This month I chatted to over 30 female improvisers from all over the UK to celebrate the talent that we have – we also discuss some of the important debates surrounding this topic as well. Today I talk to an improviser that is part of many troupes including Impromptu Shakespeare and recently joined the Maydays – Jennifer Juniper
Hello There! Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself!
Well hello to YOU! I’m Jennifer Jordan and I
1) Am currently working my way through graphic novel Paper Girls – it is excellent ;
2) Have to wear ski goggles when I chop onions due to over-sensitive eyes ; and
3) Once travelled London-Kuala Lumpur solo – overground (ie no planes)
How did you get into improv?
There were bits of improv in my Acting Degree at Bretton Hall, but that was mainly as a tool for devising new work or to bond groups together & build trust. The first time I encountered people learning & performing improv for improv’s sake live was when I lived in Canada. I went to see a show at Vancouver Theatre Sports , saw they had classes and jumped in to give it a go.
What inspired you to start improv?
I always thought I was bad at it and used to joke that the reason I liked being an actor was because I find it difficult coming up with the right words – so just give me a script and I’m happy. The idea of improv terrified me, and that’s partly what inspired me to give it a go. I wanted to overcome the fear and see what else lay through that barrier.
What troupes are you are a part of?
Right now I play with Impromptu Shakespeare, Somewhat Theatre, Actor’s Nightmare, The Concept, and as of very recently I’m lucky enough to be playing with The Maydays which is an utter joy.
Tell us about the styles of improv you enjoy and why?
Oooooh! I love slow burn connected emotional stuff. I don’t do a whole lot of scripted acting these days simply because improv has taken over so much of my life, and I miss the real emotional nitty gritty of acting so when I get to do that in an improv scene it’s glorious.
Who are some Improvisers that you find inspiring and why?
Jill Bernard – she’s so charming, fearless and knows who SHE IS. It’s wonderful. She’s utterly embraced herself and dives right into that with such infectious joy. Susan Messing had me mesmerised with wonder when I was in Chicago – just so fearless and makes nothing but bold moves. Listens to EVERYTHING and won’t let any detail go unnoticed. Everything is important. Katy Schutte is a goddamn legend. Her improvised lyrics are tremendous, she’s a wonderful & versatile actor and I love all the geeky detail she brings to the table. Ambitious and constantly pushing boundaries – like I said: legend.
I have read many articles around the debate that it is harder to be a woman in improv – what are your thoughts on this and why?
I can only really speak to my own personal experience, which is that I’ve not (to my knowledge) come across any obvious blocks in finding it difficult to break into the scene because of my gender. What I DO find though, is that generally speaking cis men have slightly easier access to some of the skills / traits which help you get good and get noticed in improv. Main examples being confidence and jumping straight in without judging your own ideas or dismissing them as not good enough. Without meaning to, these people can often dominate scenes and leave others (often women) in the shadows.
There’s also a huge issue of systemic internalised misogyny which we all carry around and which can lead to women repeatedly being endowed by others as ‘mother’ ‘wife’ and lower status characters. We even often cast ourselves that way and jump to stereotypes etc, because it’s internalised and been deep rooted throughout our entire lives. To recognise that and actively make different choices for ourselves and others is hugely liberating and joyful. I didn’t even realise I was doing it for a long time – most of us don’t – and even now it takes effort to be mindful of it and practise those different choices.
Many women (but not all), have this internalised thing of having been told to be ‘pleasant, quiet, polite‘ etc and these qualities don’t help us step out and be bold, to take up space and own it. When I was in Chicago for the iO intensive a couple of years ago I saw several all female groups who actively embraced the grotesque, darkness and taboo – who made nothing but fearless choices and it blew my tiny mind. We have some truly amazing improvisers over here who do push boundaries, but I’ve never seen anything as unapologetic as those shows in Chicago. I’d love to see (and explore for myself) some stuff of that level over here. I think it’s extremely important in terms of shaping the landscape for new & future improvisers – to show that nothing is off limits for women.
What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?
There’s not this golden moment in your future when you suddenly think ‘I know improv now’, it’s a process and you will never stop learning it. – It’s all too easy to watch shows and think of the point of improv being an end product, but that’s not where the biggest value lies. The biggest value is in continually challenging yourself, repeatedly choosing to step forward in the face of fear, to embrace what your own funny is and the way your own brain works. The practice of improvising has slowly revealed who I am to myself and that’s invaluable. Shows are super fun though.
I also appreciated the tidbit of ‘You’ve got 10,000 shitty scenes in you – you might as well get them all out as soon as possible’ – This is a great reminder that you can’t expect yourself to be immediately good at something, that it takes time & practise, and that having bad scenes doesn’t make you a bad improviser – it means you are moving forwards on the journey of becoming a great improviser. No one who was great at anything has managed to avoid the bit when they are bad at it.
Do you find that being a female in an improv show that the suggestions you can get are traditional and stereotypical? How do you feel when you get given these?
When I first started, yes. Less so now because I’m in teams who are very aware of not making those choices. I particularly love being a part of Impromptu Shakespeare for this reason as we all play gender blind, changing gender freely from one character to the next. It’s also a very female heavy group, which inevitably changes the way we play.
What have been some of your favourite moments on stage?
This is not so much a moment but a whole show which meant a lot to me. I often play in Actor’s Nightmare, which is full of incredible improvisers who have been on the scene far longer than me and who I’ve admired from afar before joining. I’m always always nervous and slightly star-struck despite having done it a bunch of times. Anyway some time maybe a year or so ago I was feeling rubbish about myself as an improviser and on the verge of leaving that group and also stepping back from improv altogether. I thought ‘what’s the point, I’m not improving very quickly, I feel stuck, I suck’. Literally the next day I had an Actor’s Nightmare show which was the best improv show I’d ever been a part of up to that point. It was simple, connected, playful, and I was for sure in a flow state. I came out feeling elated and revitalised. That moment taught me not to give up, because the next great thing might be just around the corner. Inner critics can be devastatingly loud and oppressive sometimes, we all have them and they are all dickheads. Don’t listen to them – before too long you will prove them all wrong.
What have been some of the worst and why?
Back when I was first learning improv in Vancouver I had several shows where I cried afterwards or at the interval – I just didn’t feel funny or useful. I felt I didn’t deserve to be there. Mostly the bad shows are because of my own fear & self judgement, though sometimes there’s been a feeling of a lack of support from teammates. That is an unpleasant feeling. If that feels like it happens a lot – talk to the team if you feel comfortable doing so and if not, just get out. Life is too short to play with people who don’t support you. You deserve better, I promise your tribe is out there.
For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?
Keep going. Reps are so helpful. There will be bad scenes and bad shows – that’s ok, it’s normal. Keep going, try everything and you will discover what really makes your own personal improv heart tick. Find your thing and find your tribe.
What are three things you want to focus on this season with your own improv?
Taking myself seriously. All too often I rely on little moments of acknowledging the fact I’m making things up or exaggerated acting, but I’m more interested in realistic acting and being fully in the moment. So I’m working on that.
Rhyming! I’m not a natural and I want to get better.
Support support support. I want to make everyone else look as good as possible and re-focus my energy / listening etc on my teammates genius offers.
What is the future of improv?
Weird and wonderful forms which don’t exist yet. Hopefully a more diverse scene too – that’s what I’d like. Plus I’m very passionate about bringing improv to young people – I truly believe it can improve the crap-fest that is puberty quite significantly. So hopefully the future of improv is that it’s taught in schools.