Jill Bernard brings back 'Drum Machine'... without the machine

This Saturday Jill Bernard returns to the Twin Cities with her solo improv show Drum Machine for a run that continues through the month. Unlike past productions, Bernard will not be working with the titular creation as she'll be joined by Josh Kaplan (of the CVS Trio) on drums for the created-on-the-spot musical. She will perform at Huge Improv Theater's new Lyn-Lake location. We took a moment to chat with the artist.

City Pages: Can you describe the general idea behind the show? What kind of framework do you use for the improvisation?

Jill Bernard: Drum Machine is a sweepingly epic, historical, improvised, one-person musical. I always say that to the audience before the show and they laugh, and then I actually do it and they laugh more. The show opens with an audience interview, where I just collect facts about someone's life. Then I get an historical period, and from those two sources weave together songs and scenes to tell an original story.

CP: Have you worked with a human drummer for past productions? How does the dynamic change with another performer?

JB: Josh and I worked together at a Drum Machine performance last year and I loved it so much I asked if he wanted to play for me again. I think it helps that he's an excellent improviser, so his instincts are lovely.

I get so tired of working with just the drum machine. It is so much more interesting to collaborate with another human being who has creative fuel to offer. When I travel to other cities I love to work with whatever musical improviser is there. They often say, "Are you sure?" because we've never met before, but we always leave thrilled with the collaboration. I've never been burned by it.

CP: How has the show developed through the years?

JB: When I started I dressed in business casual. Then I dressed like a punk. Now I like to wear a nice dress--those are the superficial changes. The very first performances were between five and fifteen minutes long. Since then it's grown in scale. I've grown more confident in my ability to create a full-length piece.

Ever so often I threaten to quit doing the show. It's funny to look back at newspaper clippings and see how often in the last eight years I've said that. Whenever I think it's done it turns some sort of corner and becomes more interesting.

CP: What are some of your favorite moments from past shows?

JB: I was doing a show in Austin this summer where the historical suggestion was ancient Egypt and I'd interviewed an architect. The main character of the piece was an Egyptian slave girl who was a wunderkind at architecture. The closing number was about her invention of six simple machines to make things easier for the other slaves. I launched into the song knowing full well that I only remembered two of the simple machines--I only got a C in high school physics, after all.

For a moment as I started singing I thought the other four would magically come to me. When I realized it was hopeless I just confessed to the audience that I didn't know the others so they should sing along with me. I sang, "The third simple machine is?" and a bunch of people yelled "PULLEY!" We finished the whole song, with less and less people remembering each subsequent simple machine. We finally got to the sixth, and there was silence. Finally a lone voice called, "Hammer?" And we finished the song. It was so stupid we all just laughed and laughed. Everyone left googling "six simple machines" on their smart phones. It turns out the hammer isn't one.

Drum Machine runs most Saturdays in January at Huge Improv Theater.

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