Artist of the Week Shannon Friel ’24 on Authenticity in Language

I pride myself on knowing a lot about my friends (maybe even at times too much), but when Shannon Friel ’24 told me a few weeks ago that she was heavily involved in the theater department, my jaw dropped. Not because I was surprised she would do theater – this woman is one of the most talented people I know – but because I felt like I had just unlocked a new lore about one of my dearest friends on campus. I was on the edge of my seat. 

“I’ve done theater since I was eleven, and then I had a little hiatus when I was trying to get into high school, and my high school did not have a theater. In high school I had to do a video for my Latin class where the teacher said to not make it funny, so I took it very seriously. People after told me they really enjoyed it and were entertained, which made me want to go back to theater.”

Shannon, now a linguistics major with a minor in Russian, described how her current area of study was founded on her past. “I grew up bilingual and was always curious about languages. I wanted to understand how my bilingual brain worked because there were patterns I had that were different from other people and wanted to understand what was going on.” She explained how phonetics interested her because of the way in which she would be able to further her understanding of pronunciation as an actress. 

At Swarthmore, she took her first acting class, Acting I, during the spring 2021 semester and went onto act t in the fall 2022 orientation play; “It was a big moment for me because — I forget the character’s name — I was throwing condoms at Jenna [Takach ’24] … that was my big break on campus: me in the amphitheater throwing condoms at Jenna.” She goes on to say that her character was made to be annoying, and when audience members came up to her after to tell her so, she felt relief, “I did my job.”

Speaking to her, I could almost feel the love she has for theater radiating. The way she spoke, her body language, the shine in her eyes – I could tell the stage and theater were where she felt comfortable. I went on to ask her if there were any professors or classes that stuck out to her, to which she responded by describing her experience with Visiting Assistant Professor Alex Torra, with whom she took Acting II. 

“I really liked the notes he gave me as an actor, I’ve never gotten that type of feedback as an actor; he was making me do incredible stuff — it was a challenge,” she said. 

Shannon, who grew up in Argentina, describes the difficulties with connecting to certain characters. During her Acting II class, she had to perform in “The Wolves,” a play about a teenage girls’  soccer team experiencing high school life together, only for one of them to die at the end. Shannon describes that her character, an American girl from the suburbs, was difficult to connect to, as she lived an experience to which Shannon could not relate. She said, “I think [Torra] helped me walk through this [disconnect] because this character was kinda quirky, kinda crazy, and he helped me create a realistic character from an experience I did not have.”

When I asked her more about her theater experience in Argentina, Shannon told me how she would go to theater school every Saturday from when she was fifteen to eighteen. I asked her about how her experiences and thoughts about theater have changed over time, and she explained the differences  between American and Argentinian theater.

“A lot of people in America have theaters in their high schools that are well-funded — that was not my case … being in America made me appreciate and think of a new audience I had to present to, but also made me appreciative of my Argentinian culture that I was able to use within theater.” 

I was interested in how Shannon is able to channel her various interests into theater. Last semester, she explained, she participated in Rose Palmieri ’24’s original performance, “Up for Grabs.” The show was inspired by an Italian play Palmieri saw in the Czech Republic, for which she could not understand any of the dialogue but left understanding the plot. 

“I don’t think I’ve had the chance to do characters that I could relate to from a linguistics standpoint. I wanted to use my multilingual background, so what we did was an improv show where it was me talking in a ton of languages, but the idea was that I did not need to be understood [linguistically] by the audience but rather have our emotions be conveyed. It was a very liberating experience for me.” This is a great moment to highlight that Shannon speaks English, French, Spanish, Russian, and is now learning German. 

Throughout my conversation with Shannon, I could understand her love for her Argentinian culture and life, so it came as no surprise when she explained her desire to do a production entirely in Spanish. 

“I really miss speaking Spanish on the stage, and it doesn’t even have to be in my Argentine accent, but the ability to go on stage and to be at my most authentic self would be beautiful.” She went on to describe languages as “houses; they’re all built differently but some just make you feel more at home.”

Shannon is also interested in journalism, a field she would not have pursued if it weren’t for Lecturer Adriano Shaplin, who teaches playwriting. It was in this class that Shannon discovered she could write, and write things that were funny. She described how she began to write playwrights that were fun while still holding close to her Argentine heritage. Her final play was entitled “Botox.”

 “[It was a reflection] on Argentinian society’s standards on beauty and it was about characters falling apart once age hits them. There’s an element to them that is fake and there’s a moment where there’s a confrontation between two characters where they argue about how old and fake they are, and one stabs another in the boob and it explodes because it was fake. It was very literal but very fun. I do journalism now because I learned how to write in [Shaplin’s] class.”

When considering how emotionally charged her performances are, it is no surprise that Shannon tries in all her work to connect with the audience and make them feel seen. 

“I think that I just really want [the audience] to laugh, that’s really important to me. I really like engaging with the audience, so for me to see them and see that we see each other is very beautiful to me.” 

The way that Shannon speaks about theater and production shows the amount of care and love she pours into her work. Naturally, I am on the edge of my seat to see her in the Senior Company show later this semester, where she will be playing an Italian waiter. I hope that wherever life takes her, she can carry her love of theater and performance with her, and grace her audiences with her humor, intelligence, and love for performance.

Hoping to be able to live life in such a way as her, I asked Shannon if she had any advice for anyone wanting to go into theater, or people in general.

 “I think we are sometimes scared of things, and sometimes we just need to find the fun in the fright. Especially when you are alone in front of 50 people, you should find the fun in it and own up to the moment you have on the stage.” 

Although not a performer, I plan to take Shannon’s advice — treating the world as my stage and treasuring the moment I have on it. Shannon’s experiences and thoughts inspire me, and I can only hope that she continues to inspire those around her with her performances and productions.

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