This May, moments before Jill Bernard started to perform her one-woman show, "Drum Machine," at the Chicago Improv Festival, the unexpected happened. Her Zoom-Rhythmtrak 123, source of her mad and sometimes menacing beats, inexplicably broke.
Improvisation took over.
"At that moment I wasn't thinking, 'Oh no, I'm doomed. I'm ruined,' " Bernard said. "I was thinking, 'What happens now? This is undiscovered territory.' It ended up being the best show ever. And the audience was with me, because they saw what happened and how stupid it was."
Therein lies a precept for all improvisational performers.
"When something scary happens," Bernard said, "you have to embrace it. You have to run toward it."
Bernard, a member of the competitive improv troupe ComedySportz-Twin Cities since 1993, has been in town since Sunday on the second stop of her Northwest tour.
She will perform "Drum Machine," with the now-repaired Zoom-Rhythmtrak 123, at 9 p.m. tonight and Friday at the Hangar Ballroom. Juneau improv quintet Morally Improv-erished will open both shows. Tickets are $8 in advance at Hearthside Books and $10 at the door.
Over the last year, Bernard has expanded "Drum Machine" from a loose 15-minute format into an unscripted and completely improvised 30- to 60-minute show somewhat resembling a musical.
The evening will begin with Bernard dividing the audience into halves. Each half will offer a sentence, which will then become the chorus for an improvised sing-a-long. Bernard will then ask the audience to suggest a historical time period. That period will become the setting for a series of songs, scenes and monologues, orchestrated by the drum machine.
At a recent show in Philadelphia, the audience suggested "The Bayeux Tapestry," a 231-foot long scroll of colored wool that records the 1066 Norman Conquest of England and the fall of King Harold of Wessex. Bernard had never heard of the tapestry.
"That was one of the more fascinating drum machines I've ever done," Bernard said. "I had to stop and say, 'Wait, tell me what that is.' "
"I made the crowd be the French army, and I got to be the archer," she said. "I was also the arrow. I was also King Harold getting shot in the eye. It was visually very exciting."
Bernard was a theater major at the University of Minnesota in 1993. She took a course called "Direct Reading," and spent most of her time sitting in the back of the classroom making fun of it with a fellow student. He encouraged her to audition for ComedySportz-Twin Cities. She's been there 11 years.
"To get involved in improv to any degree you have to be a ham to start with," Bernard said. "I know plenty of improvisers who have low self-esteem, but I don't know any improvisers who have stage fright or fear of being in front of people."
"I never really was afraid to do it, and I think because I had theater training I had a solid background going into it. It took me a long while to understand that improv is complicated. It's not necessarily about getting as many laughs as you can get. It's about building something larger. There's a story arc and there's nuance and there's sensitive moments as well as comic moments."
Bernard and Morally Improv-erished will also host an improv workshop, open to the public, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, June 12, at the Hangar Ballroom. Admission is $10 per person, and drop-ins are welcome. The workshop will include comic games and skits and explanations of improv theory.
Bernard has helped teach improv to ad agencies, some of whom use the techniques to help market their brands.
"For people watching improv, it always seems impossible," Bernard said. "But really, it's based on agreeing with each other."
"Improv is useful to anyone no matter what you're doing," she said. "If you're a scripted actor, it will help you. If you're a teacher, it will definitely help you. Whatever it is you're doing, improv training will help. It doesn't mean that everyone's going to end up as a comic genius."
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