I had never seen that before. The community was as appealing as the actual art form.

 

 

 

What troupes are you are a part of? 

Currently I’m in Impropriety in Liverpool but work mainly with Casino Improv in Wigan. I’m also in a Twoprov called Christchurch to Timaru with Becky Webb.

 

 

 

 

Tell us about the styles of improv you enjoy and why

I love long-form narrative. I like free form scene based storytelling with loads of ensemble work probably more so than the really regimented formats. That being said, I love a slacker.

 

 

Who are some Improvisers that you find inspiring and why? 

British Improv Queens Josie Lawrence and Pippa Evans because they will create such fun definition between a really high turnover of characters.

Thomas Middleditch and Zach Woods older UCB and second city stuff because it’s cool watching absurdity have a calmness.

 

 

 

I have read many articles around the debate that it is harder to be a woman in improv – what are your thoughts on this and why?

In my experience, I’ve had to surreptitiously ask permission and be persistent because my offers are not immediately welcome or even heard in a group of determined male improvisors. There is plenty of objectification and infantilising, which I suppose is common in a lot of comedy-adjacent performances, especially when you are the only/or one of the few women on the bill. In my experience, it’s easier to get mad at objectification because people see it happen. But women are so conditioned to be grateful for compliments that others may not realise how reductive certain treatment is. As such, people mistake your understandable frustration with high maintenance.

 

 

 

 

What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?

Take your time – I know it seems really counter-intuitive because Improv trains you to trust spontaneity.

You are already doing plenty so enjoy this moment – trust that the audience doesn’t need non-stop action and laughs. Give yourself permission to build comic and dramatic tension.

 

 

 

Do you find that being a female in an improv show that the suggestions you can get are traditional and stereotypical? How do you feel when you get given these? 

Yes, especially when playing with new improvisors. There is still an unsavoury waft of making women feel like they are they to be married at or sexed upon. It’s really upsetting because someone is indirectly telling you that you have fewer options. And you feel slightly betrayed when it goes down well with the crowd; If that is how you are seen on stage then that is how you are seen in the world which is really depressing.

 

 

 

What have been some of your favourite moments on stage?  

I recently did a musical show with Casino and we were in a crime scene. Over the course of one song, a corpse, a disembodied voice and I all established really wonderfully conflicting arguments about the merit of self esteem and all managed to find the perfect moment of counterpoint. It was one of those feeding moments when you feel like your cast are elevating you because they are great.

 

 

 

What have been some of the worst and why? 

During a Harold, I spent three beats telling someone we weren’t fucking. That was it. I was then shouted over whenever I tried to talk about anything other and even put narrative boundaries between the characters to offer literally any other direction. My director put me on blast for not satisfying the narrative “rule of three”. Within an hour he was pissed at the bar and admitted that he never understood the rule of three.

I was also an inanimate table and still got dry humped for laughs. I was a table. A table.

 

 

 

For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?

Be generous and trust yourself.

 

 

 

What are three things you want to focus on this season with your own improv?

I want to make bigger character choices so I can lead with relationships instead of plot

I’m very keen to play with as many different types of improvisors as possible in different parts of the country. Pick up on different attitudes, experiences and voices.

I would like to work on playing in minor as an ensemble and challenge myself to do an entire show without speaking. It could be rubbish but I’m very curious.

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