Shannon Noll uses comedy to defy expectations and define themself | Comedy | Chicago Reader

Shannon Noll uses comedy to defy expectations and define themself 

Comedian Shannon Noll is using their new webseries and photo project to subvert expectations of gender and sexuality.

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Shannon Noll - PHOTOGRAPHY/RETOUCHING TOM MICHAS; PHOTO ASSISTANT JOSUÉ BRIONES
  • Shannon Noll
  • Photography/Retouching Tom Michas; Photo Assistant Josué Briones

Shannon Noll wasn't sure what to expect going into top surgery, partially because for so long they thought it would never be possible. But once they got a job with a tech company that offered insurance covering the procedure, they were surprised by some of the choices that had to be made. "They asked me where I want my nipples put back on, and I was like, 'Does anyone want them not in the normal place?!'"

This is indicative of how Noll handles so many things in life: by finding the funny. They are putting that philosophy into full practice with two comedic projects that aim to change the perception of gender expectations and coming-out stories—in many ways, Noll's surgery is the culmination of both. The first, Just Call Me Ripley, is a webseries two years in the making loosely based on Noll's own more- funny-than-heartbreaking coming-out experience. And the second, Corner Gulch, is a photo series inspired directly by Noll's top surgery. The images feature stylized characters who just happen to be topless, all played by Noll, and all staged in such a way to prove that the naked female body can be more than just sexy: like a male body, it can be played for laughs.

As a performer, Noll is very open about many aspects of their life on stage—their sexuality, their gender identity, their sobriety, their family—but they manage to not let any of those things define them. Whenever Noll walks into a room, whether they are performing or not, they are just Shannon, a calm but powerful presence, always ready to crack a joke without appearing "on," and sociable with other performers and audience members alike. The bizarre, off-kilter aesthetic that drives Noll's work might not be evident on the surface, but those who know them best are all too familiar with the joyous weirdo who lies beneath.

Cassie Ahiers first met Noll ten years ago when the two were both on Columbia College Chicago's improv team, Droppin' $cience. Right away Ahiers was impressed by Noll's strange point of view and grotesque ideas. Their shared appreciation of cringeworthy humor kept them frequent collaborators and friends long after college. In 2017 they worked together on a production that went up at iO that Ahiers calls one of the grossest things they've ever worked on together: Trash Baby Does a Solo Show.

Ahiers directed and Noll starred as the titular Trash Baby, a mythical garbage-loving creature who appeared in a dumpster after a ray of sun hit a crusty old tampon (hey, she warned you). During the show Trash Baby recounts the filthiest parts of their journey to Chicago, and at one point starts painting pictures of people in the audience using ketchup. "It's supergross—you can smell the ketchup," Ahiers says. "They give them this soggy piece of paper of their portrait when they're done. People were on board for it. It really takes a charming and smart person to make people have a good time during that."

It was that path paved with tampons and ketchup that led to Just Call Me Ripley, seven six-minute episodes written by Noll and directed by Ahiers. The series, which premieres Saturday, June 8, follows a confused and directionless bagel shop employee, Ripley, as she struggles to make sense of her sexuality and figure out what attraction means to her. Along the way, everyone in her life, from her best friend (Kaitlin Larson) to her coworkers (Lauren Walker and Matt Brown) to a bagel shop regular (Gary Pascal), tries to define her without giving her the room to come up with the answer herself. Throughout the series Ripley learns that she can't rely on the strong personalities and points of view of those around her to make decisions about her life; in the end, it's up to her.

Just Call Me Ripley
  • Just Call Me Ripley

"I've been realizing how that gray area that a lot of human sexuality and gender fits in isn't really represented in media," Noll says. "I'm hoping this series starts to fill that gap in some way."

Noll describes the series as a coming-out story without the tears. Well, there are some tears, and some moments that tug at your heartstrings, but those are offset with over-the-top characters, nonsensical jokes, and moments of awkwardness. Each episode is charming and authentic, but there's always a punch line that keeps things from getting too sappy and plenty of delightfully hilarious digs at the world of improv comedy.

"To me comedy isn't really even a genre, it's a medium," Ahiers says. "We wanted to showcase something that was like, 'Queer people! You're coming out, and that can be difficult, but also your life can have all these moments that are beautiful and funny.' Even the act of coming out and self-discovery, while painful and uncomfortable, can also be a funny thing. Queer people's stories aren't two-dimensional."

Adding another visual layer to the story is the use of pixelation, a stop-motion animation technique that combines live actors and, in this case, paper cutouts. Three days of the production's nine-day shoot were spent on animation, led by pixelation designer Karly Bergmann. Actors lay on a concrete floor with a camera placed directly above them, and Ahiers and Bergmann would reposition their bodies and surrounding paper cutouts just a tiny bit at a time to achieve a stop- motion animation effect. Ripley is prone to fantasy, especially when it comes to her crush on the bagel shop handywoman (Becca Brown); the pixelation scenes are a glimpse into her imagination, where she and her crush swim together underwater and float through space.

The story isn't an exact retelling of Noll's own experiences, but there are some similarities. Ripley's ex-fiance (Max Thomas) is based on Noll's boyfriend at the time they first came out (he preferred to not be named in this story). In fact, he is very much still a part of Noll's life—he was one of the first people Noll sent the script to for feedback, and they attended his wedding last month. Other characters embody composites of several folks influential during Noll's coming out, in particular Butch Donna (the scene-stealing Abby McEnany), a butch lesbian from an older generation—the character got her nickname in a mosh pit at Lilith Fair—who really wants to be Ripley's gay Yoda. Ripley resists her guidance because Donna does not seem to have it together at all.

But make no mistake, even though there are autobiographical elements, Ripley is not Shannon and Shannon is not Ripley, at least not in their respective current forms. "It threw me for a loop for about a month afterwards, having to be in female clothes and have makeup on," Noll says. "But I feel like I've grown as a person, so some of the stupid shit that the character does I'm further away from, which feels good."

Another difference: Ripley goes by she/her pronouns while Noll goes by they/them pronouns. As a director, Ahiers is accustomed to switching between actors' names and the names of the characters they play while filming, but in this case she needed to make sure to not misgender anyone. It was an experience that sparked a conversation about how to evolve practices on set with more inclusive language.

Ahiers had the distinct advantage (and, she says, added pressure) of being a part of several of the real-life moments referenced in the series. "Being friends with Shannon for ten years, I've been witness to this kind of evolution of themselves and the finding of themselves," Ahiers says. "I felt very honored that they felt our friendship was something that would help this project."

Noll first started working on the script two years ago in Michael McCarthy's writing class at Second City. They chose this particular story because it felt like one other folks could most easily connect to.

During their own coming out several years earlier, they'd scoured the Internet looking for stories that they could relate to and came up empty-handed. The template for coming out in the media seemed to be people who'd known they were gay their entire lives and could only come out once they were away from their parents or escaped their small hometown. Noll's experience was a little different.

Noll, now 31, realized they were gay at 23 in the middle of a Meisner acting class. It hit them during an exercise that required them to repeat phrases said by another person. "My scene partner was like, 'You're flirting with me,' and I was like, 'Oh, god, now I have to say I'm flirting with you.' Then she said, 'You're gay,' and I said, 'I'm gay.' It felt like a cold bucket of water had been dumped on my head."

Noll first came out to their ex as bisexual. For the first year they were sorting through their newfound identity, they stayed with their boyfriend and the two continued living together. Eventually he ended the relationship and Noll moved out and slowly started coming out as gay to everyone else.

Sometimes it was sloppy. Noll was drinking heavily at the time and would find themselves hooking up with men, then blurting, "Oh god, I'm gay!" and fleeing the scene. But mostly, it wasn't as terrible as they imagined it might be. When Noll nervously told their grandparents, their grandma replied, "I guess you're gonna marry a rich woman."

It was comedy that gave them the confidence to not just come out, but be out. Noll first started doing improv at 18—originally it started as something to do other than get drunk and watch Strangers With Candy. Once they started, they followed a gut feeling to stick with it; they didn't know where it would take them, but they knew it felt right. But they soon grew tired of trying to compete with loud improv comedy men to have their voice heard. After coming out, they decided to pivot to stand-up. "My first jokes were about being gay," Noll says. "My way of dealing with it was acting like I had always been out. I started to find my voice for the very first time."

As Noll became more involved with the stand-up world, they also became more involved with alcohol. It got so bad that they got fired from a job (one story they're reluctant to share). Coming out led to multiple realizations at once: that they needed to get sober and that they were nonbinary. Two years ago they thought about top surgery as a real possibility.

"I was never comfortable with my chest," Noll says. After they came out and gender dysphoria started setting in, they started disassociating from their body. In Noll's mind, they never really had a female chest anyway. It became easier to view their boobs as props instead of a part of their anatomy. It became especially frustrating when their anatomy began to interfere with comedy.

The first time Noll realized it would be an issue was when they were 18 or 19 and taking improv classes in New York. "I don't remember the exact scenario, but I said, 'It would be funny if a naked woman ran through,' and [an older man in the group] said, 'Naked women will always be sexy,'" Noll says. "I've heard it so many times since then."

Once Noll had their top surgery scheduled, the idea for Corner Gulch fell into place. They wanted some physical representation of themselves before surgery but cringed at the thought of doing any kind of serious or sexy nude shoot. Then they remembered all the times men had told them their body couldn't be funny. They decided to run with the idea of a funny, naked, character-based photo shoot while they still had the assets to represent a female body.

Photographer Jon Wes had long been a fan of Noll before they approached him with the idea for the project. He recalls first seeing them perform at Annoyance Theatre with the all-gay improv team Baby Wine and how he immediately appreciated their comedic voice. So when Noll wanted to collaborate, Wes was in without hesitation, even if the details surrounding the project weren't fully fleshed out (pun not intended).

Corner Gulch - JON WES
  • Corner Gulch
  • Jon Wes

The vague idea of taking funny nudes eventually evolved into a series of characters created by Noll with help from Wes: a 'luded-up housewife, a snarky hipster, and an aggro athlete slightly reminiscent of Trash Baby.

"It essentially comes down to self-definition, and especially self-definition as a non-straight man," Noll says, "being allowed to create comedy that is completely from your own point of view and not catering to someone else's perspective."

The project inspired Wes, a gay man, to reflect on his own experiences. He remembered being a young boy who liked wearing dresses and high heels but who was forced to suppress those desires because, he was told, that's not what young boys should do. He thought about all the times he kept his emotions to himself because he was told it wasn't "masculine" to feel those things. He and Noll realized how many other people might need a similar outlet to explore and subvert those expectations in a creative and fun way.

And so came the idea of Corner Gulch: a backdrop for anyone and everyone to exist exactly as they would in a world with no male gaze and zero expectations based on gender, sexuality, and identity. The real Corner Gulch is actually Wes's apartment and backyard. While talking about the project, he couldn't contain how excited he was that a couple of queer kids (and possibly a few more) had the freedom to run around half naked together. Soon all the photos of Noll and anyone else who decides to be a part of the project will live at CornerGulch.com. Noll and Wes both also have ideas for booklets, gallery displays, and other ways to turn the images into a larger story.

As a longtime admirer of Noll, Wes relished the opportunity to not only work closely with them but also to see their comedic process in action. "There's people that create comedy, and it's funny because they take you out of it, but it doesn't feel like it's rooted in something that is really going on, it's more fantastical, it's more magical," Wes says. "Shannon seems to somehow skirt that line of getting that, but having it come from an incredibly real and raw place. And you don't always see it, which is the beauty of the craft that they do, but it's there. If you look, you see that it's a vulnerable, authentic thing that they're bringing to the table dressed up and made magical by their imagination."

Sometimes those moments of vulnerability do come to the forefront. When discussing their surgery in particular, Noll gets more serious. They talk about the frustration of checking back in with their body after years of disassociating and realizing it wasn't what they wanted it to be. They contemplate the privilege that will come as they continue presenting less and less female, something they first experienced when they first came out as gay and men in comedy started treating them as just one of the guys. They speak candidly and genuinely about going to therapy and the support they receive from friends, family, and people in the comedy and queer communities.

Noll had their surgery on May 3 and in the month since has felt more confident than ever in their body. They say they almost feel like they never had boobs at all. But still they can't help but think of all the folks who aren't able to afford the surgery, and how people need to stop relying on "traditional" markers like changes to one's anatomy to see people as actually trans. Even as Noll opens up and gets serious, they can't help but throw a joke into the mix. "I'm a pack rat," Noll says. "Like, if I could have kept my boobs in a jar I would have, but this is way more sanitary."

Both the webseries and the photo shoot act as that metaphorical jar for Noll, not just as a record of their body, but a documentation of a very specific time and journey in their life. Noll's collaborators on both projects acknowledge their potential to grow into a longer webseries and a more collaborative photo project. And the possibilities for Noll's career as a stand-up, writer, and performer seem endless. But no matter what changes for Noll in the next ten years, professionally or personally, they'll still just always be Shannon.

"Shannon has just always been a very generous and warm and kind person, fun energy, always just a little bit off, but in just the best way," Ahiers says. "On one hand it's like, wow I've seen you change a lot in terms of your outward appearance and how you're introducing yourself to the world, but in the same sense, Shannon is just the same fucking weirdo that I've known all along."   v

Just Call Me Ripley Premieres Sat 6/8, justcallmeripley.com.

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