Tag Archives: Jill Bernard

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.


Questions and Answers

The last night of The Improv Retreat, the counselors did a Question and Answer session. I jotted down what I could, and I looked up #TIR2014 on Twitter to fill in some of the gaps. (Thank you, strangers, for tweeting during the Q&A.)

Any misquotes are because my handwriting is the worst; PLEASE correct me if I got something wrong.

When did you realize you were good at improv?

  • A few years from now, I hope. (Jill Bernard)
  • The moment you feel like you’re better than everyone else in the room, you’ve stopped improvising. (Rene Dequesnoy)
  • It’s for others to say if you’re a good improviser. For you, it should be enough just to be an improviser. (Joe Bill)


Should I focus on playing with people better than I am so I can rise to their level, or should I put my energy into mentoring newer players?

  • Regardless of who is “farther ahead,” play with the people you love because you’ll talk about improv differently with them. (Matt Higbee)
  • The next phase of learning is teaching. We learn from the mistakes other people make. (Rance Rizzutto)


What do you do when you’ve lost your mojo?

  • Focus on listening to other players and making your scene partner’s offers more specific.
  • Watch a totally different kind of performance, like Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. (Michael Tatar)


What do you wish you could tell your younger self?

  • Relax. Don’t beat yourself up for not pretending well enough with your friends. (Tara DeFrancisco)
  • Concentrate on loving the work and having fun, and everything else takes care of itself. Don’t stress about whether you will become next big thing. (Charna Halpern)
  • Play with people who get you. You can tell when a team doesn’t get a player because they make no sense. (Jill Bernard)


Straight white twenty-something dudes are awesome and all, but how do we get more diversity in the improv community?

  • It’s not enough to open your doors. You have to chase after different kinds of people. In the long run, a good strategy is to teach improv at a high school. Make it part of kids’ culture early. (Jill Bernard)
  • The more open you are, the more open the person next to you will be. (Rance Rizzutto)


Do you find improv therapeutic?

  • If enough awkward kids come together, they become the cool kids. (Rance Rizzutto)
  • This is our island of misfit toys. Comedy gets fun again when you stop caring what other people think and get weirder. (Tara DeFrancisco)
  • Yes, but improv isn’t therapy. My degree is in theater. Also go to a doctor. (Jill Bernard) Improv is therapeutic, but oh my gosh improv is not therapy. Thank you, Jill.


Is there anything you miss about being new to improv?

  • The hunger to do it all the time. (Michael Tatar)
  • I don’t miss a thing. I still have everything I had then, plus some. (Joe Bill)


How has improv affected your life?

  • When you say yes, you have more adventures! And improv has made me more spiritually aware. Also, I get fewer parking tickets. (Charna Halpern)
  • Improv has affected single thing about my life. I play with my best friends, and they are the funniest people in the world. (Tara DeFrancisco)


Thus ends my blogging of The Improv Retreat, 2014. If you weren’t there and wish you could have been, go ahead and mark your calendar for the weekend after Memorial Day, 2015, and like The Improv Retreat on Facebook for updates. I hope I see you there.

And if you were there, did you take notes in any of your workshops? Would you be willing to share them? Leave a link in the comments, and I’ll add it to the list below.

Maria Konopken summarized her time at The Improv Retreat at National Improv Network:

“The camp experience is something I will not forget mainly because it took you out of your comfort zone. From each of my workshops they emphasized being here in this moment — this is what matters.”

Dan DeSalva wrote a review of the retreat at Life’s a Funny Scene:

Campers’ experience ranged from short-form to long-form; twenty-year vet to two-month beginner. … Everyone was so positive and open to meeting new people and learning new things while still being confident enough to share who they were with the rest of camp. It was an amazing atmosphere, void of judgment and full of weirdness.

I am a loser who is not on Twitter, but lots of people are, and they used #TIR2014 (which, if you follow it far enough back in time, becomes about the Texas Independence Relay) and #GablesUp to post about camp.

Here’s #TIR2014 on Tumblr. (Again, you will find the Texas Independence Relay if you look earlier than late May.)

The OTHER Conflicts

I signed up for this workshop at The Improv Retreat because I have noticed, in both my current troupes, that pieces are more fun if we spend at least half — hopefully more! — of the show NOT arguing. We’re more likely to have successful not-arguing pieces in practice than we are in shows, though, and I wanted help breaking out of that. At the same time, nobody wants to watch a show about pleasant people being pleasant.

Jill Bernard performs and teaches in Minneapolis, so I had never gotten to see her before, but I knew of her through these two excellent videos she made a few years ago.

So I was SUPER excited when I found out she was teaching the Conflict workshop.

Here are some stray notes I took. (Once again, any mistakes are because I wrote something down wrong, not because Jill wasn’t so joyful and encouraging that I didn’t consider stowing away home in her suitcase.)

  • Man vs. Man — Most people’s default conflict. It isn’t wrong, but argument comfortable to get into and hard to pull out of, and shows are boring if all the scenes are like this. Man vs. Man conflicts resolve when someone admits they’re wrong, when they agree to table the issue, or someone just decides, “I can’t stay mad at you!”
  • Man vs. Himself — Let your character talk herself into something or out of something. Let her completely change her position. If you take the audience along with her as she changes her mind, it won’t seem like you’re dropping out of character. Real people grow and change, so your characters can, too.
  • Man vs. Technology — This can be as simple as a jammed copier or as complex as a malfunctioning space shuttle. The important thing is that the technology is the adversary, not your scene partner.
  • Man vs. Nature — This can be as dangerous as an earthquake or as innocuous as weeds in the yard, as long as Nature is causing the problems. (This and Technology reminded me of People Take Warning, a compilation of Depression era disaster songs my brother used to play all the time, because ours was a cheerful house.)
  • Man vs. Society — More complex to pull off in an improvised scene, but worth a shot. Some people might have to stand in for Society, but Society is still the antagonist, not the person representing it.
  • Man vs. Supernatural — An entirely different genre we didn’t have time to get into, but now I am intrigued.
  • In those Man Vs. Something-Besides-Man scenes, it’s helpful to remember what other kinds of relationships characters can have to the protagonist. These can include (with examples from Lord of the Rings characters’ relationships):
    • Magical/mystical — Usually a walk-on who has a prophecy or inscrutable saying the hero needs to hear. Gandalf and Galadriel to Frodo.
    • Shared — Both are protagonists, like Lewis and Clark. Merry and Pippin to one another, once they’re on their own journey.
    • Sidekick — Believes in the hero and often serves as moral compass. (A villain’s sidekick is a minion.) Like Samwise to Frodo.
    • Cheerleader — A sidekick who stays home instead of going on the journey. Arwen (in the movies) to both Aragorn and Frodo.
    • Helpless — Doesn’t want to be in the way but can’t help it. Pippin to Gandalf and basically everyone.
    • Doubter — Voices fears or skepticism about the hero, but doesn’t oppose him. Hearing these doubts springboards the hero into action. Like Boromir to both Frodo and Aragorn (except Boromir does oppose Frodo for a little while) The more I think about it, though, the more I think the conflicts with Boromir weren’t JUST because he doubted, but because he couldn’t stand the thought of not being the hero himself.

All of that sounds kind of academic, but it wasn’t. The workshop was pretty active. (I left this workshop with bruises from being more enthusiastic than I am physically aware.) We practiced doing scenes with other kinds of conflict. For example, our suggestion might be blizzard, we had to pick different relationships to play besides vying for the protagonist spot. If it looked like the characters were starting to fight or like one character was minimizing the problem, Jill graciously side coached us back on track.

Since the workshop, I’ve been thinking about how to layer these archetypes onto common relationships to make them more interesting. Back in this post, I quoted T.J. Jagadowski:

Fathers and sons behave like colonels and sergeants, and fathers and sons behave like best friends, and fathers and sons behave like sons and fathers reversed, so the title does not suffice.

So someone may have named me as the main character’s mom in the scene, and my gut response is to feel a little boxed in. But I get a choice about what kind of mom to be. I could be the Doubter mom or the Cheerleader mom or any other kind of mom I want.

Here’s one more Jill Bernard video: