[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest only hardcore, improv dorkwads. The piece below is the extended, full-frontal geek-out version of this interview. If you’d like to read the more compact version, please visit the Women in Comedy Festival blog.]
If you have seen Jet Eveleth perform improv, you would remember her. Not only does she have crackerjack improv skills, but Jet Eveleth pops on stage. Your eye follows her as she flows from character to character with a bendy physicality that often defies gravity. Earlier this year, I saw Jet perform during the Chicago Improv Festival with the preeminent iO troupe, The Reckoning. In my humble opinion, they performed what I consider to be a Perfect Set. You know how sometimes during winter there will be a rare snowfall where the flakes fall on your coat, and you look and see they are delicately and intricately formed in perfect, complex symmetry? That was how I felt about that set. It was a beautiful, singular thing.
Jet Eveleth swims in a sea of improv delights in Chicago. She currently performs at iO with The Armando Diaz Experience, The Reckoning, The Deltones and The Collectibles. In addition, she is looking forward to a possible mini-tour with Paul Brittan (Saturday Night Live) of the created-from-improv scripted show Ted and Melanie. She is also working “with some really cool film guys from MN” on the development of a pilot that, according to Eveleth, “is very inspired by my favorite documentaries (Billy the Kid, Anvil! The Story of Anvil) and Chris Lilley's work. It is character driven, has elements of improv and - believe it or not - it's pretty physical.” And that’s not counting recent forays into movies, her stand up experience, her previous work with The Chi-Town Clown Revue, and her stint as Artistic Director for The Chicago Improv Festival…And I have a feeling this is Eveleth on a slow day.
Pam Victor: So how did you get into improv?
Jet Eveleth: In college at UMASS Amherst, I walked by a short form audition and some guys called me in. I guess my first "yes and" was walking into that audition at that moment. I was studying acting and film at the time so I already had the bug. I hadn't seen short form before and there was something about reacting in the moment that fascinated me.
Pam Victor: So was that Mission: IMPROVable?
Jet Eveleth: Yes I was in Mission: IMPROVable. It was the MI guys that convinced me to move to Chicago to do improv. They came out two years before I graduated; I guess I was the baby…They were so good to me when I came to Chicago. They told me where to take classes, introduced me to people, and made me feel really welcomed.
I read [Charna Halpern’s book] Truth in Comedy before I moved to Chicago and I remember the first time I set eyes on the entrance of iO. I connected to the book, the philosophies, and once I saw John Lutz and Stephanie Weir do a scene my mind was blown. It was so funny and so beautiful at the same time, and all made up in the moment. I sat in the audience and thought to myself, "This is all I want to do."
Pam Victor: I'm laughing because if there was an intervention program about improv, I'd be on there too.
Jet Eveleth: I guess people are attracted to so many different things in comedy, but if one is real long form nerd, if that is what makes their heart beat the loudest and the fastest, iO is the mecca. Right?
Pam Victor: Absolutely.
Jet Eveleth: I love that there is a place where art and process rule.
Pam Victor: So you came out to Chicago and right away went through the levels at iO?
Jet Eveleth: iO was my first destination. I saw a show the first night I arrived, three days after graduating from college. I went through classes there and also Second City and The Annoyance Theatre.
Pam Victor: Wow. You were really driven.
Jet Eveleth: Compelled.
Pam Victor: What was the first team you were on?
Jet Eveleth: I got on a team called the Union about three weeks after arriving. It was a playground incubator team. My coach was one of the guys from MI; and he had been coached by Liz Allen, who was the godmother of group mind. At least that's what I call her. It was all a great introduction to long form. Very artsy and supportive. I feel very lucky that I had mentors that taught me the beauty of things.
Pam Victor: Who have been your most influential teachers?
Jet Eveleth: Tj [Jagodowski] coached The Reckoning for a while, and I can't really put words to how inspiring his vision is.
Pam Victor: I bet! I'm salivating right now.
Jet Eveleth: I loved Jack McBrayer as a teacher. He was so nice first of all and he laughed at emotional and honest moments, which I think subconsciously trained all of us. I'm not sure if that was all part of his master plan. To be honest, all the teachers I had at iO were fantastic. I also really loved my training at Second City and the Annoyance. I think Mick [Napier] has a way of cutting down to the very gem of what will help someone in the moment. I also love they way he "invites" people to try new techniques instead of calling out a habit that may not be helping the scene.
Pam Victor: I had a lengthy discussion with Chris Gethard about the "game" being at the heart of the UCB philosophy. What is at the heart of your improv philosophy?
Jet Eveleth: I love analogies. So here we go...For a while everyone thought atoms were the smallest you could go, the building blocks, right? But then they discovered the nucleus and then the protons and neutrons... and who knows what we will discover next?
So right now (and this will change), I think that perhaps the game (the series of actions in a unique pattern) is the atom. And perhaps the character is the nucleus, and within that is the POV [point of view] born of the moment, in this space. We can still break it down smaller...
But it becomes very Zen-like.
Pam Victor: Hahaha. I have this theory that there is a hardcore science geek inside almost every improviser. You are proving the rule.
So really? The game rather than relationship and character is your go-to? Having watched you improvise, that surprises me.
Jet Eveleth: I guess when I say game I don't mean it like many in the improv world. Game has a history in all performing arts. So in Commedia [dell’arte] and clowning, there is game. In dance, there is game. But its foundation is in action and pattern. I don't separate character, relationship and game. I play as honest as I can and all three are born how they see fit. Game can be developed first; I just don't play that way. I play character driven, and when you have wants they lead to actions falling into patterns----game is born. But without the heavy fist.
Pam Victor: So maybe honesty is your impetus, the thing that is, like you imply, the "quark" of the scene - the smallest component.
Jet Eveleth: Honesty is essential. Meaning, it is the path I pursue but it has to be balanced with bravery.
Pam Victor: Vulnerability.
Jet Eveleth: Vulnerability is a key word. Vulnerability refers not only to the character but to the actor.
And when I say brave I don't mean putting on a brave face. I mean being out of control, losing your shit because that is what is required of you character in the moment. The willingness to be flawed. I think we can get lost in the idea that we are supposed to be the prettiest, smartest, most put together person in the room because we are on stage. When indeed it is the opposite.
Pam Victor: It's so weird that you brought up the prettiness vs. brave thing because I really wanted to ask you about that. This is a kind of weird question I’ve been mulling over lately since reading a piece in the WICF blog that touched on how a woman presents herself on stage. Do you think a female improviser’s looks impact the way she’s perceived as an improviser both on stage and off? You’re very pretty. Do you feel you have to underplay it to make sure you’re being respected as an improviser first and foremost by the men you work with?
Jet Eveleth: I guess I don't think of myself as pretty or ugly when I'm on stage. The art itself makes us the subject instead of the object, which is very freeing. I want to feel as neutral as possible so I can play a huge range of character, any that the improv gods throw my way. That seems like the most fun way to play. I like to think I'm playing from the inside out. So the outside should be as close to a blank canvas as I can start with.
If you keep seeing my bare butt crack the whole show, it doesn't seem like a blank canvas. So I always cover my butt.
Pam Victor: Good tip.
Jet Eveleth: I always say your eyes are your moneymaker. Which doesn't really make sense now that I think about it because there is no money to be made in improv. But anyway...my advice is to pull that hair back so your scene partners and the audience can see as much of your eyes as possible. Would you want to see a show or a movie where everyone wore sunglasses? We live and receive so much through the eyes, so the more of them we can see the better.
P.S. I wear clothes I can fall in.
|Jet Eveleth as "Barb"|
Pam Victor: You are an amazing character actress. I love Barb. I saw you do a version of her in a show once, and I just wanted to eat it up with a spoon. (That reaction probably stems from the fact that I have a Barb inside of me, who seeps out in every now and then.) Can you talk about where your basic stock of characters come from and how you nourish them?
Jet Eveleth: Thank you. Nourishing is a great word. I think we have to nourish ourselves as people if we want all this cool art to come out of us. Or perhaps by nourish I mean be close to ourselves. I feel that sometimes we run away from ourselves, especially in high stakes situations, like let's say on stage for example. I mean everyone has their comedic voice, mine tends to lives in character and physical work. That is what tickles me that most to watch and to play.
We learn a lot by watching people we admire. Right now I really love watching Chris Lilley, Kristen Wigg, Melissa McCarthy and lots of those amazing Brits that aren't afraid to play it real and build tension.
Improv has been an amazing tool for me to find out I love playing POV's far from my own. I learned early on, the more humanity these characters have the more the room connects to them. At the end of the day we have to balance skill with joy and risk, and we have to do it effortlessly. So practice is the only answer.
Pam Victor: You brought up your physicality, which was my next question. Your physicality is truly unique and immensely engaging. Is that something that comes naturally to you, or have you had certain training that allows your personal physicality to really shine?
Jet Eveleth: I think when you do the work often, as one can in Chicago, you are bound to find those things that really excite you. I have a background in dance, but I think when it comes down to it I like moving around. I also study yoga and clown, but I think I'm drawn to that for the same reasons. It feels like everything comes full circle if you just do what you love. Then one day someone asks you this question.
I also love being physical because it means I never have to "think" and god knows there are so many cops that live in the mind. I much prefer to fall, roll, climb and hump. It is all so lovely and primal. I guess I'm like a local saying, "Let's take the back roads there are way too many state troopers on the highway." Besides the back roads are prettier and everyone is taking the highway.
I mean life is short, fall.
Pam Victor: It really sounds like your physicality is what keeps you grounded in the moment on stage, and turns off that fear-based chatter in our left brain so successfully for you.
Jet Eveleth: Being in the body sounds like play to me, so it reminds me of why I'm on stage in the first place.
Pam Victor: Tell me about your involvement with Chi-Town Clown revue? How do you think clowning has enhanced your improv skills?
Jet Eveleth: I do the Chi-Town Clown Review and Dal Vivo, both really fun Chicago clown shows. I trained with an amazing Italian woman named Paola Coletto, who created the company Dal Vivo…Clown is routed in playing honest and in the moment; so if that doesn't inform improv, I'm not sure what would.
Pam Victor: The Chicago Improv Festival brings together performers from all over the U.S. and the world. At CIF last year, I saw ImproTOP, the Mexican team, and their approach to environment was on a whole different scale from anything I’ve seen in the states – totally blew my mind. In your job as Artistic Director, I would imagine you really got an insider’s view of the global approach to improv. You got to know and work with improvisers from SO many different countries and cultures. What have you noticed about interesting cultural differences and similarities in improv?
Jet Eveleth: That is a great question. It is fun to see how right on Joseph Campbell is about the universal consciousness in the evolution of art. Even though we are thousands of miles apart, we are stumbling upon the same concepts and techniques within the art form. And yet because we have such unique histories we also grow apart, some grounded in Commedia, some storytelling and others political theater. For example, I love the way Mexico City's troupe ImproTOP becomes their world rather than just gesturing to it. This comes from a heritage of physical storytelling and clown, and their show becomes instantly physical and playful in a way we rarely see in the states.
Pam Victor: Exactly. That is exactly what they did that blew me away. And how they offered two or even three different perspectives of a scene with their running fingers doing a long shot, their bodies doing a medium shot and then somehow they would sometime give us a bird's eye shot.
Jet Eveleth: They do a really cool visual interpretation instead of a quick comment. I learned a ton being the artistic director of CIF. I'm super grateful.
Pam Victor: At the improv forum at CIF, I saw four of you perform what I consider to be a Perfect Set from an improviser's point of view. Can you tell me about the structure The Reckoning follows? Can you break it down a little for me? It’s so naturally organic that as a viewer, it looks somewhat magical to me. So much so, I want to drink it because I think it will make me more powerful.
Jet Eveleth: Don't drink it! Don't drink it!
Pam Victor: BUT I HAVE TO!!!! (I tried to lick the back of Jake Schneider's head when he was turned away. I almost got caught. Really embarrassing.)
Jet Eveleth: In a nutshell, I can tell you that most of our shows have moments that are scenic and moments that are non-scenic (anything that isn't a scene). The edits are part of the show rather than a necessary evil. So we make them cool and experimental, which lead to scenes that are truly improvised. I find I always have more fun when I believe that I do the best work in the moment and not thinking on the sides. Then we let patterns happen. We look for characters, locations, objects, stage pictures, edits or anything else that want to come back, and we are receptive to them when they appear. I rarely speak the language of beats and games because that language can become handcuffs if they become demands. Who can demand the moment?
I think I just heard God laugh.
Pam Victor: Piero Procaccini says you are “one of the most self-motivated, perseverant people I know - which is hugely important in this business. She is constantly pushing herself to keep putting up work. It's incredibly inspiring.” How do you continue to stay so motivated?
Jet Eveleth: Driven or motivated doesn't seem like the word I'm looking for... I just feel compelled; and on a good day, focused and brave enough to do the work. I know if I stopped I wouldn't be happy. So in order to be happy in this short life I have to keep jumping on stage and using my imagination with my friends in front of people.
We will all be told no and yes a million times. But the real permission comes from us.
[Please note: Jonathan Pitts, Executive Director of Chicago Improv Festival Productions and Co-Founder/Producer of the Chicago Improv Festival, has been booking all the international teams for CIF since its inception and continues to do so today. Much to my delight, it was Jonathan who brought ImproTOP to CIF 2011, and I was blown away by their performance there. I'm looking forward to interviewing Jonathan for this series, so he can share his perspective as someone who works with improvisers around the world as well as his other unique insights from deep inside in the Chicago improv scene.]
Catch up on other improv geek-a-thons:
...Mark Sutton of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!
And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.
Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!