Wellingtonian Jennifer O'Sullivan is constantly putting herself on the line.
She's an improv performer - meaning she performs with no script and no clear idea about what will happen (to find out more background, read this link). But while many people would consider this torture, Jennifer wouldn't have it any other way. This year she is performing several pieces at Fringe Festival from a 10-hour Soap about Naenae in Deep Space to a podcast involving...Jam? We sat down for before the Fringe Festival at Nikau to have a chat about how she got into improv theatre and whether it is really easy or harder than traditional scripted drama.
Girl from the Hutt
Jennifer is from Upper Hutt, born at Ellerslie Hospital. She moved into Wellington when she was twenty and has lived here ever since. “My mum always jokes I talk a lot but I just have a sound voice - my mother is partially deaf - and I stomp around the house,” Jennifer says rapidly of her upbringing. Indeed, talking to Jennifer is like a hurricane hitting you as she is able to reel off her history of performance, bang, bang, bang.
"My mum always jokes I talk a lot but I just have a sound voice - my mother is partially deaf - and I stomp around the house,” Jennifer says rapidly"
She attended Upper Hutt College and got into improvisation through a course run at school on theatre sports. It proved to be a key life moment. “My art teacher at school put a notice in our school notices in 1996. It said to come and try out theatre sports. I think I did it because I liked my art teacher” Jennifer laughs. “At university, I joined as it was my hobby. I also got into stand-up comedy at the same time. I had an eighteen-month break and then someone told me they were running a class and I should come."
What is it about improvised theatre Jennifer loves, something which would be many people’s worst nightmare? “The lazy part of me says not having a script. But also it makes it harder. You have to get used to making mistakes. At the same time, that’s where the magic happens. No show is the same - you have to be there. Even if I doing a season of shows you aren’t going to see the same thing because no night has the same audience and anything can happen.
“The lazy part of me says not having a script. But also it makes it harder. You have to get used to making mistakes"
Jennifer works her improv in a structured manner, decided in advance, Jennifer explains. “A few years ago I did ‘Definitely not Witches’, playing on tropes and ideas. We did a further show called ‘Definitely not The Babysitters Club’. We did improvised episodes, looked at the structure of the books and workshoped the characters. By contrast, Chicago-style of improv stands on its own. There’s no other version of it somewhere else. I really like that. It comes from pure performance - from nothing."
A Kiwi Space Station
At Fringe, Jennifer has created ‘Deep Space Nae Nae’. This Fringe is the third time Jennifer has run an improvised soap-a-thon. “Some soap-a-thons in the Improv world go to 52 hours. That’s totally crazy. This year, we’ve 10 episodes of about fifty minutes and the premise is that we are in a New Zealand space station. There are some people who are aliens and some who are humans. And we’ll just see what happens in 10 hours.”
“You can’t beat Wellington on a good day. I hate it but I really do believe that"
'Easy Living' is Jennifer’s other show, based on small town New Zealand life. “It’s based on the kind of characters you know from small town life like the guy who always hangs around the corner shop with a cigarette. Everyone else has known these people.” She’s also done a podcast called ‘What’s your Jam’ interviewing people through Fringe.
More to her than theatre...
Outside of improv, Jennifer loves watching trashy TV or movies like Captain America and the Fast and Furious movies, going to the beach and hanging on Twitter. Walking through Wellington is something Jennifer treasures. “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day. I hate it but I really do believe that. If there were more people would be the best thing but I want it to keep its walkability. It has the best cafe’s, the best people.”
So does doing improv mean she's naturally confident all the time? Apparently not. Jennifer thinks she's confident talking to people on stage when they know she’ll be there. “I don’t like giving impromptu speeches. Also, as a freelancer holding myself to deadlines can be frustrating to manage. I’m confidence doing improv and making offers of ideas which is important for improv. I’m less confident directing people. I don’t like being so hard-assed. I’m excited to study directing in my Masters in Performance at Victoria University coming up this year so I can find a way through.” Jennifer also says she finds sticking to things difficult and seeing them through to the end when there are so many creative pies to have. I’m also bad at doing laundry” she laughs.
“It’s also a place where you can see experienced people pull off new material. Things can be either amazing or a train wreck. It’s incredible”
Finally, I ask her why she love the Fringe Festival? Like many Wellingtonians, Jennifer thinks the Fringe is a great place to explore and find people who haven't done anything before. “It’s also a place where you can see experienced people pull off new material. Things can be either amazing or a train wreck. It’s incredible” she says. I would have to say, I'd agree.