To be around Jill is to feel good vibes. I believe that last time I saw Jill Bernard in person was outside the Omaha Improv Festival and though I've only shared actually space with her a handful of times, I've heard about her FOR YEARS. And I'm not ashamed to say I keep up with(stalk) her on FB(She quoted from a book called Theatre for Community, Conflict & Dialogue on an international improv page and Now. I'm. Obsessed.) Founding member of HUGE Theater in Minneapolis, vet of improv festivals all over the world and author of small cute book of improv, Jill was kind enough to answer some questions via e-mail. She is an inspiration to me and I'm delighted to share her words with you!
AS: Where are you from? Where do you live? What do you consider home?
JILL BERNARD: I was born in Richmond VA - best 2-½ months of my life, all shapes and colors. I grew up in Evanston and Downers Grove IL, just outside Chicago. My home, where I live, is Minneapolis MN.
AS: How did you decide to move to Minneapolis?
JB: It wasn’t very well thought-out. I was going to a small college in Cedar Rapids Iowa, Coe College. I wanted to go to a big university for a change of pace. I knew my mom would cry if I left the midwest, but I didn’t want to stay TOO close to home. A friend — who I never saw once I moved here — was coming to Minnesota, so I did too.
AS: Life story in half a page, GO!
JB: When I was small I would lay in bed and make up stories to help myself fall asleep, and I never stopped. Please use the rest of the half a page to make a drawing of your favorite animal.
AS: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment? Why?
JB: My friend Gigio invited me to Colombia to teach improv in Spanish for two whole weeks. The challenge was so high - I don’t speak Spanish very well, and the topic was characters, which South American improvisors approach from such a satisfying angle that I didn’t know if I would have anything to say to them about it. And yet I did and it all worked out, and it was tiring and good and I am better for it.
AS: That is so incredible. How did you prepare for that adventure? What was your biggest takeaway from spending two weeks in Columbia? And how would you define their approach to character?
JB: I prepared by writing a syllabus and then working with my Spanish teacher to translate all the exercise descriptions into Spanish. Well, most of them, it was a really lengthy process. She is a professor and not an improvisor, so we kept fighting over the formality of the writing. Also, it made me realize when I explain exercises in English, I leave it a little vague on purpose so the students fill in their own blanks. But my Spanish teacher was pushing me to explain every nuance, which the students found reassuring because at least then the introduction was clear even if the things I said afterwards were a little wonky.
My biggest takeaways were that 1) Bogota is an amazing and wonderful place, and 2) You don’t have to be perfect. What you bring is going to be enough.
South American improvisors in general have a better understanding of the body and how it works and how it expresses things. Many of them are trained in clown.
AS: What is your biggest failure? And what(if anything) did you learn from it?
JB: I don’t want to say because it’s not 100% my story to tell, but the big takeaway was that expectations need to be clear ahead of time, and the kind of support you give someone has to be the kind of support they need, not what you think they should need.
AS: That is really beautiful. Describe your perfect day:
JB: Sleep late, snuggle in bed, eat breakfast at the Uptown Diner in Minneapolis, go to a movie, read a book in a cafe, play a board game, do an improv show, have a nice steak dinner, go to bed.
AS: Gorgeous. Are you reading anything good right now? Favorite board game?(I know that can be a loaded question.
JB: I am reading a book called “Dime Quien Soy” or “Tell Me Who I Am” about a journalist investigating his great-grandmother’s life. It’s really good. I am reading slow because it’s hard to make myself sit down and read when there’s Facebook to fart around on instead, ha ha.
My all-time favorite board game is Bananagrams, does that count? There’s no board! Right now we are playing Battle for Hogwarts and that is amazing.
AS: How did you get where you are?
JB: Everyone helped me and I just didn’t stop.
AS: Hell. yes. What are you most proud of?
JB: When I get to see my improv students all grown up doing professional creative work my cheeks get all hot with love and pride.
AS: What is one of your fears?
JB: That before I die there will be a long painful period of dying.
AS: What keeps you going every day?
JB: On the bottom of the shelf above my bed it says, “Nobody give up” which helps me think of us all as a team.
AS: I love this. Favorite podcast?
JB: Radio Ambulante.
AS: Last piece of art that spoke to you?
JB: Black Panther!!
AS: Tell us an embarrassing story:
JB: At my audition for ComedySportz in 1993, I split my pants! I turned to the woman behind me in line and whispered, “I split my pants” and she said, “I’m passing a kidney stone”. We both got in!
AS: Haha! I think I’ve done my best at auditions when I’m a little sick or tired. Something about getting out of your head. Pump up song?
JB: “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen…guess how many times today I’ve listened to it already?
AS: I hope no less than 10. What advice would you give to someone who is lost?
JB: It’s never a dead end, it’s always a tunnel.
AS: Do you have a mantra or words to live by?
JB: “You are enough”.
AS: What gives you meaning?
JB: I don’t care so much about meaning.
AS: What do you struggle with?
JB: When I’m overwhelmed I get a little comatose and sort of lie around moaning. Reinvigorating myself is a challenge.
AS: What is success to you?
JB: The world is a pretty terrible place filled with violence, horror, poverty, hunger, war, injustice, inequity, deceit, etc. If you can find a way to bring anything good or lovely or funny or strong or true into the world, you are a success. Hell, if you somehow just keep your head above it, you’re a success to me.
AS: What are you working on that you’re geeked out about?
JB: Right now I’m teaching a workshop series in partnership with the Lyndale Neighborhood Association. It’s for Latina women in the neighborhood of our theater. There isn’t a tradition of Spanish-speaking or Latinx improv in our city, it feels very pioneering and delightful.
AS: That is so exciting! There’s a growing Latinx community in Chicago and they are killing it! Have you always spoken Spanish?
JB: No, I only started learning five years ago. I realized it was the only item on my bucket list, so I better start cracking.
AS: Anything else?
AS: What question would you add to this?
JB: What improvisor inspires you? Sandra M. Sanchez Estrada from Colombia! She is in a group called Chicass Impro in Bogotá Colombia and they’re rewriting what a woman improvisor can be, they’re really putting out stacks of great, strong work.
AS: Thank you.