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Prison Freaks: A Talent Show

Shannon O'Neill as "Poly" | Photo: Matt Mayer

By: Keith Huang

In Shannon O'Neill's "Prison Freaks: A Talent Show," the veteran UCB improviser and teacher has compiled a cavalcade of prison misfits so freakish in looks and behavior that they come full circle to funny. Set in the fictional (or prophetic) Charlie Sheen Prison, the show starts with a computerized emcee who offers tips on how not to get attacked by the inmates. O'Neill (Stepfathers, Thunder Gulch) then gets introduced as four different characters, each of whom is a powder keg of pain, suffering and fury just waiting to explode. How each character seemingly hides that is what makes O'Neill so masterful at balancing comedy and tension. With direction from Will Hines (The Stepfathers), intricate video and graphic design by Matt Mayer and stage and costume help from Polo Tate and Kat Toledo, "Prison Freaks" is a perfect representation of O'Neill's sense of humor -- you won't find anything conventional here. But that's just how she likes it. At the risk of getting stabbed in the neck with a dull pencil, The Apiary asked O'Neill a few questions about the show:

What was the inspiration for "Prison Freaks: A Talent Show"?
Five years ago I did a show called "Laid Up" with Julie Brister and Erin Rose Foley. When writing the sketches, we kept the idea or theme of prison in mind, and most of our sketches wound up being about the characters that felt like prisoners of their own body or life situations. We had purchased prison jumpsuits to use for promoting the show, and when I put mine on the first time, I knew I was going to have to do a show all about prison. Little did I know it would take me five years to make it happen and figure out exactly what it would be.

You've been in numerous shows on the UCB stages, but this your first one-person show. Why did you wait so long?
It is funny you ask that, because just the other day I finally realized myself why it has taken this long. Ten years ago I moved to New York and started taking classes at The UCB. It only took me about six weeks to get the first draft of this show written, but I honestly feel that it has taken me 10 years to find myself, believe in myself and trust myself, both as a person and a comedian. A one-person show is terrifying -- I am putting who I am out there. Even though I am not telling a life story, I am telling the audience that I think this is funny. And I finally, 100%, trust my own sense of humor (insert fart noise).

After I saw your show, two of the phrases I heard most from people at the bar were: "hilarious" and "fucked up." What do you make of that?
That means I am doing the job I set out to do, which is to be myself.  I have a dark, warped sense of humor so I don't  get compliments like: "That was really cute and adorable." I usually get: "What's wrong with you?",  "Jesus Christ" and "YOU'RE Married?" And those are the ones I enjoy the most.

There's also a lot of improv in "Prison Freaks: A Talent Show." Do you prefer the improv over the written material?
I could never choose, which is why I think I had so much fun putting both in my show. I really love those improvised moment, but I'm also thankful to have things planned out that I believe in.

What did Will Hines bring to your show as a director that you didn't already have in place?
Will has a brain that functions on a much more human level than my own. One of the biggest and smartest decisions was the order of the characters, and that was Will. He explained it to me from a human's point of view. Will also gets my sense of humor. We took a sketch class together back in the late 1700's and I remember him laughing at my weirdness back then. So I knew he would support and trust my choices, but he also knows when to say "Hey, weirdo, I like the idea, but it is too fucking weird, re-word it so it's not so fucking weird, you weirdo."

How would you describe your writing process for this show?
When I was writing "Prison Freaks" I gave myself the challenge of doing a new character every week for four weeks. I am lucky enough to have very supportive friends: Justin Purnell gave me three school Night slots and Steven Michael Rondel and Molly Lloyd gave me a slot at Muffins in the Window. I was able to test all these characters individually in front of an audience before writing a show around them. So deadlines are what make me write; unfortunately, self-imposed deadlines are hard to keep. But lately I have finally realized I am not a spry little comedy lad anymore, so the deadline of DEATH has resulted in me being much more productive.

enda - I love mustaches and wigs, so I put them on, talked and walked around and figured her out. 
Poly - the first character I came up with. I signed up to do a character at School Night, having nothing prepared at all yet. I opened up my prop bin at home, found my jumpsuit and a mask I purchased a year or so ago, put them both on, walked around, found a voice and figured it out. After that school night, I knew I had a show Idea I believed in. 
Dinkle Toots - I was at a point where I knew I was now building a prison Talent show, so I was just searching for more freakish looks, again  looked in my prop bin, found some unused items and decided this dude likes to tell jokes. 
Howard Defendorfer - the name comes from my childhood. My dad used to say it all the time, and I honestly don't know why, I should probably ask him.  I think it made us laugh as kids. It is such a cartoonish name, so I created a character that to me is a caricature of a prisoner, so it just made sense that he also likes to draw caricatures.

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