Jill Bernard celebrates 20 years of improv with day-long performing marathon

Jill Bernard celebrates 20 years of improv with day-long performing marathon
Photo courtesy Jill Bernard
Jill Bernard has spent 20 years in the improv-theater trenches and is ready to celebrate in the way only a committed performer would: by spending 12 hours straight onstage, making things up as she goes along.

The Jillvitational features Bernard performing in 20 duos from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, December 1 at HUGE Improv Theater. Her career started in 1993 when she auditioned at competitive improv troupe ComedySportz, and has now included performances in dozens of states and across the world.

She will joined by a bevy of performing partners, including HUGE co-founder Butch Roy, Brave New Workshop's Lauren Anderson, and boyfriend (and fellow improviser) Eric Heiberg. Tickets for the marathon start at $20, but will drop a dollar for every hour you spend in the theater.

We caught up with Bernard via email to talk about her career and what is on tap for the show.

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City Pages: What first drew you into improv, and what was the community like when you started?

Jill Bernard: I was a theater major at the University of Minnesota at the time I started, but I was already sort of burned out on memorizing scripts and taking direction. Plus, I found it laborious to try to bring plays to life. When I discovered improv, the art of spontaneous theater, I was instantly in love. It was so much fun, and I met all the funniest, kindest, coolest people I know at ComedySportz and through all the improv adventures that followed. 

When I started, none of the theaters really knew each other. There was ComedySportz and Stevie Ray's and Brave New Workshop, but we didn't really do anything together. It's funny, I know ComedySportz and Brave New Workshop performers all hung out at the Green Mill back then, we probably sat at adjoining tables without knowing it. 

How has improv changed over the years?

In the late '90s and early 2000s, independent improv started springing up with the Drunk Baby Collective (later called the Collective because the Star Tribune refused to print their name), True North, Jump Up and Run, and the Bad Mamma Jammas. In the late '90s, Stevie Ray hosted some improv festivals. After that came some joint improv shows, then Five Man Job started Improv A Go Go in 2002, and the community really took off from there. Now that there's an improv festival, and the Brave New Student Union and HUGE are training so many improvisers, there is a real groundswell in the number of quality performers doing things. World-class improv is happening here, in a distinctive Minneapolis style. 

When did the idea of celebrating 20 years in this fashion come about?

I've been thinking about it for a long time. Improvisational comedy is the kind of an unsustainable ridiculous career where you ask yourself what you're doing with your life every 12 months or so. I used this idea to kind of cheer myself up. It's also an uncelebrated art form. Improvised theater is not even eligible for an Ivey award, none of the newspapers or online calendars have an "improv comedy" section. As a result, improvisers can't sit around waiting for recognition, we have to celebrate ourselves.  

How much preplanning are you doing going into each duo? Are you planning for different improv styles with each person or is this going to be a free for all?

I've performed with some of these folks before, so we have a style we've developed. In other cases there's something we both are strong at, like Anna DeOCampo Kain and I are both musical improv nerds so we'll sing together in an improvised musical. Lindsay Gonzales challenged me to do a show in Spanish 18 months ago when I started taking Spanish classes. Everyone else we're having conversations to think of a style that would be entertaining and joyful.  

What do you think people who come to see part or all of this will get out of the experience?

The duo format is really special. You get to blend hearts and minds and aesthetics with just one other person. Watching a bunch of them in a row will let the viewers see everything I love about improv on display, as exemplified by the incredible performers I get to call friends. 


Jillvitational: 20 duos in 12 hours to celebrate 20 years
7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, December 1
HUGE Improv Theater
3037 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
$20, $1 off for each hour spent at the event; free for students
For tickets and more information, call 612.412.4843 or visit online.
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Huge Theater

3037 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55402


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