Out of Bounds Comedy
"I just make a big mess": Jill Bernard brings her joyful one-woman improv to Out of Bounds
Improv comedian Jill Bernard has logged a lot of hours on stage as an improviser, and probably even more hours on the road. She now has friends in theaters all over the country, the result of a career spent criss-crossing the United Sates teaching and performing.
A frequent visitor to Austin, effortlessly charming whirlwind of energy, sweetness and goofiness will be in town again this week for the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival to perform in three shows, including her signature one-woman, improvised musical Drum Machine.
CultureMap caught up with the co-founder of Minneapolis’ HUGE Theater to talk about making sense of chaos, improvising solo, and building a comedy scene in a city without big showbiz connections.
CultureMap: So the big three cities that are traditionally considered improv hubs are Chicago, New York and L.A. But Austin and Minneapolis clearly have pretty vibrant, growing scenes, with a lot of people doing a lot of good work...
Jill Bernard: Correct!
CM: You’ve spent so much time traveling around and going to festivals, do you notice a difference in attitude at all between performers in those bigger cities and places like Minneapolis or Austin?
JB: Oh yeah. Every city has its own vibe and feeling. A lot of what makes Minneapolis and Austin different from those cities is, in L.A. there’s a possible career path. If you’re doing improv, you might get noticed. You might get on Saturday Night Live and go on to the movies. But in Minneapolis, that’s not going to happen to you. So anyone who’s doing improv in Minneapolis or Austin is doing it because they love improv, not because they picture themselves having Adam Sandler’s career later.
Also, I think each city reflects the artistic values of what’s going on there more broadly. Austin, of course, is known for it’s music scene and just kind of the free-spiritedness of the entire arts culture. I think you see that stamp in their improv. Minneapolis is known for being very polite. [Laughs] And I think you see THAT stamp in our improv. Our work is not cynical, it’s playful and joyful. And I think that’s different than what you’ll see in other cities often.
CM: Let’s talk about your show, Drum Machine. It’s a solo show, which for improvisers who are used to having help from their teammates when they’re creating something onstage, can be a pretty daunting prospect. How’d the show come about?
JB: At the time I started - and that was ten years ago last month - at the time I had kind of hit the top of what I could do in Minneapolis Improv, and I was a little bit bored and spinning my wheels. I woke up one morning and I thought “There should be a show called Drum Machine!” So I walked down the street to the music store, and said “I’d like to by a drum machine.” The man said “What kind?” And I said, “I have no idea, what’s a drum machine?” [Laughs] And he showed me one that was blue with pink light-up buttons, and I said “Yeah I’ll take that!” And I messed around with it and then developed the show.
I mean, you’re right, it is strange not to have a partner to play off of, but it’s also wonderful in that you can do things that only make sense to you. You can make offers onstage and you know what you mean and know how to finish it. You don’t have to explain things that you do [to a partner].
In terms of energizing the show, that’s maybe the biggest challenge. You don’t have anyone else’s energy to keep you up in the air, to keep you bouncing around. So you’re a lot more reliant on the audience’s energy. And you’re a lot more reliant on just making everything you do life or death. You can’t take anything halfway. You have to make everything huge. Everything has to be really important.
CM: I remember seeing you do an Ancient Egyptian-themed version of the show a year or so ago at OOB, and the audience dove right into the process with you. You were a pyramid architect who was improvising a song about the six simple machines, but partway through the song, you realized you didn’t know all of them...
JB: Right! I still remember that! That was so fun! I love taking that risk, because I KNEW when I started singing that song, that I didn’t know all the six simple machines. But, I’m arrogant enough to think that when I start, I’ll just remember them. Of course as I started singing: No, I don’t remember the rest at all! So I just left it blank, and I let the audience fill it in [by calling the names of the machines out]. And people got really into it! The sixth one, no one could remember. And I think someone finally called out “Hammer!” And we were all like, “Close enough!”
CM: It was cool because they were completely on board. You had basically just admitted that you didn’t know, and neither did they.
JB: Right! So everybody wanted to help! That was great. It was really sweet. [Laughs]
CM: Also on the topic of going solo, do you feel that doing a musical show and knowing you have to work in songs gives you a skeleton to build the show around, rather than starting absolutely from scratch?
JB: It’s not really the musical that helps that. I know it’s going to be pretty much one story, so I know it’s going to have a beginning middle and an end. So I can aim for that. But really, that’s not the way I think. The way I think is: I just make a big mess. I just toss a lot of stuff into the sky and then tie it together as it falls back down. That’s the way I work. I just get myself into as many corners and as much trouble as I can and make everything really dramatic, and just toss that into the sky, trusting full well that I’ll know what to do with it on the way back down.
Jill Bernard will performDrum Machineon Friday, Aug 31 at 8:00 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Theater. She’ll also be appearing there at 11:45 p.m. on Saturday, Sep 1 as part of the special guest cast of Stool Pigeon, and at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, Sep 2 in the four-woman improv group,Spider Dance. Tickets are available at the Out of Bounds website.