Jill Bernard: The queen of improv

Jill Bernard. Photography by Katy Kessler.

“Women are more patient and emotional, so when you have a chance to improvise with all women you can build something more lovely and theatrical than you otherwise could.”
– Jill Bernard

After years of performing at venues all over the Twin Cities, Jill Bernard and four of her humorous colleagues incorporated as a nonprofit, started fund-raising and in December 2010 opened HUGE, a 100-seat theater in Uptown, on Lyndale Avenue near the corner of Lake Street.

Bernard is the education director and board secretary for the theater. In addition, she shares the responsibilities needed to make a small theater run smoothly, such as making sure there’s enough toilet paper in the bathrooms. “I have a hard time relaxing at shows when I’m in the audience because I’m always sitting there worrying about whether or not I’ve paid enough sales tax that quarter,” she says.

Jill Bernard. Photography by Roy Moore.

Bernard, 43, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.A. in theater. The Uptown resident knew early on that she’d make a life on the stage. “I was about five years old and my mom took me to see an outdoor production of ‘Oklahoma.’ I remember thinking, ‘Yeah I’ll do that, it seems like a good job.'”

While still a college student, she auditioned for ComedySportz and was cast immediately. “I had never done improv before, but it felt like this is the thing I was built for,” she recalls. “I was doing scripted work at the time, but I didn’t like taking direction and I was terrible at memorizing things. And the idea of creating theater more immediately was so appealing to me.”

Her first big break was being cast in a sketch comedy show, “Look Ma, No Pants.” “At that time, I never thought you could make a living at improv, but I knew it was for me and I pursued it doggedly,” she says. “My uncle told me ‘work is what you do so you can afford to do what you want to do,’ and I took that to heart. I did little jobs so I could go to improv festivals and take workshops.”

In 2002, she was invited to perform her one-woman show, “Drum Machine,” at the Chicago Improv Festival. It’s an unscripted musical featuring multiple characters, all played by Bernard. It opens with a brief audience member interview, and then Bernard creates a musical that weaves details of the interviewee’s life into a historical period suggested by the audience.

Jill Bernard. Photography by Impro Amsterdam.

“A wonder to behold”

After performing the show in Chicago, Bernard began receiving requests to appear on the international improv festival circuit. She was asked to participate in an improv festival in Norway and she has performed and taught in Australia,

Canada, England, the Netherlands, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Italy and Germany, as well as 35 states in the U.S. While she consistently delights audiences across the globe, she is also a respected member of the improv community in Minnesota.

“She has always been very funny, very smart and very thoughtful about her improv,” says Lauren Anderson, cast member at Brave New Workshop and member of several area improv groups. “It’s a wonder to behold and magic to be a part of.”

Fourteen years ago, Bernard created “The Tiny Funny Women Fest,” held the first week of January. “The idea was to create more opportunities for women, because every improv team seemed to be operating with the model of a bunch of guys and one woman,” Bernard says.

Speaking generally, she says, “Men and women improvise differently. Men tend to do it quickly, and are action oriented. Women are more patient and emotional, so when you have a chance to improvise with all women you can build something more lovely and theatrical than you otherwise could.”

Bold role model

Molly Chase, managing director of HUGE Theater, says that after moving to Minneapolis from Atlanta five years ago, she was stunned to find that someone she knew as a light of the international improv scene was teaching drop-in classes at HUGE.

“Her workshops sell out almost instantly wherever she goes,” Chase says. The local improv community has benefitted greatly from Bernard’s contributions, Chase notes. “We’ve had her as a strong female role model and a very bold player, one who is generous both in life and on stage.

She can’t help but be a source of inspiration, especially for young women.”

FFI: HUGE Theater, www.hugetheater.com

Author, author!
“Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv” is currently in its fourth edition and has been printed in French, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. With Patrick Short she wrote “Jill & Patrick’s Small Book of Improv for Business,” which includes suggestions on ways that improv can be an asset in daily work life. “Learning to build a scene from a place of agreement is the foundation of improv, and that has many real-world applications,” Bernard says. “Also, working in improv is about developing a healthy relationship with fear, which is part of all our lives.”