Renaissance man (noun): a term referring to a person with profound knowledge or skill in a variety of subjects.
Foren-aissance woman (noun): a term referring to a forensicator exhibiting profound talent or success in a variety of subjects. [See: Shannon "Shanny Jean" Maney]
Her competitive success earned her a spot in the National Forensic Association Hall of Fame. Her first book of poetry, "I Love Science," was named by the Chicagoist as one of the Top Five Chicago-Authored Books of 2012. She is co-creator of the wildly popular live variety show series, The Encyclopedia Show, which can be found in nearly a dozen major cities across the world. Don't get too intimidated. As a high-school speech coach, she may end up judging you in a round.
We were thrilled to be able to chat with Shanny Jean about forensics, performing, poetry, and the best advice she can give to competitors.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I grew up in beautiful Ottawa, IL where I competed in high school, and attended Illinois State University in Normal, IL, where I competed in college. I live in the Normal area again with my husbo and dogs, so I guess you could say I’m from Normal… I know, I know. It’s soooo ironic.
How did you get involved in forensics?
In my high school, the rumor was that if you wanted to get good parts in plays, you had to be on the speech team. At the time, that’s exactly why I did it—for plays. Then in college, I joined the team because they were recruiting on the quad, and I had nothing better to do. I thought I’d just go to a meeting “to see what it was about.” After college, my husband and I moved to upstate New York, and we were there for about two weeks before I contacted one of the colleges in our town to offer my services to their speech team. That’s when I started my career as a coach—I was a young kid coaching the team at Cornell University. Now I’m coaching high school speech, and I think I like it best of all. The satisfaction of seeing someone find forensics for the first time is so awesome and satisfying. You remember what it was like when you found out there was an activity just for you. Imagine getting to see that moment again and again, year after year. It’s the best.
What were your favorite events?
HA. Um. That’s hard. I don’t like to pick favorites! In high school: Humorous Duet Acting, Original Comedy and Prose. (Illinois speech has crazy events!) In college: Prose, Poetry and After Dinner Speaking. And Duo. And Impromptu. Just kidding. I was terrible at Impromptu.
What was your favorite piece/speech you performed? What was it about and what did you enjoy the most about it?
Like anyone who did speech for a long time, that’s a tough one to answer. Probably the After Dinner Speech I wrote my junior year of college. It was about women’s menstrual periods and how damaging it is to make that a taboo subject. I loved that speech. It was one of the first times that I wrote something that was 100% my own style—I had figured out what I liked about myself as a writer and a performer, and I showcased those things. I was so proud of that speech every time I performed it. It just made me feel good. There’s no doubt in my mind that that speech is where I learned my chops for my work as a performance poet.
Tell us about the Encyclopedia Shows...how they're different from 'traditional' theater?
The Encyclopedia Show is a literary variety show that looks at a different theme each month. We bring in a handful of artists, writers, musicians, comedians, and give them a month to write about an assignment. We do quirky, goofy stuff between the performers, but it’s definitely less like theatre and more like a combination of a poetry slam and vaudeville.
How did the Encyclopedia Shows come into fruition? What was the first one about?
I started The Encyclopedia Show with my friend (and former speech teammate) Robbie Q Telfer. We had run a poetry slam in Normal, IL during college, and a few years later, we were like, “It’s time to do something new.” Robb had this idea for a show, and we started developing it, and about six months later, we produced the first ever Encyclopedia Show. The first show was about Bears, and it was a little clunky, but it had so much heart. I remember that the week of the show, I watched the pilot episode of Saturday Night Live. It was a little rough—in hindsight, you could see exactly what the show was going to turn into, even if it wasn’t there at the start. That’s kind of like what our first show was like.
What cities are there currently Encyclopedia groups performing?
Chicago! Austin, TX! New York! L.A.! Washington D.C.! Omaha! Boston! Phoenix! Seoul, South Korea! And there are others. It’s sort of amazing.
You're also a published poet! What can you tell us about your book of poetry, "I Love Science?"
WAHOO! I am a published poet! It makes me so proud! I Love Science! is a book about a lot of things—some of them fun, some of them heartbreaking. Books of poetry aren’t like novels, really. It’s not like you can say, “This book is about ___.” You say, “It’s sort of about ____, but it’s also about _____.” I was watching a round of poetry at a speech tournament where a girl I didn’t know was performing “I Love Science!” and according to her intro, it’s a funny and heartbreaking poetic autobiography. I like that. (See!? People do listen to intros!) By the way, CAN YOU IMAGINE performing in a round where it turns out the writer of your program is watching?! I can’t imagine it. When the round was over, I went over and introduced myself. We were both FREAKING OUT.
Where do you find inspiration for your poetry?
Depends on my mood! If there is something gnawing on my brain, I have to sit down and figure out what is bothering me so much. In that way, my life is the biggest inspiration. If nothing’s going on and I’m feeling fancy-free, then the world is my oyster. In that case, I can write about whatever I want. It’s weird to say that I can’t always write about whatever I want, but sometimes, I just can’t. Sometimes, there are things I absolutely have to write about, just so I can clear my brain enough to look at other things.
On top of all of that...you also continue to help coach in forensics. What's the biggest piece of advice you'd give current competitors?
Yep! I love speech, and I love coaching it. It makes me a better performer and writer, and being a writer and performer makes me better able to coach. It’s a good balance. My advice to forensics competitors? First of all, trust yourself and be yourself. The thing that makes some people electric in performances is they really seem to know what makes them shine. Figure out what it is that makes you shine, and do that thing. Be yourself. If you can be yourself and have fun, you won’t care about the rest of it so much. The second piece of advice isn’t really advice at all, but that’s okay since there’s no rebuttal after this. As competitors, you have only just begun to see the impact that speech will have on your life. I’m thirty, and I am only just beginning to see the impact speech has on my life. I am a lot of things--a performer, a writer, a teacher, a coach. If I hadn’t done speech, I wouldn’t be any of these things. I use the skills I learned competing every single day, and I use them in the things I like doing the most. I am so proud of the work I have done.