Editors Note: From time to time, I’m honored to have guest contributions by various improvisers from across the country who are regarded as being at the top of their field. They are welcomed here to share their thoughts on comedy-related subjects they have an acute knowledge of. JILL BERNARD is the creator and star of one of the most popular and award-winning improvised solo shows around, Drum Machine. I asked her to share with us that story:
HOW I CAME TO DO SOLO IMPROV
by Jill Bernard
I like it when improv is a little bit challenging, when I’m just out in front of the headlights. When it gets dull, I look for something new. At the time I conceived of my solo show Drum Machine I was at an all-time low of dull. I was bored, I was cocky, it was not healthy. Nothing was challenging. Improv, of all things, started to feel same old same old. There was no risk in my risk.
One morning I woke up thinking ‘there should be a show called drum machine’ and went to the music store at the end of my street and bought one. “What kind would you like?” said the nice man. “I have no idea, what’s a drum machine?” I said, and he showed me the translucent blue Zoom Rhythmtrak 123 with pink light up keys that could only be for me.
I never performed Drum Machine standing up or in front of other people before it debuted. I was way too nervous! It was way too stupid an idea. I just lay in bed giggling and running through the show with the amp by my head. I had been invited to be in Melissa Burch’s Red Curtain Cabaret here in Minneapolis, and she gave me a fifteen minute slot. I didn’t last that long. I freaked out after about five minutes and said, “Thank you, good night!” and ran away. I learned you should have a beginning, middle and end. The next week I learned if you’re playing all the characters they should be distinct or you’re shooting yourself in the foot. The week after that I learned that if you interview an audience volunteer and their story is more interesting than your theatrical replay of their story, you’re doomed. So the first three weeks of Drum Machine were incredibly educational.
Jonathan Pitts asked me to be in the Chicago Improv Festival the year after that. I had submitted a duo, they asked if I’d come alone. That’s tacky, right? So tacky. We weren’t an improv duo much longer after that, but it’s okay, she’s a successful chef in Texas it worked out for everybody.
People sometimes ask how I thought up the structure. It’s an easy recipe. All I did is combine everything I love into one thing. I love improv and singing and history and romantic stories. That’s all Drum Machine is. When I was a pre-teen we moved into my grandparents house. Their bookshelves were filled with Isaac Asimov and I was also stealing my mother’s historical romance novels and watching a lot of Monty Python: throw that in a sack and shake it, you get the aesthetic of Drum Machine. The show itself consists of an interview with a member of the audience, the suggestions of a historical time period and a number to program into the drum machine. Then I do a sweepingly epic historical improvised one-woman musical. The audience always laughs when I say I’m going to do a a sweepingly epic historical improvised one-woman musical, and then I do it.
When you watch Andy Eninger perform solo improv it’s so elegant and lovely. I admire him so. He lays it all out like the most beautiful cotillion you somehow snatched an invitation to. I’m not like Andy. I just make a huge mess and see what glitters inside it. I’m never thinking ahead as an improvisor. I don’t know how it’s going to end. I throw a lot of ideas and characters up in the air and tie them all together on the way down. Set, wait twenty minutes, spike. I trust that I know how it goes even though I don’t know how it goes. I’ve trained myself to love forward momentum and extreme reactions, these are the tools I have. Curiosity, that’s another tool, the kind of curiosity that makes a cat follow a bird out onto a branch that can’t support its weight, yes, you can’t stay where it’s safe and do improv properly.
Since I conceived of Drum Machine it’s evolved a lot. There used to be an audience participation song at the top that the audience loved but I hated. David Razowsky told me I didn’t have to do it anymore some years ago and I’m forever grateful for that permission. Those first three performances at Red Curtain Cabaret I wore business casual. One night we were eating at Little Tijuana’s, home of super-hot punk rock waitresses, and Butch Roy said aloud, “Punk girls are hot.” I thought to myself “I want to be hot” so Drum Machine featured a semi-punk aesthetic for some years after that. I recently switched over to nice dresses because I got tired of being a total poser and it feels weird singing Broadway-style songs in a short plaid skirt. Those first couple years touring to festivals I was so nervous I carried everything with me. I carried combat boots and 50′ of cable, and a mirror and a shim so the audience could see the drum machine. Now instead of cable I just carry every adapter in the world. I still carry some things that don’t make sense. I always have a Happy Fun Time clip-on tie with me at every show. You never know.
There was a time when I was going to stop doing the show. Every time I entertain that thought, the show changes. It turns a corner and I’m curious again! I have big dreams for it, I wish it was on Broadway although I’ve no idea how to make that happen. It’s one of those goals that makes you better along the way. Like Thích Nhat Hanh says, “If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.” Ha! I don’t think I’ve really shared that secret goal with more than three people because it makes me sound like even more of an asshole. Shhh, don’t tell anybody, Philly Improv!
If you’d like to try solo improv, I recommend you find a setting like a cabaret or an open mic or a set in between two other groups where you can go for five minutes and see what it’s like, then the piece will tell you how it wants to grow from there. I coach solo improv by email, that’s another crackpot scheme of mine.
If you’d like, the worksheet is here.
Jill Bernard has been performing with ComedySportz-Twin Cities since 1993, and is also a founding member of HUGE Theater. Her one-woman improv piece, Drum Machine, has been featured at the Chicago Improv Festival, the Toronto Improv Jamboree, the Miami Improv Festival, Philadelphia Improv Festival, and the ComedySportz National Tournament, among others. She has taught and performed improv in Norway, Canada, and over thirty of these United States, in cities that include Juneau, AK; Spokane and Seattle, WA; Washington DC; Bowling Green, KY; Phoenix, AZ; and also on an episode of MTV “Made.” She is one-half of the duo SCRAM with Joe Bill of the Annoyance Theater. An Artistic Associate of the Chicago Improv Festival, she has studied at the Annoyance Theater, Improv Olympic, the Brave New Workshop and other organizations; and is the recipient of the 2005 Chicago Improv Festival Avery Schreiber Ambassador of Improv Award, and the 2007 Miami Improv Festival award for Best Solo Show.