Fireball Theory with Jill Bernard

I signed up for Fireball Theory because Jill Bernard was teaching it, and I continue to use exercises and my notes from the workshop I took from her last year. What was Fireball Theory? No clue, but if Jill’s teaching it, I’ll give it a shot.

With the title “Fireball Theory,” Jill said she was thinking of action movies where, somehow, the hero/heroine/poppet/dog can always outrun the giant explosion. They can’t necessarily stop it, but they can somehow run so fast that they escape without even mussing their hair. We can’t just decide to make fear and doubt go away when we step on stage, but if we play fast enough, we can outrun it. The workshop was mostly tricks to get players to snap into a decision before we had time to judge ourselves for it.

The most useful/easy-to-pass-on exercise was Mad/Sad/Glad/Afra(i)d, my favorite variation of an exercise I’ve done before in other classes. One person enters the scene with a simple line (“It’s Tuesday” or “I bought milk”) and the other person responds with a huge emotional reaction.

Here is a way to to think about emotional intensity. I do not know where this image came from originally, but I found it via Rance Rizzutto.


Even though all of those reactions are open to us at any time, when I introduce variations of this exercise by saying, “I want you to react at the most intense level of any emotion,” people tend to default to anger, for some reason.

Rather than leave this open to any reaction at all, Jill narrowed it down for us into four basic possibilities; most other emotions are combinations and nuances of those four. When we had that limit, we saw a greater range of emotion from players, not a narrower one.

Another thing that was different about Mad/Sad/Glad/Afra(i)d was that Jill let the scenes breathe, which means the initiator (“It’s Tuesday”) got to interact with the emotional player. Instead of defaulting to calming the other player down, it was more fun when the first player matched or added fuel to their emotions. The only response that was off the table for them was to discount their emotional scene partner by calling them crazy or asking them about what drugs they were taking.

To the objection, “But playing this way doesn’t feel realistic,” Jill had this response, which I loved:

“Bless your charmed life and all of the calm, reasonable people you know. I modeled this exercise after a family member I used to have who really was this volatile. It’s awkward and hard at Christmas, but much more interesting on stage. Also, you’re standing on a raised platform in front of people. This is already unnatural. Why are you drawing the line here?”

Some other notes, in no special order, I wrote down after this workshop:

  • Is this a day in the life of these characters, or is this the day when everything changes? (I think I’ve also heard Susan Messing ask this.)
  • When you react with a big emotion, you give the rest of your team permission to play with big emotions, too. What are you saving your energy for? You should always be exhausted by the end of a show.
  • Having a big reaction doesn’t mean you need to sustain that reaction at that level forever. It doesn’t have to be one long scream. It can be punctuation in the scene rather than the entirety of it.
  • If your scene partner is not giving you fuel, find fuel in your environment.
  • Some people improvise like everyone has a script but them. Go off script. There is no script.
  • Why are you worried about looking cool? We’re theater kids, so we don’t have to be the cool kids.
  • Improv is not a parlor trick. It’s art, and it can do anything theater can do. The role of art has changed in the last few generations, and it’s an artist’s job to remind the audience that they are alive. When was the last time we had an opera house riot?

If you live near Minneapolis, check out Jill’s shows and workshops at HUGE Theater. She’s one of the most encouraging teachers I’ve met, and the fun she’s having on stage is contagious.


One thought on “Fireball Theory with Jill Bernard

  1. Karin

    Alyssa! I have taken this Fireball theory workshop too! It was great and provided fuel for rehearsals for a while afterward. But mostly I just love that in the small world of improv we have taken the same class from the same teacher and I wanted to let you know! 🙂 I took it in St. Louis at the improv festival there.


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