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Guest Writer: Jill Bernard (Minneapolis)

Jill Bernard has been performing with ComedySportz-Twin Cities since 1993, and is a founding member of HUGE Theater in Uptown Minneapolis. Her one-woman improv piece, Drum Machine, has been featured in over forty improv festivals. She has taught and performed improv in Norway, Canada, and over thirty of the United States; 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.


Rules from the Inside

There’s debate always! ALWAYS! about whether to teach the rules of improv. A friend linked to another blog about it recently. I’m curious about it myself. I never sit down with a class and have a formal discussion about them, that’s not how I want the adventure of improv learning to go. It feels like it makes people’s math brains go “if-I-follow-these-rules-the-improv-will-be-always-be-good” which is simply not true. Some scenes follow all the rules of improv and are just okay. Some scenes break practically all the rules and are killer. It’s also a mistaken path to put all your energy into the mechanics and none into the heart of this matter.

On the first night of class I explain something that it took me years to learn and acknowledge. I am not a useful teacher for everyone. There are two types of travelers: some people make a minute-by-minute itinerary and extensively research and collect a billion brochures. Others like to land with just a map and a smile and take off in any direction that seems intriguing. For the former I am unsatisfying. For the latter I am a joy.

I prefer to discover the rules - “invent” them new for every class so that they BELONG to that class. “Wasn’t that a great scene? What did you notice? What I liked about it was the way Joe took Rachel’s idea and added on to it…” Or if there’s something I’d like to inspire: “Let’s try it again and see what happens if Mike adds details and specifics… Hey that was neat, right? What do you think?” I don’t want to teach you the rules of improv, I want them to happen to you. 

This relates to one of the ways in which yoga has changed me. I used to be very disappointed when students took a ten-week class and didn’t come out the other side knowing everything about improv. In yoga, you have a “practice.” You’re not pushing toward something every day, you’re having your practice. One day you’ll do a great job at Starfish Pose and the next day you’ll topple; it’s not straight upward progress you can make a bar graph about. I can relax and be happy when I think about every improv class as part of a practice, where progress is made incrementally and we’re collecting this knowledge like some Katamari Damacy of improv.

I’ve developed a funny little tic where I occasionally stop and say, “Other improv teachers would want me to tell you X” and I spit out a rule. I would feel bad if someone goes to audition for Second City and gets kicked down the stairs because I never told them “Don’t ask questions.”

When I was a younger hothead I would say “@#%& the rules!” and my friend Stevie Ray would patiently explain that I have the luxury to say that because I learned the rules and now they’re automatic. I think I’m working the same angle but from the backside. I want them to become subconscious. It’s interesting, I just taught ten weeks with a group that instinctively yes-anded. No one told them that rule of improv, it was in them. I felt my job was to point it out and cultivate it, let it grow from the inside.


Previous guests: Andrea Del CampoEtan MuskatRick AndrewsKristen SchierAndy EningerJeroen Van DyckRemy BertrandCaspar ShjelbredSean MichaelsKareem BadrRobYn SladeIan ParizotRachel KleinDave MorrisAlex WlasenkoFrom the old blog

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