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Off the Cuff

Students in a play.

After forming 10 years ago, the Fearless ShenANYgans improv troupe still makes it up as they go

by Shannon Jack
Senior, public relations major

Have you ever put yourself in a position to fail, or jumped at an opportunity with no guarantee where it will lead? Would you ever throw yourself into a scene without any prior rehearsal, or willingly embarrass yourself in front of your peers? 

While most people try to avoid these questionable situations, the Ohio Northern University musical improvisation troupe, Fearless ShenANYgans, thrives in them. They create their story in the moment and learn a few unexpected lessons along the way. 

In 2008, the Fearless ShenANYgans began as a small group of students who performed for their close friends at the Mathile Center. Over the past 10 years, they’ve grown into a full improv comedy troupe, with 13 members and a large following across campus. They now perform once a month for different audiences at various locations, including the Freed Center for the Performing Arts, The Bear Cave and The Inn at Ohio Northern University. 

If we can make you laugh and take your mind off whatever hectic thing is happening in your life, then we’ve succeeded,” explains senior co-captain Darby Beckwith. “That’s what it’s all about.

During each show, the members of Fearless ShenANYgans work together to create spontaneous songs and narratives based on prompted games and random suggestions from the audience. They develop scenes on the spot, without any preparation or rehearsal. As one might expect, performing arts students make up a majority of the troupe members (although over the years, they have had members from many disciplines), so improv poses a challenge far from their traditional routine of memorizing lines and fitting characters.

“There’s something really empowering about being the one who comes up with the story,” says senior co-captain Stephen Coakley. “You get to come up with the lines. You get to decide when the scene is over and when it’s not. You get to be the boss and show your strengths.”

From left, senior Darby Beckwith, junior Nic Hayman, senior Stephen Coakley, senior Bridget Mahoney and senior Michael Swain-Smith are members of the exec board for the Fearless ShenANYgans.For these students, improv is a chance to step outside their comfort zones and shed their insecurities. It’s a release from the daily stresses of college life, yet still an opportunity to learn.

“I was always one to hold back and never fully throw myself into something,” explains Michael Swain-Smith, public relations chair for the ShenANYgans. “Improv has given me this attitude of ‘It’s all or nothing,’ and it feels good to bring that to light, rather than being timid or unwilling to change.”

Junior Bridget Mahoney agrees. “It’s taught me how to take initiative and be a leader, things that used to be hard for me. I’ve learned to just go for it, and if it’s a mistake, make it a big one because you can always laugh at yourself later.”

In improv, when you’re creating scenes on the fly and responding to challenges as they come, mistakes aren’t just expected; they’re welcomed. Every mistake is an opportunity to grow and improve as a troupe. And sometimes, the most embarrassing failures are the ones the audience loves most.

“You have to fail to find success and figure out what works,” says Beckwith. “You really need a sense with the people you’re working with that you can fail and you can be comfortable. You can learn together, and you can lose together.”

Like any team, camaraderie and trust are essential. The Fearless ShenANYgans work to build this trust during each practice and performance. They often work with professional troupes from across the country, such as Anarchy Musical Improv from Chicago, who share useful techniques and skills as well as new games and ideas for their shows. 

I feel like I have adapted these skills into life and almost every situation,” explains junior Nic Hayman. “If something crazy happens, I’m able to make the best of it and find a solution. Things worry me still, but I’m always able to work my way through it and adapt.

As college students and theatre majors who regularly fill the roles they’ve been given, improv teaches these students the value of breaking the mold and shattering their comfort zones. It has allowed them to face their fears and embrace their failures – life lessons that transcend classroom walls and stereotypical paths to success. 

At Ohio Northern University, the pen is in their hands and the story is for them to create, and you’d better believe it will be funny. 

The Fearless ShenANYgans will perform again on Nov. 3 at The Bear Cave. They will be accompanied by junior music performance major Michael Sapienza on drums.